EARTH CITY, Mo. – Months of late nights had been burned, miles of game tape digested and untold hours of evaluation logged. And here was St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney on Saturday afternoon, standing in his own draft war room, confounded by the one thing that should have been the easiest to control.
In front of him, a member of the team's staff yanked on a sprawling white screen concealing the Rams' draft board. The man tugged, and nothing happened. He pulled again. Nothing. For 15 minutes, several members of the staff took their cracks, each tugging earnestly and then stepping away frustrated. Devaney could hardly believe what was happening. The first round of the draft was about to start, and St. Louis literally couldn't see – much less operate – its own draft board.
"This," Devaney thought, "is going to be a bad day."
As NFL draft omens go, it couldn't have been encouraging. But hearing the story from a grinning Devaney six hours later, it felt more like a metaphor. As the clock began to tick on the Detroit Lions' No. 1 draft pick, some patient tugging from Rams scout Cary Conklin finally got the screen to retract. And by the end of the night, the equally patient Rams had avoided Saturday's frenetic trading and tabbed a pair of potential cornerstones – Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith and Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
It was an important moment for a revamped regime. Devaney, who was promoted to general manager this past December, showed a steady hand while calling the shots for the first time. And new head coach Steve Spagnuolo lived up to his reputation, working with Devaney to zero in on substance over style.
Gone is the chaos and ugly politicking that once engrossed the Rams' front office. And equally absent is a coaching staff that can't deliver a consistent, unifying message.
The tenor was far different Friday, when NFL front offices were rampant with rumors about potential movement near the top of the draft. Speculation had St. Louis taking part in an array of potential deals, from drafting USC quarterback Mark Sanchez to trading incumbent Marc Bulger to dealing its No. 2 overall choice to (take your pick): Washington, Denver or the New York Jets.
Instead, the Rams sat pat and allowed months of preparation to dictate their actions. There was no panicking or last-minute changes. St. Louis didn't cannibalize its draft board to move up, or engage in a fire sale to move down.
Instead, the Rams grabbed Smith, a player Devaney has loved since he first saw tape on him back in November. And after exploring a move back into the first round for Laurinaitis, they instead watched the three-year bedrock starter for Ohio State come to their second-round pick.
And that potential flurry of activity? It simply never materialized.
Devaney arrived to St. Louis' practice facility early Saturday and found a few messages from potential trade partners. But nothing ever came of the calls, and the Rams clung to their own design – once they could actually, you know, see their draft board.
"Somebody will say we probably should have kept it covered," Devaney later joked.
Not likely. Smith has the potential to be an anchor on a St. Louis offensive line that looks much improved along with the addition of free-agent center Jason Brown. St. Louis now has three talented starters in Smith, Brown and guard Richie Incognito. All will be 26 or younger when next season begins.
From a foundation standpoint, that's a significant start, particularly if Smith continues to develop along his current arc. A tight end as a freshman at Baylor, Smith came into his own in 2007 as a right tackle. And it wasn't until last season, after a move to the left side, that he blossomed dramatically – so much so that when Devaney popped in a tape of him last November, he knew immediately that he was something special.
"There were tackles that were kind of highly rated at that point, and I didn't know this guy," Devaney said. "I put this guy from Baylor on and I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.'
"You see him wailing on people. That's what got my attention. I mean blocking people, and then going down and goring them when they're on the ground. I mean just flat-out nasty. He's going to try to hurt them. I thought right away, 'Whoa, I like this guy.' "
Laurinaitis, on the other hand, was the definition of consistency. He was on the NFL radar once he became a starter as a sophomore in 2006. Some personnel men suggested last year that he would be a top-15 pick if he had entered the 2008 draft. Instead he returned for his senior season, only to be nitpicked by evaluators who suggested he wasn't a massive hitter or sideline-to-sideline player.
Laurinaitis is expected to be a three-down starter in the middle for the Rams, allowing Will Witherspoon to move back to his more natural position outside.
Theoretically, the more complete set of linebackers will help manage the mistakes of a solid, albeit historically underachieving defensive line. Perhaps more importantly, it gives Spagnuolo another piece to work with in a front seven that could benefit dramatically from his scheme.
"He's a leadership guy and he's productive," Spagnuolo said of Laurinaitis. "He's smart and he's played a lot of football at a good school. [He's] been in a lot of games, made a lot of big plays. You have to like that in any defensive player. That gets me excited."
There are other key pieces in place in St. Louis – guys like franchise running back Steven Jackson and Bulger, who can be steady when he's healthy and protected.
But like most teams that draft in the top five, the Rams realistically can't retool in a single offseason. The defensive line has a significant amount of improvement ahead. Depth and quality at wideout and in the defensive secondary remain issues. Chemistry and leadership are great unknowns.
None of that changed Saturday, but it was a measured step in the right direction.
The design appears to finally be right. All it should take is patience.