Rams hope to find gold in newest batch of undrafted rookies

Undrafted free agents Marcus Roberson, Ethan Westbrooks and Austin Franklin are each looking to earn a roster spot with the Rams.

ST. LOUIS — After finding some contributors among their undrafted free-agent signees a year ago, the Rams are hoping to do the same this season.

Running back Benny Cunningham finished the 2013 season as the team’s second-leading rusher, and linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates contributed on special teams. Rookie free agents all.

Enter this year’s class. The Rams signed 15 undrafted rookie free agents from schools as notable as the University of Florida to the generally anonymous in Bacone College, an NAIA school in Muskogee, Okla.

The headliner of the group is Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson, who left the Gators with a year of eligibility remaining and looked like a possible mid-round draft pick.

Roberson is a 6-foot, 191-pound cover corner whose stock likely dropped because of his injury history — he had two injury-plagued seasons in his three years as a starter at UF — and a poor performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

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He officially ran a 4.61 40-yard dash and recorded just eight reps at 225 pounds on the bench press, which ranked among the worst efforts by a defensive back in Indianapolis.

He reportedly ran a 4.69 40 at his pro day in March.

NFL.com projected Roberson as a third- or fourth-round pick. At the conclusion of the draft, NFL.com writer Gil Brandt ranked Roberson as the No. 1 cornerback among the players who were not selected.

"Lean, athletic, finesse cornerback who is best deployed in off-man or zone coverage, and has potential to develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 corner if he regains his sophomore form," NFL.com draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki wrote in Roberson’s draft profile. "However, he lacks desirable instincts and tackling ability, and did not elevate his game in 2013 when injuries, suspension and inconsistency marred his junior season."

Roberson was a high school teammate of Rams second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Now those two players, along with sixth-round pick E.J. Gaines of Missouri, will try to solidify a young St. Louis cornerback crew that lost veteran Cortland Finnegan in the offseason.

Roberson isn’t a lock to make the roster, but he will compete at an area of need for the Rams and has some strong college credentials after playing in the Southeastern Conference for three seasons.

Defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks, a 6-4, 267-pounder, starred at Division II West Texas A&M the past two seasons after transferring from Sacramento City College. He racked up 19 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles in 15 games in 2012 — when he was named the Ron Lenz Division II National Defensive Player of the Year — and then had 19 1/2 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 14 games in 2013.

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The Rams have a stacked defensive line with the offseason addition of free agent Alex Carrington, formerly of Buffalo, and first-round pick Aaron Donald. But St. Louis recently released tackle Jermelle Cudjo, meaning Westbrooks — or 6-5, 280-pounder Deantre Harlan of Bacone College — could make the roster or practice squad as a developmental prospect.

In two years at Bacone, Harlan had 72 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He is the first player from Bacone to sign with an NFL team since the school joined the NAIA in 2001.

"The Rams came down several times to work him out and we had a feeling he was going to get a shot," Bacone coach Trevor Rubly said in a press release from the school. "It’s a great accomplishment for him and for our program."

Ourlads’ Scouting Services draft analyst Nolan Kuzmick included new Rams wide receiver Austin Franklin, a 5-11, 189-pounder out of New Mexico State, as one of his undrafted free-agent steals.

Franklin, who left school a year early to declare for the draft, caught 52 passes for 670 yards and seven touchdowns in just eight games in 2013. He had 74 receptions for 1,245 yards and nine TDs in 2012.

The Rams showed a financial interest in Westbrooks, Franklin and Roberson following the draft.

According to local NFL analyst Howard Balzer, St. Louis gave Westbrooks a $20,000 signing bonus, the highest amount paid to an undrafted rookie free agent by the Rams. Franklin was next at $17,500 and then Roberson at $15,000.

Another player who could figure into the mix in a few months is former Bowling Green tight end Alex Bayer, a 6-4, 257-pounder who caught 37 passes for 593 yards in 14 games in 2013.

One of the more interesting stories going into training camp will be that of linebacker Aaron Hill, who starred at nearby Lutheran High School in St. Charles, walked on at the University of Minnesota and emerged as a solid contributor for the Golden Gophers.

Hill, a 6-1, 231-pounder, had 72 tackles, including five for loss, as a senior for Minnesota in 2013. He had 192 career tackles in 47 games.

"Aaron was one of the leaders of our team and always seemed to make a play when we needed one," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said in a press release to announce Hill’s signing with St. Louis.

The other undrafted free agents signed by the Rams were cornerback Jarrid Bryant (South Dakota), safety Avery Cunningham (Central Michigan), fullback Kadeem Jones (Western Kentucky), linebacker Johnny Millard (Cal Poly State), offensive tackle Abasi Salimu (Nicholls State), wide receiver Jamaine Sherman (East Texas Baptist), running back Julius "Trey" Watts (Tulsa) and linebacker Tavarius Wilson (North Alabama).

St. Louis signed Emmanuel McCray, a 6-5, 320-pound offensive lineman out of Ole Miss, but he was released just days later. The Rams have since added wide receiver Jordan Harris from Bryant University, who initially signed with the Colts but was released.

Harris became the first player from Bryant, which is located in Smithfield, R.I., to sign an NFL contract. The 6-2, 215-pounder finished his college career with 193 receptions, 3,735 yards and 31 touchdown catches.