Fisher deviates from script, focuses on Rams’ offense in draft

Jeff Fisher and the Rams may have drafted four offensive linemen at this year's draft, but don't mistake that for a "quantity over quality" approach.

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ST. LOUIS — To say the 2015 draft was an unusual one for Rams coach Jeff Fisher would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

Fisher has been at this head coaching gig since 1995, and only once before did his team open the draft with a succession of more than one offensive player. Yes, this was the third time in four years with the Rams that the draft began with an offensive selection. But in each of those years, the choices of wide receiver Tavon Austin in 2013 and tackle Greg Robinson in 2014 were followed by two defensive players.

In 16 years at the helm of the Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers), only seven times was offense the choice in the first round. And only in 2006 did the draft begin with two offensive players: quarterback Vince Young and running back LenDale White.

The offensive onslaught at this year’s draft began with the eye-opening selection of running back Todd Gurley at 10th overall and didn’t stop until Baylor linebacker Bryce Hager was picked in the seventh round (224th overall) with a choice St. Louis had acquired from the Jets for running back Zac Stacy.

In between, six other offensive players were picked, including four offensive linemen, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and Mizzou wide receiver Bud Sasser.

Certainly, the strategy was fueled by the need to give assistant coach Paul Boudreau some (hopefully) able and (definitely) experienced bodies for his offensive line. That was achieved, at least on paper, with the addition of four linemen in the second (Wisconsin tackle Rob Havenstein, 42 starts), third (Louisville tackle, but projected guard, Jamon Brown, 40 starts), fourth (Iowa tackle Andrew Donnal, 16 starts) and sixth (Fresno State guard Cody Wichmann, 50 starts) rounds. Those four linemen combined for 148 starts in their college careers.

Donnal’s starts were limited because after becoming a starter in his sophomore season, he suffered a torn ACL (yes, that injury again) in his third start, but he came back a year later and participated in every game — he just didn’t start. Last season, however, he started all 13 games at right tackle.

In the three previous drafts, the Rams selected a total of six offensive linemen, but only two in the first four rounds: Robinson in 2014 and center Barrett Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Jones is expected to compete for the starting job with Demetrius Rhaney, a seventh-round pick last year who spent the season on injured reserve, and Tim Barnes.

The other two choices were tackle Mitchell Van Dyk (seventh round, 2014), who is currently on the Steelers’ roster, and guard Rokevious Watkins (fifth round, 2012), who has eaten his way out of the NFL.

General manager Les Snead says that the Rams "studied the OL as hard as any position this year," and notes that the average round in which starting guards and right tackles were drafted is 3.6.

"It was not hard at all," responded Fisher when asked if it was tough to stick with offense for so long. "Every team is different. Every situation is different. Every draft is different. But we clearly entered this draft collectively feeling that we were going to come away with some solid offensive linemen. We feel good about it."

Beyond that, the results of this year’s draft became an illustrative primer in how Fisher wants this team to truly reflect the image and style he desires.

His Titans became a force in the NFL with Eddie George running behind a large and physical offensive line. From 1999 through 2003, Tennessee and St. Louis tied for the most regular-season wins in the league. It was no secret why.

Now, with the addition of a healthy Gurley running behind a huge line, Fisher hopes to begin duplicating those halcyon days in Nashville.

Just check out the linemen added in the draft since a year ago: Robinson (6-5, 332), Havenstein (6-7, 321), Brown (6-4, 323), Donnal (6-6, 313) and Wichmann (6-6, 315). Also added to the group is this year’s unrestricted free-agent signing of Garrett Reynolds (6-7, 305), who has experience playing for Boudreau in Atlanta.

"We’ve got two big, strong, physical players that extend plays, that finish plays, that go downfield," Fisher said after Day 2. "They’re mauler-types. They’re very, very aggressive, so they’re going to fit our style."

It wasn’t surprising then, to hear Donnal describe himself.

"I view myself as a blue-collar grinder," he said. "I’m a guy that’s going to come out and work my ass off every day to be the best that I can possibly be. I thoroughly enjoy just playing football, being an offensive lineman and moving the guy from point A to point B against his will. Protecting the quarterback and mauling inside. There’s nothing better."

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"It’s been a long time coming, particularly because of the needs," Fisher said of this year’s haul. "After Todd, our focus went to the big guys. All of them finish; that’s the thing we really like. They’re downfield, they’re pushing people over piles, they’re aggressive and they’re finishing. As (Rams GM) Les (Snead) said about Cody, ‘If you’re somewhere in the vicinity, he’s gonna hit you.’ There’s some contact involved, and that’s the mindset that we need to carry forward. But it’s also not something that we have to teach; it’s the way they play right now."

Fisher took exception when it was suggested that he and Snead drafted a glut of linemen with the hopes that at least a few would work out.

"We didn’t throw darts," he said. "We think these guys can play. Now, we’ll have a much better idea once we get them in here, but we feel they all can come in and contribute. They are durable, they’re smart, they’re well coached and they’re going to fit in.

"We’re building this team for the future and I think we’re establishing an identity right now."

There’s no need to expand on what that identity means. What’s in question is where that "future" will be. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Howard Balzer can be heard daily on Lunchtime Live with Howard Balzer from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays on TalkSTL.com 1380 AM.