Just lose, and Rams picking first in draft

The last time the St. Louis Rams had the No. 1 pick of the

draft, they traded up for the rights to select future seven-time

Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Pace.

A decade later they’re on the verge of getting a top pick they

truly earned. Just lose one more time to the San Francisco 49ers in

the finale Sunday, set a franchise record for futility at 1-15, and

the lowly Rams will be on the clock for months instead of

minutes.

It’s a spotlight they’ll try their best to avoid, even if it

costs them a shot at Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh.

A victory Sunday that could hand the top pick to the Lions

(2-13) for a second straight year if Detroit loses at home to

Chicago isn’t wholly unlikely. The 49ers (7-8) shut out the Rams

35-0 in October, although it was only 7-0 at halftime. San

Francisco has a six-game road losing streak and was a touchdown

favorite against a team that’s lost by an average of 16 points, but

has been a lot more competitive at home.

“Do I wish we didn’t have the first pick? Certainly,” general

manager Billy Devaney said in an interview with The Associated

Press. “Selfishly, I hope Detroit gets it. Either way, in reality

if you’re picking one or two, it means you had a pretty crappy

year.”

That was the case in 2008 with the Dolphins, who took offensive

tackle Jake Long at No. 1. And with the Raiders in 2007

(quarterback JaMarcus Russell).

Only one team has had the No. 1 pick twice this decade, the

Texans in 2002 (quarterback David Carr) and 2006 (defensive end

Mario Williams). But this is the third straight year the Rams have

come close.

Kevin Demoff, Rams vice president of football operations, said

picking first rather than second would cost the Rams about $1

million per season for the life of the contract unless it’s a

quarterback. Money considerations aside, coach Steve Spagnuolo

wants to go out a winner and so do players.

Center Jason Brown wanted no part of a conversation about a loss

Sunday being a plus for the franchise, saying “Next

question.”

Whether it’s the first pick or the second, the Rams say it’s way

too early to be in the predicting business. Demoff pointed out many

scouts had Suh and Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy “neck and neck” as the

top defensive tackle in the nation before Suh’s dominant outing

against Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

Demoff expects the gap between the players to close in the next

few months, unless Suh dominates again at the Senior Bowl and the

NFL combine.

“Handicapping the draft in December is one of the most futile

exercises,” Demoff said. “Everything changes over four

months.”

Devaney said the Rams haven’t even begun to put a draft board

together and guessed they might have as many as five finalists for

the top pick – if they don’t trade it away.

“I think it’s awesome there’s so much talk about the draft,”

Devaney said. “Suh is what everybody says he is, he’s the real

deal. But will there will be other real deals? Who knows?”

The Rams have plenty of experience at the top of the draft

lately, going a sorry 6-41 since 2007 under three head coaches who

each had his own method of judging talent. St. Louis picked second

the last two seasons, taking Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith in

April and Virginia defensive end Chris Long in 2008.

They believe they hit the mark with both players, even if it

hasn’t helped the record yet.

“No one player can come in and change everything,” Long said.

“Certainly not quickly, especially. It’s a team sport and we all

have to just continue to try to get better and trust in the things

that coach Spags is doing.”

Long has been the Rams’ best defensive lineman against the run

most of the season and has lately stepped it up in the gaudier

aspect of his position, pass rushing. He’s second on the team with

five sacks, one more than his rookie season, and has come close

countless other times with team-leading totals for quarterback hits

(13) and quarterback pressures (7).

Devaney is completing his first season as GM, but had a say in

Long’s selection. He said the decision was unanimous on the

staff.

“He played well early on but wasn’t getting the sacks and that

was the focus, and rightly so,” Devaney said. “He’s played the

run outstanding all year and now his game has become

complete.”

Smith returned to practice Wednesday after missing five games

with a concussion, but is unlikely to play in the finale. Before

the injury Nov. 22 at Arizona, Smith had established himself on a

unit opening holes for Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson.

“We had a little personality and things started to click for

him,” Devaney said. “He’s going to be a heck of a player, and he

showed everybody what he’s capable of.”