ST. LOUIS – When the moment of truth arrived Friday night, and Jeff Fisher was about to make a draft pick he knew would be criticized by outsiders, the man in charge of the St. Louis Rams’ war room stood up to do a little coaching.
Addressing the three-dozen or so executives, scouts, assistant coaches and other team officials – and team owner Stan Kroenke, the man who’d hired him to turn around his flailing franchise three months earlier – Fisher turned away from the team’s massive draft board and spoke to the hushed masses.
Jeff Fisher (R) confers with son Brandon (L), and two others before making a third-round pick. (Yahoo! Sports)”OK, there’s some controversy about this pick, as you know,” the veteran head coach said shortly before officially submitting the Rams’ second of three second-round picks in the 2012 NFL draft, the 39th overall selection. “He is very talented, and he can help us. So we’re all on the same page, right?”
The answer was a resounding “Yes!”
Smitten with the obvious ability of former North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a player still on the board because of well-documented character concerns, the people in the Rams’ war room welcomed the move. The fact that Fisher, coming off a one-year hiatus after a 16-year stint as head coach of the Tennessee Titans’ organization, exudes confidence and poise at every turn did a lot to put their minds at ease.
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“This is part of the philosophy I’ve talked about – build, develop, coach,” interjected Les Snead, Fisher’s handpicked rookie general manager. “So everybody in this room who touches this player is going to be part of making him successful. He will be successful.”
There were more cheers before Fisher added, with an air of finality, “He is a football player. And he is a Ram.”
And with a hearty round of applause, a night that began with the surprising selection of off-the-radar former Appalachian State wideout Brian Quick got even more intriguing. By night’s end the Rams, who’d already bolstered their roster Thursday night by taking former LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers with the 14th overall pick, had added a third second-rounder, elusive Cincinnati halfback Isaiah Pead, and picked up yet another talented small-school cornerback, Montana’s Trumaine Johnson, with the second pick of the third round.
Having acquired a fifth-round selection by trading down with the Chicago Bears before choosing Pead with the 50th overall pick, the Rams will have a chance to make some more noise when the draft concludes Saturday. St. Louis is already on the clock with the first pick of the fourth round (96th overall) and has five selections remaining.
Whatever happens on the draft’s final day, Fisher is already thrilled with what transpired in the first three rounds.
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“We got some players,” he said late Friday night as he stood outside his office at Rams Park. “You can’t fill every hole, but you can go out and aggressively look for guys who can improve your team, and we did that every chance we could. Now it’s up to us to coach ‘em. That’s the fun part.”
Like most of their counterparts in other NFL organizations, Fisher and Snead had some concerns about Jenkins, who was arrested twice for marijuana possession before being kicked off the Florida football team, landing at North Alabama for the 2011 season. He has four children with three women, and weeks earlier Fisher had dispatched a team official to Jenkins’ hometown of Pahokee, Fla., to conduct interviews and investigate his background.
Yet Fisher, Snead and their scouts considered Jenkins to be the most talented corner in the draft – even more skilled than LSU’s Morris Claiborne, who the Cowboys selected after trading up for St. Louis’ first-round pick.
Fisher and Snead didn’t view drafting Jenkins as a realistic possibility to open the second round. By the end of Thursday night, they had already settled on Quick as the 33rd selection and started contemplating the possibility of taking Jenkins with the 39th or 45th pick.
Janoris Jenkins during the NFL draft. (Yahoo! Sports)Well after midnight, a plan was hatched: Fisher would call Jenkins’ agent, Malik Shareef, on Friday and insist that he and the cornerback meet with a sports management and advisory firm with whom the coach is familiar. Fisher, mindful of potential financial complications that could arise due to Jenkins’ paternity issues, would make it clear that if Jenkins weren’t open to such a discussion, the team would not select him.
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On Friday, after Shareef told Fisher that Jenkins was receptive, the Rams’ interest intensified. Fearing that another team might view Jenkins as an early second-round steal, they abandoned the idea of getting him at 45 and targeted the 39th slot.
When Jenkins was still available, the Rams pounced. The hope was that one of two linebackers, Utah State’s Bobby Wagner or Cal’s Mychal Kendricks, would still be on the board when the Rams got back on the clock for the 45th selection.
As it turned out, both were – but Snead and Fisher, eager to gain an additional pick, gambled and traded down, sending the 45th pick to the Bears for the 50th selection and Chicago’s fifth-rounder. That brought the Rams, who’d traded their fifth-rounder before last season’s trading deadline to Denver for wideout Brandon Lloyd (who left via free agency to sign with the New England Patriots), back into that round.
There was mild disappointment when, with the 46th and 47th selections, the Eagles and Seahawks (who’d traded up with the Jets) took Kendricks and Wagner back-to-back. Fisher, Snead and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff then changed course and, three picks later, took Cincinnati’s Pead, who’ll step in as a change-of-pace alternative and third-down specialist charged with taking some of the pressure off of workhorse halfback Steven Jackson.
“We’ve been looking for this [type of] running back for, what, four years? Five years?” Demoff asked Friday night as he visited with a reporter in the vacant office reserved for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is serving an indefinite NFL suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal. “We needed to get Steven a backup. And this guy can take it and go. At some point you’ve gotta score touchdowns, right?”
Mindful that it’s also helpful to prevent other teams from scoring, the Rams became enticed by the possibility of drafting another small-school cornerback, Montana’s Johnson, with the 65th overall pick. Fisher, Snead and Demoff had explored the possibility of trading up (likely with the Houston Texans, who owned the 58th selection) to land a linebacker, Nebraska’s Lavonte David, but decided to stay put. (The Tampa Bay Buccaneers instead traded for the pick and selected David.)
Johnson, at that point the highest-rated player on the team’s board – Fisher and Snead were strongly considering taking him with the 39th pick if Jenkins had been plucked by another team – continued to fall, which quickened the pulse rates of defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil, assistant secondary coach Brandon Fisher (Jeff’s eldest son) and scout Brian Heimerdinger (the son of Fisher’s former offensive coordinator in Tennessee, Mike Heimerdinger, who died last October after a bout with cancer).
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Brandon Fisher, a former Montana safety and outside linebacker, was especially excited, having been a college teammate of Johnson’s. When it came time to make the second pick of the third round, Snead dialed Johnson’s number and, after a brief introduction, handed the phone to the younger Fisher.
“Tell me something,” Johnson said. “Tell me something!”
“You’re a Ram, baby!” Fisher replied. “Come on out here – let’s go! Tell your mom you’re in good hands.”
A few feet away, Jeff Fisher high-fived Cecil, exclaiming, “We’ll cover their ass now!”
Suddenly, a position that was a glaring weakness for the 2-14 Rams in 2011 has become an area of strength, especially given last month’s free-agent signing of cornerback Cortland Finnegan, a former Titans standout. The presence of Johnson and Jenkins could allow the team to deploy Finnegan in the slot in passing situations, where he is especially effective.
Brandon Fisher talks with Trumaine Johnson. (Yahoo! Sports)Later, Brandon Fisher said of Johnson, “He’s a charismatic kid who brings energy and confidence. He’s gonna talk out there and challenge people, and he’s gonna come in thinking he has some stuff to prove.”
Johnson is considered raw, but that doesn’t bother Snead or Demoff. To them, the presence of a veteran coach with Fisher, whose staff is filled with experienced and highly regarded assistants, affords the rebuilding franchise that luxury.