The NFL draft, for the league's 32 teams, is about shoring up deficiencies with an eye on the competition. Last season the St. Louis Rams lost just once in four games against San Francisco and Seattle, the behemoths of the suddenly formidable NFC West. And yet the 49ers and the Seahawks both won playoff games in January while the Rams sat at home. Since then the Niners (adding Anquan Boldin and Nnamdi Asomugha) and Hawks (Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril) have been in an arms race. "They're like the Yankees and the Red Sox," says Rams COO Kevin Demoff. "But that's O.K. We don't mind being the Rays."
With the Rams relying heavily on a draft-and-develop route, days like last Thursday, Day 1 of the draft, loom as crucial. St. Louis entered the first round possessing the 16th and 22nd picks, and adding two impact players wasn't just a goal—it was absolutely vital to the Rams' hopes of contending in the division.
That first round was the culmination of nine months of scouting prep, the result of which would be either fist-pumping euphoria or abject disappointment. If in the next few seasons the Rams catch up to and pass the best in the West, San Francisco and Seattle, they'll point to these five hours last Thursday as the point when it all began.
5:47 p.m. CT, St. Louis Office of Rams COO Kevin Demoff Days before the draft, G.M.'s Les Snead of the Rams and Buddy Nix of the Bills agreed on a tentative deal: Buffalo would send its first-round pick, No. 8, to St. Louis for No. 16 plus the Rams' second-rounder, No. 46, and the teams would swap third-rounders, moving the Rams up seven slots. Now Demoff's phone was chirping. It was Bills president Russ Brandon, and the news wasn't good: Buffalo had other suitors for the pick.
"Do we have to go get another partner?" Demoff asked. Could be, Brandon replied.
A dark cloud. On the big board in the windowless second-floor draft room at club headquarters were five targeted players. The two whom Snead and coach Jeff Fisher valued above all were West Virginia receiver-returner Tavon Austin and Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree. Austin—a durable lightning bug and the most dangerous player on the board—was crucial. St. Louis ranked 31st in punt-return average in 2012, and QB Sam Bradford's 6.72 yards per attempt were 26th. Greatest Show on Turf? Not anymore. These Rams needed weapons.
In an ideal world St. Louis would move up to No. 8 for Austin, then take the troubled but speedy Ogletree at No. 22—or maybe trade down, still get Ogletree and recoup the capital they lost in getting Austin. A day earlier Fisher and Snead gathered the coaches and scouts to explain the plan and hear out any naysayers. There were none.
Losing the deal with the Bills, the Rams felt certain, meant losing Austin. The Jets picked ninth and coveted him. St. Louis had been trying to get ahead of New York for six weeks, got to the finish line, and—poof!—it could be gone in minutes.
Or the price could change.