Strauss: Rams play it close as rumors run wild

2014-05-07T00:05:00Z 2014-05-18T20:14:36Z Strauss: Rams play it close as rumors run wildJOE STRAUSS • jstrauss@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The best and worst thing about this year’s NFL draft is the absolute lack of certainty. The process piles smokescreens atop misdirection with everything as fair game.

Team Official A whispers a juicy, sometimes legitimate rumor to Agent B, who relays it to another client, who happens to be Media Analyst C. The thing becomes part of the news cycle and immediately feeds upon itself. Lost in translation is the real possibility Team Official A hopes the tidbit will cause a rival franchise to panic, implode and sell its soul to move up the draft ladder. (See: Washington Redskins, 2012.)

Since the process typically begins within hours of the Super Bowl’s outcome, the possibility for information mayhem is exponential. Come to think of it, that’s precisely the perverse appeal.

The Rams intend to pick (take deep breath) Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or, of course, A&M quarterback and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel with the No. 2 overall selection.

If this was a horse race the bet would be to wheel the field. Since it’s the third draft by a regime that promised a breakout in its third season, the questions and the potential for misdirection grow more complex.

Coach Jeff Fisher returned to St. Louis on Monday after a whirlwind scouting mission. Shortly after landing he heard a report that Manziel was actually in St. Louis.

Could this be the smoking gun that proved the Rams are ready to go public Thursday night on Johnny Football, that they’re scheming to trade incumbent Sam Bradford ... the same Bradford whom Fisher cited as one of two reasons for taking the Rams job?

STL SPORTS CHAT: STRAUSS AT 11 AM

Fisher and Rams general manager Les Snead were available at Rams Park on Tuesday afternoon. Every word, every comma splice, every pause regarding Manziel became ripe for parsing.

The Rams’ brain trust won’t rule out drafting Manziel. But it also insists it’s firmly behind Bradford. By refusing to categorically dismiss Manziel, the Rams realize that posterior-covering sports journalists won’t discount him, either. After all, somebody had to ignite the rumor.

As of Tuesday afternoon no one at the Earth City McDonald’s — site of Rob Ryan’s infamous Unhappy Meal run — could recall Manziel coming through the doors. The shift manager on duty admitted she wasn’t big on football but that a number of employees frequently posed with players who dined in.

Adam Mirghanrabi, owner of Adamo’s Italian restaurant across the street from Rams Park, offered the same. Mirghanrabi, who has seen every Rams game since the franchise moved from Los Angeles, said he would support the franchise no matter who they draft. “We’re behind the Rams all the way,” underscored the man patrons and the Rams know as Merg.

Drafting an offensive lineman wouldn’t be as glitzy as picking up the ubiquitous Johnny Football or a signature receiver such as Watkins. The Rams need defensive backfield help, an area many experts have them addressing with the No. 13 overall pick. (They must be experts because the projection changes every third day.)

Drafting Manziel means trading Bradford. There can be no overlap.

Selecting Manziel less than a year after attempting to discuss an extension with Bradford would be stunning on several levels.

The franchise repeatedly has reassured Bradford of his status. It also has told its fan base that it can expect significant strides in the regime’s third year. Besides exposing the club as disingenuous toward Bradford, it would necessitate an overhaul of the offense and kick any promise of angling for a postseason berth two (or three) years down the road.

A team doesn’t work out a dozen quarterbacks if it has no plans to draft one. Perhaps Manziel fever intensified when a Rams insider said the club was prepared to take an SEC quarterback without clarifying whether it was Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Alabama’s AJ McCarrron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger or South Carolina’s Connor Shaw.

The Rams have identified six players as possibilities for their first pick. In other words, they can move down as far as the sixth overall pick and still guarantee themselves one of the names in their draft basket.

Do the Houston Texans trade out of the top pick? If so, does that increase the urgency for another team to advance into the No. 2 slot, perhaps for Clowney?

If the Rams are set on selecting an offensive tackle, do they try to move down in order to exploit the position’s depth while adding another premium pick?

The Rams insist they have identified their man if they stay at No. 2, but that they will remain nimble as in the previous two drafts when they traded down three times and moved up once.

Snead referred to lots of draft “flirting” but said he hasn’t been asked out yet. The guess here is that the Rams will move at least one of their first-round picks. Having 12 selections affords the ability to bundle them in order to move up, say, for an elite receiver. The 13th overall pick could also lead to a surprise if a premium linebacker falls to them.

Asked to compare his leverage within the upcoming draft to two years ago, Fisher said, “We’re not bound as much by need now. The roster has changed a lot. We’re in a better position to take the best player.”

Fisher remained on a tight schedule. He squeezed a 30-minute break between morning and afternoon sessions with Snead and his personnel people. Somewhere out back Bradford tested his surgically repaired left knee, which the club says has responded well following surgery in November.

Tuesday was for talking points and perhaps a little smoke. Thursday, if it mercifully ever arrives, is for reality.

Get live draft coverage on the Rams app for iPhone, iPad or Android.

The 50 worst St. Louis Rams draft picks.

The 50 best St. Louis Rams draft picks.

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