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Rebuilding Rams begin long road back to being relevant again

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The Rams have the No. 1 overall draft pick, an unsettled quarterback situation, a prospective new owner -- and some measure of relevance.

Heading into next week's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the Rams will have to figure out whether their quarterback of the future is in the building or whether he's on some other team's roster. He's not on theirs. Despite offering up kind words for incumbent Marc Bulger, coach Steve Spagnuolo or general manager Billy Devaney haven't said Bulger is their guy. If he was, they would.

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With $8.5 million owed to Bulger next season, the only way he seems likely to return is if none of the draft prospects, even the projected non-first rounders, makes them feel confident, and/or if potential trade partners are asking a ransom they don't want to pay. On that note, word is circulating that a potential target of the Rams, Philadelphia's Michael Vick, won't be given away for simply anything in a trade. What the compensation would be is unknown, but Vick could very well be playing in Philadelphia next season as a backup to Donovan McNabb.

Forget free agency. If a quarterback could play, he won't be on the open market.

Spagnuolo and Devaney have been given the green light by current owners Chip Rosenbloom and his sister Lucia Rodriguez that there are no restrictions on spending or doing what is needed to improve a 1-15 team that barely registered a blip, even when bad teams were discussed. That's good news for a serious football guy like Devaney.

Had an ownership change taken place before the draft, he might have to succumb to pressure to find a new face of the franchise with the top pick and all the other hoopla that could come into play with new leadership. Instead, a foundation could be laid before Shahid Khan's bid for majority ownership comes up for approval or a matching offer is made from minority owner Stan Kroenke.

"When you do have that top pick there's all kinds of ways you can go," Spagnuolo told me two days before the Super Bowl. "You look at all the college players and say, 'We can go offense, we can go defense, we can go lineman, skill; we could try to trade,' but you've got to have a partner to do it. It's way early. There are so many different angles; you can drive yourself crazy with all the different pictures.

"A little will clear it up with the evaluation of college players. Billy and I talk about scenarios a lot. We haven't done as many as we'll get into the next three, four weeks. I'm excited about the opportunity to put it all together. You make the decision, cross your fingers and hope for the best."

Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy might not necessarily be splashy picks, in terms of generating a ton of fanfare, but they could make the most sense. Then again, so could a quarterback, such as Oklahoma's Sam Bradford if that is deemed the biggest need. The Rams can't spend too much time rebuilding, even though they need a lot of time to fix things.

Fans are sick of losing and potential new ownership will want results. The Rams might not have liked not being relevant. Now that they are, they better make the most of it.

Mock draft
Bucky Brooks' latest mock draft projects Sam Bradford to be the only quarterback selected in the first round. See which others players could be first-round picks. More ...

How to evaluate Bradford, Clausen?

Oklahoma's Bradford and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, considered the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming draft, likely won't do much at next week's combine because of medical issues that could determine whether one or both is selected in the top 10.

Bradford is coming off shoulder surgery; Clausen, toe surgery. Both hope medical evaluations prove they're okay and that their performances at Pro Days, paired with their bodies of work, put them in favorable situations. They will be red-flagged, but neither -- at least based on initial reports -- is viewed as having potential long-term concerns because of these injuries.

Where both players can help their stock during combine interviews and private interviews is with their dissection of film, playbook recall and recognition of opposing defenses during whiteboard quizzes offered up by the army of coaches they're about to encounter.

I remember coaches telling me stories of how Atlanta's Matt Ryan sold himself during these sessions. Same with Matthew Stafford, who blew away at least two quarterback coaches I spoke with last year in evening whiteboard sessions in which they mentally maxed out. Coaches were blown away with their acumen, memory and overall football savvy.

When it comes to Bradford and Clausen, talent evaluators can measure a lot of the tangible things from film, especially against top-flight competition. If Bradford and Clausen aren't able to fully showcase themselves physically, they can't afford to slip up with the mental and character evaluations.

Pass rushers coming free

Julius Peppers, Patrick Kerney, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Aaron Kampman, once viewed as indispensible pass rushers, could all hit the open market on March 5. The veteran defensive ends, who've become too expensive (Peppers), beset by injuries (Kampman and Kerney) or Plan B options, might allow a team in need at one of the game's most valued positions, to fill a void.

Peppers, of course, is the biggest difference maker of the group and will arguably be the top free agent on the market. He is one of the few free agents who could enter Albert Haynesworth's tax bracket ($42 million guaranteed, $100 million overall). There are a number of teams that could use him, but only a smaller number that might pay him. The Patriots seemingly would be at the front of the line, but the Giants, Bears, Falcons and Eagles could be good fits, too.

For Kerney, shelve all thoughts of him retiring. He made it clear to me Tuesday evening in a few text messages that he feels he has a few good years left in him and that he will be "in sick shape." Kerney, 33, isn't sure whether he fits into new coach Pete Carroll's plans. If he doesn't, he might be a solid pick up for a 4-3 front team in need of a left end -- like maybe his former team, Atlanta.

Kampman is coming off a torn ACL in his knee and he will have to prove he is healthy enough to play, so he might be waiting a few months before his phone rings. Vanden Bosch, meanwhile, could end up back in Tennessee, but the Titans haven't reached out to a few veteran free agents (center Kevin Mawae, linebacker Keith Bulluck) and they could allow those guys to see if they can find a better deal before getting involved.

Westbrook plans to play

On the issue of veterans not ready to hang it up, Eagles running back Brian Westbrook plans to continue playing, whether it's with Philadelphia or not. There was some thought his pair of concussions last season, eight years in the league and a diminished role with the emergence of LeSean McCoy might prompt the 30 year old to bow out, but I've been told Westbrook wants to continue playing.

Whether that's with the Eagles is another story. Westbrook is owed $7.25 million next season, the final year of his contract, and Philadelphia has not made it known, either way, if it wants to retain Westbrook and, if so, at that price.

If Westbrook hits the open market, he likely will join LaDainian Tomlinson, Chester Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Larry Johnson as 30-years-or-older running backs in free agency.

Committed Falcons

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have to like the commitment of two rising stars, safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Chris Owens, a rookie they have big plans for.

During a visit to watch draft prospects this week in Westlake Village outside of Los Angeles, Owens and DeCoud arrived to take part in some speed work, having done their strength training the day before. Head trainer Travelle Gaines said they've been regulars for weeks and are among the more diligent veterans in the stable.

DeCoud, who just finished his second season, had 68 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in his first season as a starter. He has inserted himself as a fixture as long as he keeps getting better, something he clearly has taken to heart by hitting the track instead of the beach.

Owens, meanwhile, is someone who has a huge opportunity to become, what the Falcons hope, the Tracy Porter of 2010. The Saints' cornerback, who picked off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, respectively, made huge strides despite battling injuries in his second season. If Owens can make similar gains, and if the Falcons can find a corner who is anywhere near as effective as Jabari Greer was for the Saints to play opposite Owens, they could be vastly improved on defense.

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