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Ram tough: Les Snead leans on strengths to rebuild St. Louis

Tuesday was May 1. For new St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead, the beginning of the new month meant it was finally time to tie up a whole bunch of loose ends.

Snead, formerly personnel director for the Atlanta Falcons, was hired by the Rams in mid-February. His self-imposed directive since then has been to focus on four aspects of roster management. They were, in order, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his new club; deal the second pick in the draft; prepare for and complete free agency; and then do the same with the draft.

"I did those four things," Snead said, over the phone from his office this week. "And with a lot of people that I know, I've had to say, 'Oh, that's a May project.' I'm still living in the hotel. The boxes Atlanta sent me are still stacked up against the wall, and I haven't opened one. I don't have a file cabinet or anything. Basically, I said, 'Everything's a May project, except for those four things.'"

Snead can unpack and find a place to live now. His vision for the Rams, in this job he spent the better part of two decades preparing, is beginning to take shape.

In less than three months, Snead brought home a historic haul in dealing what became Robert Griffin III's draft rights to Washington, worked a free-agent period that landed Cortland Finnegan, Kendall Langford and Scott Wells for St. Louis, and spearheaded perhaps the most aggressive and daring draft-day effort that any NFL club had.

And Rams COO Kevin Demoff is hardly surprised by the swashbuckling style that Snead has employed, even if the new GM remains in the considerable shadow cast by new head coach Jeff Fisher.

"There was a reason Les was the first call I made when we went looking for a GM," said Demoff, who led the search process. "We met with a lot of capable people, and a lot of people I think will become great GMs. But there was something unique about Les' way of thinking. It inspired you, and made you believe he'd have immediate success. It's his self-confidence, and it's not arrogance, but he believes in his ability. He can get the most of the people around him. He can bring a group together."

On the first night Demoff met with Snead, over dinner, the 13-year Falcons personnel man detailed his plan for trading the second pick. He showed Demoff how he could build a draft around the second-rounders, and gave him names of players he'd target. One was Appalachian State receiver Brian Quick, whom Snead built a consensus on in the building, and wound up taking atop Round 2.

Another thing Snead passed along to Demoff was his GM proposal. In it were four core principles. The last two were pretty standard -- to be passionate and be honest. The first two set the Rams course.

"The first thing is 'wake up sprinting,' and that means that I'm gonna begin every day striving to achieve excellence at top speed," Snead explained. "That's a motto of mine. And (next) is 'don't be scared,' and I've got a bullet point that says, 'Have the mental and moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand adversity, fear and difficulty.'"

He, and the Rams by extension, have done that.

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The central question on the second phase of Snead's itinerary was never complicated: Would the Rams consider trading Sam Bradford, rather than the No. 2 overall pick, and take Griffin?

"No," Snead said, succinctly. "The only time it might've crossed my mind was if, for some reason, we were to get stuck at two because we didn't get what we really wanted. Do you take the kid and trade him from there? That might've been the only time, and that would've been the riskiest of risky moves. But I'll be clear: We decided early on that Sam was our quarterback."

When the Rams' brass met in February, Snead asked if it was realistic to get three first-rounders for the pick. It was communicated to him that price was unprecedented for a single pick. So Snead followed up with a suggestion: "Maybe we can get an extra two also."

"What I give him credit for," Demoff said, "is when he sets out and decides what wants, he gets what he wants."

The above criteria set what Snead referred to as the "Gold Standard." The Rams wanted to create an artificial deadline to push urgency on the clubs vying for Griffin. Snead told those teams that he wanted to do a deal before free agency, because he wanted to know what he'd be working with prior to that vital date. The Gold Standard was the price it would take, as Snead explained it, "to get it done today."

A half-dozen clubs were involved. Five of the six were willing to move before the start of free agency, while one said it would rather wait until later in the offseason. The Redskins were the one club to meet the Gold Standard. So the deal was done. Remember, honesty was one of Snead's GM principles. He told the clubs three 1s and a 2 would move the pick. And it did. No poker there.

Snead emphasized "location, location, location" in describing a pick he referred to as a "nice piece of real estate." The fact that the first pick, held by the Indianapolis Colts, was unavailable, helped, as did the reality that two of the top three underclassmen at quarterback (Andrew Luck, Griffin) declared, rather than all three (Matt Barkley went back to school). Snead's job, as he saw it, was to capitalize on the circumstance.

"Whether we did it earlier or later, you never know, maybe your piece of real estate loses value, maybe it increases value," he said. "If you don't get your quarterback in free agency, maybe you get desperate, or you have two teams that are really desperate. You never know, but we were very happy with what we got."

The important thing was going into 2013 and '14 with two first-rounders, and setting the stage to attack in free agency, which the Rams did the following Tuesday. But it would be the deal-closer, that extra second-rounder, that was invaluable to the draft day strategy the new GM wanted to employ.

First draft

Just as Snead had gambled that the value of the second pick would reach its peak early, more than a month before the draft, he'd roll the dice on draft day that one of the interior defensive linemen he and Fisher liked, Fletcher Cox or Michael Brockers, would be available in the middle of the first round. After Justin Blackmon came off the board with Jacksonville leapfrogging St. Louis, the decision to bail was made based on the ability to get the club at fourth pick in a 33-selection range (Nos. 33-65).

This one paid off, too. Taking Brockers at 14, and throwing him in a group that already has Langford, Chris Long, Robert Quinn and pretty decent depth created a strength on a roster that didn't have many of them.

But Snead wasn't done taking risks.

While North Alabama CB Janoris Jenkins, with his paternity and drug issues, was the most publicized character-flagged player the Rams took in the second round, he was hardly the only one. The two picks to follow -- Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead and Montana's Trumaine Johnson -- also had off-field questions that were considered attributable to simple immaturity, but were significant enough to raise eyebrows in league circles.

As one AFC personnel director said, "You get one, that's OK, but they picked three in a row." Another AFC scout called the Rams' draft "exceptional. They got a lot of good players, but they also took a lot of risks, as far as character. I'd personally say they did a very nice job, and the truth is, based on the roster, they needed to take those risks."

The overarching thought inside the Rams was that, under former GM Billy Devaney, character had been emphasized to such a degree that the young talent already there -- with players like Long, Bradford and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis -- would help the new guys. Fisher's history dealing with such at-risk rookies was another factor, as was the fact that, as the scout said, the time had come to gamble.

And then, there was the confidence that Demoff and Fisher had in Snead's exhaustive research, reflective of a guy whose background was pounding pavement as a scout. It was most apparent in Snead's work on Jenkins, whom he started working on for the Falcons last summer with a trip to Florida.

"It takes a lot of man hours to become comfortable with that," Snead said of Jenkins. "Jeff and I discussed it. If we were to get an extra second-rounder, now five picks in those first 65, and said, 'OK, maybe there's a chance to go and be aggressive.' And so that player, we thought was gonna be there, and we had to make a decision, and we thought he was a first-round talent. So we did the due diligence ... and at the end of the day, you sign off and say, 'Let's roll.'"

Not many people argue with the Brockers pick, a young prospect with a high ceiling and no apparent character problems. But Snead knows his first draft will be judged by the four picks between 33 and 65 -- Quick, Jenkins, Pead and Johnson.

Snead told Demoff he'd target Quick back in January, and three roulette spins on players who may prove to be first-round talents. In the GM's conviction and guts, the group provides a window into what Demoff and the Rams bought into with Snead.

Time to unpack

And then you have the vision that Demoff had of the coach/GM relationship. To him, though Fisher was most certainly the big fish in the Rams' haul, it was important that he project correctly what this "arranged marriage" would look like, no matter the perception that this was gonna be Fisher's show.

"You always have to pick one before the other, and in my ideal world, I'd always pick the GM first," Demoff said. "But we had Jeff there and we had to leap into that. We never viewed it as the 'King Coach' or 'King GM.' You want them to be close, to think like one another, to complement one another. … And Les always wanted to be the GM of the Rams. He didn't care if Jeff Fisher was the head coach or Carrie Fisher was the head coach.

"He wanted to be in charge of finding the talent. Too much is made of roles. If you watched on draft, you'd have no idea who was in what role. And Les doesn't care who gets credit anyway."

Snead's been a little too busy for that.

And as much as this job has gone according to the playbook he handed Demoff in January, there also have been things he couldn't quite prepare for. The good news is Snead -- having worked for/with Tom Coughlin, Dan Reeves, Rich McKay, Bobby Petrino, and Thomas Dimitroff, and having gone through so many regime changes, not to mention the Michael Vick affair in Atlanta -- was prepared to adjust.

"I'm a very OCD personality, very organized, one of those people where I had my whole life organized on the computer," Snead explained. "I could go to this file, and go back and get this or that, from personal all the way to professional. Since I've gotten here, I have all the files I have from my previous life on two discs on a desk, and I haven't used my computer one time since I've been here, except to watch video."

Demoff jokes that Snead has "worn out his iPad" instead. But the point is that his job now is different than it was -- he says, "I couldn't live without my computer" in Atlanta -- and he was as ready as he thought he'd be.

Now, for Snead, it's about drawing on experience and acting on instincts built over his time as a lieutenant in Jacksonville and Atlanta.

"I would hate to get in this chair or this job too early and not have the experience. You realize the computer's not your brain," Snead continued. "You realize it's your brain and the experience and the knowledge and all those things combined over the years, but really it's the experience. The experience gives you a foundation where you're confident to make decisions. And it gives, let's call it 'a young 41-year-old,' the wisdom to make decisions."

Maybe now he'll finally move out of the hotel and unpack those boxes.

Plus, he's got plenty of people to call back now, with the big things -- those four major objectives for the Rams -- out of the way.

And as for the "May Projects" he promised, Snead laughs. "My biggest May project now is to figure out what I'm actually gonna do in May, and then push the rest to June and July."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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