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Rams Can See Lyght at Corner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rams, being careful not to dream for things that could not come true, never planned on selecting Notre Dame cornerback Todd Lyght in Sunday’s NFL draft.

Sure, they came to a consensus that he was the player who best fit their vast needs, that if they had the No. 1 pick in the draft, Lyght would be their man.

But, staying realistic, they didn’t have the No. 1 pick, they had the No. 5, and that meant putting Lyght out of their minds.

There were other scenarios to plot out, other players to concentrate on, and dreaming never got anybody anything in the draft except maybe fired.

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They talked about Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who ended up being drafted No. 1 overall by the Dallas Cowboys. They put out a smoke screen intended to get people to believe they were set to take Tennessee offensive tackle Antone Davis.

They knew if things didn’t work, they could trade their pick, get two later selections, and go from there. But they never, ever let themselves see the Lyght at the end of their draft-day tunnel.

“For the past two, three weeks we’ve been going through all the scenarios, the what-if situations,” Ram defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher said. “To be honest, Lyght’s name never really came up because we just assumed that he would be gone in that second pick to Cleveland.”

Wrong assumption. The Browns shook up the top of the draft by choosing UCLA safety Eric Turner, beginning the ripple effect that sent Lyght (6-0, 186), rated by some analysts as the best overall athlete in the draft, drifting inevitably down to the Rams.

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So when Lyght suddenly dropped straight through the draft-day cracks into their laps, all the Rams could do was take him, get ready to line him up at right corner, and watch him go.

“He was, in most people’s view, rated either the second or third-best player in the draft, and to have him be there for our pick was most fortunate for us and we’re very excited about it,” Coach John Robinson said.

Robinson was excited, and Fisher was already talking about what an impact Lyght will have on Fisher’s new attacking, man-to-man defensive system.

Lyght, together with the Rams’ second-round pick, UCLA linebacker Roman Phifer, suddenly establish a high-profile foundation for the dramatic reformation of the Rams’ defense.

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Lyght was considered one of the top two pure coverage players in this year’s draft, and the most technically sound defensive back of anyone who has come out at the position in many years. As early as February, Robinson was saying privately that Lyght was the guy he wanted most.

Asked privately last week how the team ranked the draft, Fisher was precise and in order: “Lyght first. (Nebraska linebacker Mike) Croel second. Maryland third. Davis fourth. Lyght’s the guy we know we can’t get.”

Phifer (6-2, 230), an early favorite of linebacker coach Ronnie Jones, was thought to be, along with Croel, one of the top two coverage linebackers.

Although the Rams failed to get a dominant defensive lineman Sunday, Lyght and Phifer--whom Fisher expects to start at right linebacker--immediately push Fisher’s revamping of the Rams’ old, zone-defense 3-4 system into his attack-the-passer, man-to-man coverage scheme.

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From the beginning, Fisher has said the Ram defense was short a cover cornerback and a cover linebacker or two. If Lyght and Phifer aren’t busts, the Rams can turn their attentions to plugging other holes--most significantly, defensive line.

In the fourth and final round of Sunday, the Rams picked cornerback Robert Bailey out of Miami. Bailey, on the small side (5-9, 175) should compete for a backup spot.

Lyght was considered a possible No. 1 overall pick and a sure-fire top three player. A four-year starter who was converted from receiver his freshman season, he intercepted 11 passes over his college career, and was a first-team All-American his junior season.

But the departure of his teammate, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, to the Canadian Football League seemed to throw all projections to the wind. And concerns about Lyght’s less-than-sterling 40-yard dash time (around 4.5 seconds) also kept teams off his bandwagon.

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Atlanta, with the third pick, pulled a surprise by taking Nebraska cornerback Bruce Pickens over Lyght, a player they supposedly wanted badly.

“Oh, we knew that was happening months ago,” Robinson said with a big smile. “You had to sit somewhere, put a seat belt on to ride through all the things that happened. There were some pretty wild ones.”

But when the Denver Broncos, sitting with the fourth pick, made linebacker Croel their pick, the craziness ended and the Rams, after receiving offers from several teams to trade the pick, selected Lyght.

Lyght, who said he was surprised he wasn’t taken by Cleveland, said he was just pleased to end up with a team that needed and wanted him.

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“I was kind of surprised, but everything works out for the best, my father was telling me as we were sitting around waiting to get drafted,” Lyght said from New York, at NFL draft headquarters. “It’s in God’s hands, and he chose for me to go to Los Angeles and I’m very pleased with that.”


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