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Athlon counts down to the kickoff of the 2012 NFL season with in-depth team previews for all 32 teams.
Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The St. Louis Rams check in at No. 31.
Like a sequel to a bad movie, The Rebuilding III is now playing in St. Louis. The Rams are on their third head coach in the past six years and have had their roster gutted once again. The Rams can only hope things go better under Jeff Fisher than they did under predecessors Steve Spagnuolo (10–38) and Scott Linehan (11–25). Spagnuolo and Linehan were newbies — they had never been head coaches at any level prior to St. Louis. Not so, obviously, with Fisher. Prior to taking the 2011 season off, he had been head coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise for 16 full seasons.
Because of his experience and past success — including a Super Bowl XXXIV loss 13 seasons ago against the team he now coaches — Fisher doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He exudes confidence and toughness. Those characteristics have been in short supply lately around Rams Park, where Fisher and GM Les Snead are working toward the franchise’s first winning record since 2003.
The road to respectability starts on offense, where the Rams were the league’s lowest-scoring team in two of the past three seasons. Quarterback Sam Bradford took a step back during an injury-plagued 2011 after earning Offensive Rookie of the Year laurels a year earlier. Bradford enters 2012 with his third scheme and his third offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) in as many NFL seasons. There are some similarities between the Schottenheimer playbook and the West Coast scheme Bradford ran as a rookie under Pat Shurmur, so the transition may not be too daunting this time around.
Any hopes for a more productive offense rest simply in better pass protection and more playmakers. The only major addition on the offensive line is at center, where former Green Bay Pro Bowler Scott Wells will add savvy and toughness. Otherwise, the Rams need third-year left tackle Rodger Saffold to revert to his rookie form, and right tackle Jason Smith to stay healthy and be sounder in his technique.
It’s largely up to the draft class of 2012 if the Rams are to show any improvement at the skill positions. Second-round wide receiver Brian Quick provides a large target and the ability to make big plays both with his size and his route-running. Fourth-rounder Chris Givens, with his 4.3 speed, provides an element the Rams haven’t had in a while — someone who can get over the top and stretch defenses. When healthy, Danny Amendola is an effective slot receiver who excels at the third down catch. If Steve Smith returns to anything resembling his Pro Bowl form of 2009 as a New York Giant, the Rams could have a credible pass-catching unit.
Fisher obviously likes to run the football, and the tandem of three-time Pro Bowler Steven Jackson and second-round draft pick Isaiah Pead will get plenty of work. Jackson, who rushed for 1,145 yards last season, remains an intriguing blend of speed and power at 236 pounds; Pead provides a shifty change of pace, weighing in at 193.
Related: Top St. Louis Rams Twitter Accounts to Follow
Mainstays Chris Long at end and James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker are the only returning starters in the front seven. After splitting time with James Hall a year ago at the other end position, 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn gets his first crack at being an every-down player. Quinn has good pass-rush skills but must prove he can hold up against the run play-in and play-out. Fisher has a couple of brutes at D-tackle in Dolphins free agent pickup Kendall Langford and No. 14 overall draft pick Michael Brockers. The defensive line is loaded with potential, but Brockers and Quinn are raw and must develop quickly.
Laurinaitis remains an underrated force in the middle, active against the run and very good in coverage. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a free agent pickup from New Orleans, brings physicality and good speed to one of the outside linebacker spots. And it looks like veteran Mario Haggan will man the other outside position. The team signed several promising rookie free agents who will have a chance to make the team. This position may not totally shake out until the end of the preseason.
The secondary, particularly at cornerback, could be one of the most improved units on the team. Former Titan Cortland Finnegan — an All-Pro in 2008 — brings the attitude and aggressiveness that Fisher looks for in his corners. Draft picks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson fit that mold as well but must show that their college off-the-field issues are behind them. With Bradley Fletcher, who has 22 starts in three NFL seasons, coming off knee surgery, and raw but talented Jerome Murphy in the mix, the Rams have the potential for solid depth.
Because of the indefinite suspension of Gregg Williams for his role in the New Orleans bounty scandal, the Rams won’t have a defensive coordinator this year. Assistant head coach Dave McGinnis is expected to handle the bulk of those duties, with help from Fisher.
As if there weren’t enough question marks on the depth chart, the Rams plan to enter 2012 with a rookie punter and kicker. For several seasons, the Rams had one of the league’s better punter-kicker tandems in Donnie Jones and Josh Brown. Both veterans had sub-par 2011 seasons. In salary cap-related moves, Jones was allowed to leave in free agency and Brown was cut. Enter sixth-round draft pick Greg Zuerlein at kicker and undrafted rookie John Hekker at punter. Zuerlein had a phenomenal senior season at Missouri Western, making 21 consecutive field goals, including nine of 50 yards-plus. But it’s a big jump from Division II to the NFL. Handling the pressure will be a big part of the transition for Zuerlein and Hekker, who averaged 44 yards per kick last season at Oregon State. Two more rookies, Pead and Jenkins, may end up handling the return chores.
Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC West
In a division where San Francisco appears loaded for a Super Bowl run, and Seattle and Arizona are making steady improvements, the Rams won’t be overnight sensations. They have gone from one of the league’s oldest teams to one of its youngest since Fisher took over. Fisher, GM Snead, and executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff are building for the long haul. They know a quick fix is impossible, and there will be growing pains along the way with this young and largely unproven roster.
Because of the talent gap, they took chances on several draft picks with top-tier talent but shaky pasts. So there’s a boom-or-bust quality to the draft class that makes it difficult to handicap. The absence of Williams on defense won’t help the progression on that side of the ball.
Make no mistake — there will be a different culture under Fisher at Rams Park. His teams tend to play physical, inspired football. He accepts nothing less. Even so, Fisher’s track record of squeezing everything possible out of a roster will be put to the test this season.
Related: 2012 St. Louis Rams Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
No Mountain High Enough
It will be an uphill battle to reach respectability for coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams in his first season in St. Louis. Then again, he’s used to these sorts of challenges. During the spring of 2011, Fisher climbed Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro (elevation: 19,341 feet) as part of an NFL effort to raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.
Fathers and Sons
Coaching Rams football is truly a family affair. Fisher’s son Brandon is assistant secondary coach for the team. The son of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau Sr. — Paul Boudreau Jr. — is assistant special teams coach. Linebackers coach Blake Williams is the son of suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (father Marty) and special teams coach John Fassel (father Jim) are the sons of former NFL head coaches.
My Offseason Adventure
A true renaissance man, running back Steven Jackson swam in shark cages off the coast of Africa and attended World Cup games in past offseasons. He once toured New Zealand just prior to a devastating earthquake. This offseason, he roamed South America and attended a Hollywood boot camp for aspiring filmmakers.
Members of the Rams’ draft class showed some talent way back in elementary school, though not on the field. Seventh-round linebacker Aaron Brown of Hawaii won a spelling bee in the third grade. Wide receiver Chris Givens of Wake Forest went one grade better: He won a spelling bee in the fourth grade.
The Rams play their first game overseas — regular season or preseason — since the franchise relocated to St. Louis in 1995 when the team crosses the Atlantic to meet New England on Oct. 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium. Team owner Stan Kroenke already knows his way around Great Britain — he owns the Arsenal soccer club of the English Premier League.
Happy Birthday Rams
From Crazylegs Hirsch to the Fearsome Foursome to the Greatest Show on Turf, this marks the 75th football season for the Rams, a colorful and storied franchise that has called Cleveland, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and St. Louis home since that first kickoff in 1937. Among its many distinctions, the Rams were the first team in the NFL to have helmet logos. They were designed by one of the team’s players, halfback Fred Gehrke, in 1948.
How The Mighty Have Fallen
During their improbable run to the Super Bowl XXXIV championship during the 1999 season, the Rams’ quick-strike offense had 50 touchdown passes during the regular season and playoffs. In 2011, the Rams had nine TD passes for the entire season.
Even with the team’s struggles in the win-loss column, Jackson has been as steady as it gets in the backfield. The ninth-year running back will be seeking his eighth straight 1,000-yard rushing season. Only five players in NFL history have had more than seven 1,000-yard seasons in a row.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Mon., July 23
Order your 2012 St. Louis Rams Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
Related: Top St. Louis Rams Top Twitter Accounts To Follow
Related: 2012 St. Louis Rams Schedule Analysis