With a strong defense already in place, the Rams need a healthy and productive Sam Bradford if they hope to contend for a playoff spot this season
In their first two years on the job, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have brought the Rams back to respectability, a commendable achievement in itself given the sad state of the franchise when they arrived in 2012. All along, they’ve pointed to Year 3 of their rebuilding project — the 2014 season — as the year to get over the hump. The year to end what is now a string of 10 straight seasons without a winning record. The year the blockbuster “RGIII Trade” with Washington would bear its last fruit. Well, here we are. The selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson represented the last piece of property gained in return for giving the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s time to see results in St. Louis.
The Rams were forced to start a backup quarterback for more than half of the 2013 season and played nine top-10 defenses, yet they still scored their most points since 2006. But the bar has been set pretty low. They need to find another field goal here, another touchdown there to push their way into the postseason. The approach to that task involves two potential risks — sticking with Sam Bradford at quarterback and standing pat at wide receiver in a draft in which Sammy Watkins was there for the taking. Those are the kinds of decisions that can lead to contract extensions if they work, but pink slips if they don’t.
Bradford was headed to a career year statistically when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 at Carolina. He was nearly at full strength during OTAs, so his status for the regular-season opener is not in question. His group of pass-catchers — wideouts, tight ends and running backs included — needs to provide more help by minimizing drops and doing a better job of creating separation. Chris Givens failed to make a leap after a strong rookie season. He caught only 34 passes for 569 yards last season. Tavon Austin, a 2013 first-round pick, needs to polish his craft in every area, and the coaching staff must do a better job of utilizing his skills. Brian Quick is talented but has yet to catch more than 18 passes in a season. Kenny Britt, signed as a free agent, had flashes of brilliance during his five years with the Titans but lacked consistency and had difficulty staying out of trouble. Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan drafted by Fisher, had a career-high 51 catches in his first season with the Rams, but he too needs to be more consistent.
The Rams are well stocked at running back, with third-round draft pick Tre Mason, the former Auburn star, joining Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Robinson in the draft provides power to an offensive line that must grind out yards on the ground and keep Bradford from hitting the ground.
The Rams already had arguably the best defensive end tandem in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Now they’re adding the best interior pass-rusher in the 2014 draft in tackle Aaron Donald. And let’s not forget what could be the biggest offseason addition of all — Gregg Williams as the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. This was supposed to happen a couple of seasons ago when Fisher first took the job. But less than two months after being hired by Fisher during the 2011-12 offseason, Williams was suspended by the league for a year for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans. That led to a falling out between Fisher and Williams, one that included Fisher’s ouster of Williams’ son Blake after the ’12 season. But the two long-time friends patched things up in January, and two years later Williams finally gets to work his magic on the St. Louis defense.
The cornerstone will be that defensive line, which also includes two solid tackles in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, plus a superb utility man in end William Hayes. The Rams have five first-round picks in their front seven.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters in James Laurinaitis (middle), Alec Ogletree (weak side) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (strong side). Ogletree had a strong rookie year and has big-play potential. Laurinaitis remains dependable, durable and productive.
Williams will earn his pay trying to get the secondary up to snuff. The entire unit has only 71 games’ worth of NFL starting experience. Starting corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson remain raw and mistake-prone. And at safety, starters T.J. McDonald (strong) and Rodney McLeod (free) are far from finished products. It’s not going to work unless the entire secondary cuts down on mistakes and does a better job avoiding big plays. Rookie LaMarcus Joyner, who will play nickel back, must make an instant contribution.
The Rams are close to becoming one of the best special teams units in the league. Fewer penalties and a little more juice in the return game can make that happen. Austin has flashes of brilliance on punt returns as evidenced by a long TD against Indianapolis and a TD called back against Dallas last year. He’s a slithery change-of-direction demon who needs just a little daylight to make a lot happen. Meanwhile, the Rams have been searching for a dynamic kickoff returner since the days of Tony Horne and the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no clear-cut favorite for that job, and it’s a certainty there will be auditions throughout the preseason. Cunningham, a backup running back, doesn’t look or run like a classic kickoff returner, but he has shown a knack for at least providing decent field position.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein are developing into a consistent, productive pair. Hekker has that rare combination of hang time, distance and directional skill, setting an NFL record for net punting (44.2 yards) a year ago. Zuerlein was nearly automatic in ’13, avoiding the midseason slump of his rookie campaign. He’s got one of the league’s strongest legs.
Improvement is needed at wide receiver and tight end. An offensive line that includes three players with recent injury histories — Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells — needs to stay healthy. It’s shaping up as a make-or-break year for Bradford, who’s had injury issues of his own in two of his four Rams seasons. There’s nothing but inexperience in the secondary and next to no depth at linebacker. OK, the D-line has the makings of “great.” Still that’s a lot of “ifs” for what figures to be the youngest team in the NFL for the third consecutive season. And in case you’ve forgotten, the Rams reside in the toughest neighborhood of all, the NFC West. Throw in a non-division schedule that includes Denver, Kansas City, and Philadelphia — all playoff teams from a year ago — and the Rams may need more than a GPS tracker to find the postseason.