The St. Louis Rams have been the NFL’s worst team for the past half-decade. Their won-loss record over that span is 15-65 (.187), and they bombed terrifically after a seemingly promising 7-9 finish two seasons ago. Just one loss short of a 2010 playoff appearance, the Rams went 2-14 in 2011 and cleaned house in the offseason.
New G.M. Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher were tasked with rebuilding perhaps the league’s most talent-poor roster, and started off by trading the No. 2 pick in the draft to Washington. St. Louis would flip picks acquired in the Robert Griffin III deal twice more in draft-day trades with Chicago and Dallas, ultimately parlaying RG3 into four rookies and additional first-round picks in the next two NFL drafts.
NFL teams never acknowledge openly that they’re in “rebuild” phases, but the Rams’ offseason roster movement speaks loudly. St. Louis has a long road ahead.
The Rams believe internally that Sam Bradford can still be a franchise quarterback, although there are reasons for concern. Bradford has absorbed 70 sacks in his first 26 NFL games, and in 2011 was perceiving pressure that wasn’t there.
Running back Steven Jackson remains a workhorse, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a robust 4.40 yards-per on 260 carries. Jackson is 29 years old with the most active rushing attempts in football, though, and he’s not going to last much longer.
(Even some of the Rams’ so-called strengths are suspect.)
The Rams do have young talent on the defensive line in ends Chris Long, 27, and Robert Quinn, 22, and tackles Michael Brockers, 21, and Kendall Langford, 26. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has been a durable tackle machine. In the secondary, high draft choices were used on cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, with a $50 million contract paid to Cortland Finnegan.
St. Louis’ 2012 strength should be on defense.
The Rams will lean heavily on rookies this season. Jenkins and Brockers appear locked in as starters, and St. Louis could conceivably end up starting as many as seven or eight draft picks from its 2012 ten-man class. This team will count on a lot from its youth.
On paper, St. Louis arguably has the worst offensive line in football. Left tackle Rodger Saffold is considered the team’s top lineman, and he’s coming off a bad season. 2011 free-agent signing Harvey Dahl didn’t spark the group’s play in his first season with the Rams. Scott Wells was signed away from Green Bay to solidify center, but there is a huge hole at left guard. And at least based on recent performance, Jason Smith can be classified among the likes of Wayne Hunter (Jets) and Jeromey Clary (Chargers) as one of the weakest right tackles in the game. Smith has been a brutal bust as the former second overall pick in the draft.
On defense, both outside linebacker spots are open to competition between unheralded rookies and street free agent-type offseason additions.
The Rams drafted ten players in April, and some of their undrafted rookies should be able to make the 53-man roster. But St. Louis’ biggest changes have taken place up top.
Snead and Fisher replace Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo, respectively, and Brian Schottenheimer was hired to coordinate the offense. The Rams tabbed Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, but his coaching days are likely through after being caught red-handed engineering the Saints’ bounty scandal. St. Louis has turned to a rare “committee approach” to replace Williams as defensive playcaller.
There are more moving parts in the Rams’ organization than key returning pieces.
Any time an organization cleans house, jobs on the field are going to be up for grabs. It would probably be more effective to name the positions at which St. Louis will not hold competitions, rather than rattling off all of the forthcoming camp battles.
Bradford and Jackson are locked in, although the latter could eventually lose snaps to promising second-round pick Isaiah Pead, an explosive tailback prospect with three-down tools. There is some feeling that tight end Lance Kendricks could have a Dustin Keller-type role in Schottenheimer’s system. Saffold, Wells, and Dahl have starting jobs on the offensive line. The other two spots should be open to competition.
Laurinaitis is the only linebacker locked into the first-team defense. Finnegan will start at cornerback and likely cover slot receivers in the nickel package. Quintin Mikell is a holdover from the Devaney/Spags regime, but seems likely to keep his starting job at free safety. Jenkins projects as the starter opposite Finnegan, although he is a rookie and will be pushed for playing time by Bradley Fletcher, among others.
We obviously don’t like the Rams’ 2012 prospects. We ranked them as the No. 28 team out of 32, ahead of only Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Minnesota. And, in all honestly, that was probably generous of us.
The NFC West has long been considered the weakest division in football, and there is pretty much every reason to believe the Rams are its weakest team. Five or six wins would be an accomplishment for this roster.
The bad news is the Rams aren’t going to compete for a .500 record in 2012. The good news is they can change that in the near future.
They just need to hit on those draft picks.