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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: St. Louis Rams

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v St Louis Rams Getty Images

The St. Louis Rams were a trendy pick to possibly make a push for the playoffs last season. A 1-3 start to the season put the Rams in a hole and losing Sam Bradford for the year after seven games was the final nail in the coffin to their playoff aspirations.

But the Rams could take positives out of last year’s performances. Their defense became a nightmare to opposing quarterbacks as Chris Long and Robert Quinn led a scary defensive front and Zac Stacy showed promise as a possible replacement for Steven Jackson.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, they find themselves at the bottom of the best division in the NFL.The Rams added 11 draft picks to their roster as the continue to retool their talent under head coach Jeff Fisher. What are the prospects for the upcoming season? We take a look at the roster below as training camp approaches.

Strengths.

St. Louis may have the best defensive front in all of football. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn combining for 27.5 sacks last season and Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald manning the interior, the Rams will be a handful for any offensive line their square off against. In addition, the Rams still have depth along their front with Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims and William Hayes as rotational players.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree give the Rams a nice pair of linebackers they can rely on. Also, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are a dependable tight end pair.

Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker provide a strong duo of specialists as well for St. Louis.

Weaknesses.

While the Rams defense proved fearsome at times last season, there were still a could problem areas on that side of the ball. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon struggled at times at the strong-side linebacker spot. In addition, Darian Stewart and Rodney McLeod had issues at safety after T.J. McDonald suffered a broken leg and was placed on the short-term injured reserve list. Those areas remain question marks heading into training camp.

St. Louis is still lacking a true No. 1 option at receiver and depth in their secondary as well.

Changes.

Cortland Finnegan was released by the Rams over the offseason, which elevated Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson into the presumed starting roles ahead of training camp. Johnson could get pushed for his starting job by rookie Lamarcus Joyner, but Joyner may be best suited in the slot.

First-round selections Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald both should slot into the starting lineup on each side of the ball. Robinson is slated to replace the departed Chris Williams at left guard with Donald supplanting Kendall Langford at defensive tackle.

Camp battles.

Most of the major position battles should come on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Ray-Ray Armstrong will battle for the third linebacker position, Trumaine Johnson could be pushed by second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner for the starting job opposite Janoris Jenkins at cornerback and Rodney McLeod could be challenged by fourth-round pick Mo Alexander at safety.

On the offensive side of the ball, the receiver position seems to be wide open. Tavon Austin’s role is secure as caught more passes than any other St. Louis receiver last year.. However, the Rams have a gaggle of receiving options behind Austin without much separation between them. Chris Givens likely enters camp as the team’s top option on the perimeter after leading the receiving corps with 569 yards last year. Kenny Britt, Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick all will be vying for playing time as well.

In addition, Isaiah Pead and third-round pick Tre Mason will likely battle for the backup role to starter Zac Stacy at running back.

Prospects.

The Rams sit looking up at the best division in football. Seattle and San Francisco met in the NFC Championship game last season and the Arizona Cardinals were playing as well as anyone at the end of the regular season.

St. Louis faces the real possibility of being an improved team but still not seeing much improvement in their overall record.

Sam Bradford is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams could take a bigger leap than anticipated if Bradford can finally take the step forward in proving he can be one of the league’s better signal callers. Bradford was completing nearly 61 percent of his passes and had posted a 14-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio before his season ended due to injury.

The Rams keep taking baby steps in their quest to improve from their decade of futility. However, they’ll need more than baby steps of improvement to run down the teams at the top of their division.

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Of the rookie QBs, Marcus Mariota’s having the steadier preseason

Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston AP

Time will tell whether the Buccaneers made the right call going with Jameis Winston over Marcus Mariota, more so than preseason stats or the Sept. 13 regular season opener.

But what the first two picks in this year’s draft have shown thus far is that while they’re both rookies, Mariota’s playing the steadier football of the two.

Via John Glennon of the Tennesseean, Mariota has completed 70.4 percent of his passes, turned it over twice, and has a passer rating of 84.2 compared to Winston’s 49.0 percent, two turnovers and 52.7 passer rating.

Of course, Mariota’s turnovers came on his first two preseason series, and he hasn’t had one since. Winston sandwiched a good game his second time out between two clunkers,

Mariota has led scoring drives on 4-of-10 preseason possessions and been sacked twice, while Winston led the Bucs to four scores in 20 possessions and has taken seven sacks.

While those numbers stand in stark contrast, some context is also demanded. Mariota’s playing with a better line than Winston has access to, and isn’t being asked to do as much on his own. But for the moment, the No, 2 is outplaying the No. 1, which makes the opener a compelling game regardless.

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Raiders lose Menelik Watson to ruptured Achilles tendon

Menelik Watson AP

Raiders starting right tackle Menelik Watson suffered a serious injury in Sunday night’s preseason game.

Watson tweeted after the game that he has ruptured his Achilles tendon. That is almost always a season-ending injury.

The Raiders’ second-round pick in 2013, Watson was a project when he was drafted: He grew up in England and had played only two seasons of football in his life. But he started nine games last year and all three preseason games and was projected to be the Week One starter at right tackle this year. Instead he’ll spend the year rehabbing.

“I will be back stronger than ever that’s a promise. Main thing is supporting the team right now,” Watson wrote on Twitter. “To the Raider Nation I love you so much. There is NO I mean NO fanbase like ours. Thank you for all the support.”

Watson was replaced by Austin Howard in the Raiders’ lineup on Sunday night, and Howard is now projected as Oakland’s starting right tackle.

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Cowboys seem content with their running back committee

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

It seems almost counterintuitive to the way the Cowboys work.

But after letting league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray go in free agency, and not making a move for any replacement, or trading for a guy like Adrian Peterson, the Cowboys seem determined to go with their running back by committee.

In Saturday’s game against the Vikings, Joseph Randle started and had six carries for 15 yards. Darren McFadden took the second quarter and added four carries for 37 yards. While it may not be Murray, getting 10 for 52 out of the pair of them is a solid start.

I thought they both did a good job,” quarterback Tony Romo said, via Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com. “I thought the looks were a little tougher for Joe early on with the way they played it, then we got to some runs we could attack them with and it opened up some holes. Darren obviously did good on those and made some explosive runs.

“But sometimes the dirty ones are some of the best ones too.”

So as much as it made sense that they might pursue more of a bell-cow back, Jones seemed content going with the duo into the regular season.

“I see how we can line up certainly this coming week but I see how we can line up against the Giants, yes, I do,” Jones said. “You say, ‘Well, couldn’t you see it before?’ Now, I saw the same things before. I expect [Randle] to give us and has the talent to make some of the plays we saw him make tonight. I certainly know [McFadden] can make them and [Lance] Dunbar can do the same. If they’re healthy, I’ll take their skill and what they can bring and go to the game against the Giants and won’t ask for any more.”

Going with that approach is going to put more pressure on Romo and their offensive line this year, but they seem comfortable with that for the time being. But if Randle doesn’t rise to the challenge and McFadden follows his career trajectory, they’re going to wonder why they let such a large part of their offense walk.

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Concussion trailer emerges, 10 days before the launch of the season

Comic-Con International 2015 - Warner Bros. Presentation Getty Images

Last year, an unsavory — and unexpected — piece of film emerged on the first Monday after the launch of the NFL regular season. This year, an expected (but for the league still unsavory) piece of film has emerged on the last Monday before the week in which the NFL regular season returns.

Peter King of TheMMQB.com has debuted the trailer for Concussion, the film starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy. In a corresponding interview with writer/director Peter Landesman, King asked if Landesman is trying to drive people away from football.

“I was very focused on this story,” Landesman said. “I don’t feel responsible or connected to the consequences. Storytellers can’t be. Otherwise you get hamstrung by your own conscience. You just have to tell the truth with the most integrity that you can.”

While Landesman may not be trying to drive people away from football, the studio’s decision to make the first trailer of the film exclusively available to a website that attracts football fans shows that the movie will be marketed directly to those whose minds could change about the sport. The risk, of course, is that football fans will be the least inclined to go see the movie, opting to enjoy football without paying attention to the reality that the truth about head trauma could cause the sport eventually to diminish or to disappear.

Neither is likely; as Landesman accurately puts it, football has now simply joined the long list of things that can be hazardous to one’s health — as if no one already knew that football can be hazardous to one’s health.

“It’s the same with smoking, drinking and doing drugs,” Landesman told King. “I like to think in some ways that life is an occupational hazard. Something we do in our life is going to kill us; maybe now, maybe fifty years from now. You have to choose what those things are. We love to drink and be merry and be happy, we know it’s not good for us, but we do it. It’s about making adult choices.”

The makers of Concussion hope that plenty of people will make the choice on Christmas and immediately thereafter to see Concussion. It remains unclear whether the choice of promoting a movie that doesn’t celebrate football to an audience inclined to celebrate football will help achieve that goal.

It is clear that the NFL won’t be thrilled about the film. In May, the league already was planning a response to Concussion at an ownership meeting. The trailer, which makes use of the NFL shield and team logos, will surely prompt even more planning.

In the end, it could be that the NFL simply adopts the Ballers approach to Concussion: Privately, be upset and, publicly, say as little as possible. By the time the postseason begins on January 16, there’s a chance Concussion already will be gone from most American multiplexes.

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Carson Palmer’s off night caused by Raiders, holding ball too long

Carson Palmer AP

While the Raiders might have left last night’s game feeling encouraged by the way their young defense played, the old quarterback on the other side didn’t reach expectations.

Because while Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer had been efficient in his first two starts coming back from last year’s torn ACL, he was sloppy Sunday night, and his coach wasn’t ready to put it all on bad routes or bad protection.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball out of our hands sometimes,” Bruce Arians said, via Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. “I thought we held it a little bit longer today. Our backs could have helped a couple times to protect [Palmer].

“I thought we were just out of sync. They did a good job of loading up the box and making the run game tough.”

Granted, Khalil Mack and the Raiders were making things difficult on Palmer, who was 8-of-22 passing for 103 yards and two interceptions. He was also sacked three times, but Arians didn’t pin that on the like.

“It was just one guy on one guy most of the time,” Arians said. “Carson’s got to get the ball out of his hands. He can’t be looking for three and four (options) against that rush.”

The way their season ended last year, it’s almost easy to forget the Cards were one of the strongest teams in the NFL at the time of Palmer’s injury. Some hiccups are to be expected in the process (of getting ready for a season in general and coming back from injury in particular), but Palmer nearly created his own problem by raising expectations in his first two outings.

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Khalil Mack stars on good night for Raiders defense

Khalil Mack AP

The third preseason game is often called a dress rehearsal for the regular season.

If that’s true of the Raiders-Cardinals game on Sunday night, Khalil Mack is going to steal the show in 2015. Mack was all but unblockable in the first half of the game, which ended with his second sack of Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. Mack also stripped the ball from running back David Johnson on a third down, which the Cardinals recovered for a loss before Chandler Catanzaro missed a 54-yard field goal.

Palmer was under pressure from Mack and other Raiders all night and the Cardinals will need better efforts up front from a line that’s in flux thanks to Bobby Massie’s suspension to start the season and Mike Iupati’s knee injury. Palmer was sacked three times and finished 8-of-22 for 103 yards and two interceptions.

While Mack is breaking out on the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders are hoping for the same from first-round pick Amari Cooper. Cooper had four catches for 62 yards and showed very well against Patrick Peterson, but neither he nor any of the other starters could get into the end zone. Derek Carr didn’t convert enough third downs while throwing often — he was 18-of-34 for 213 yards overall — but had the Raiders on a good drive to open the third quarter until he threw a pass that Cardinals cornerback Cariel Brooks picked off for an 81-yard touchdown.

His night ended there, but there was more to like than dislike for the Raiders starters on both sides of the ball Sunday night.

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With next court date coming, no momentum toward Brady settlement

Tom Brady, Kony Ealy AP

On Monday, the NFL and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady return to court for a third — and presumably final — hearing regarding the legality of the four-game suspension imposed in May on Brady. While Judge Richard M. Berman has done his best to try to push the two sides toward a settlement, there’s no indication that any progress has been made.

Then again, there’s no reason to make progress in advance of Monday’s in-court proceedings, where Judge Berman once again will try to twist arms. It’s already a deadline-driven business, and there’s no deadline like appearing in court before a judge who will be issuing a ruling soon, absent an agreement.

The NFL and NFL Players Association have jointly requested that Judge Berman issue a ruling by September 4, six days before the Week One game between the Steelers and Patriots. Judge Berman hasn’t promised a decision by then, possibly hoping that the uncertainty will push the two sides closer together.

A settlement remains possible even if not likely, especially if Judge Berman tells the two sides that there will be no clear winner and no clear loser if they force him to issue a ruling. For example, he could kick the case back for another appeal hearing with a different hearing officer, or he could rule in the NFL’s favor but enter an order allowing Brady to play while the appeal process above Judge Berman plays out.

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Menelik Watson leaves with ankle injury

Arizona Cardinals v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

The Raiders have lost a starting offensive lineman in the first quarter of Sunday night’s game with the Cardinals.

Right tackle Menelik Watson injured his ankle and had to be helped back to the locker room shortly after being flagged for holding Alex Okafor on a passing play. The Raiders announced a short time later that he would not return to the game and Michele Tafoya of Sunday Night Football reported from the sideline that Watson was quite emotional while talking to the trainers about his condition.

Austin Howard took over for Watson, who has made 12 starts in two years with the team that made him a second-round pick in 2013. Okafor beat Howard to force a poor pass by Derek Carr later in the game and he’s been an active force for the Cardinals defense in the early portion of the game.

The Raiders defense has also done well, limiting the Cardinals to three first downs on four first quarter possessions. Nate Allen intercepted Carson Palmer early in the game to set up the first of two Sebastian Janikowski field goals.

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Dolphins make 11 cuts on way to 75 players

New York Giants v St. Louis Rams AP

The Dolphins have started clearing out players ahead of Tuesday’s deadline to set a 75-man roster.

None of the names are surprising ones, although the presence of center J.D. Walton on the list is somewhat notable. Walton signed a two-year deal with the Giants in 2014 that guaranteed him $3 million, but the Giants parted ways with Walton after one poor season.

His departure from the Dolphins could signal Mike Pouncey is OK after hurting his knee and it definitely signals that Sam Brenner was the team’s choice as Pouncey’s backup.

Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, guard Bryant Browning, wide receiver LaRon Byrd, wide receiver Kevin Cone, defensive end Ray Drew, wide receiver Tyler McDonald, defensive end Kendall Montgomery, tight end Gerell Robinson, cornerback Sammy Seamster and safety Phillip Thomas were also dropped from the roster on Sunday.

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Sources say Snyder, football operation are on the same page

Robert Griffin III AP

The team’s recent history and more immediate circumstances have created the impression that dysfunction in D.C. has reached full boil. While the franchise is hardly displaying a high degree of competence on a consistent basis, the situation isn’t quite as bad as it’s currently being portrayed.

Multiple sources tell PFT that, contrary to a Sunday afternoon report from ESPN, no schism exists between owner Daniel Snyder and the people he has hired to run the football operations regarding the status of quarterback Robert Griffin III.

ESPN claims that the coaching staff and front-official officials want to move on from Griffin, but that they are “meeting resistance” from owner Daniel Snyder. Three different sources have told PFT that this simply isn’t true. (One source called it “spaghetti journalism,” with reports being thrown against the wall at a time when a situation that seems to be disintegrating cries out for more and more efforts to advance the story.)

As one source explained it to PFT, everyone in Washington is on the same page regarding the roles and responsibilities. G.M. Scot McCloughan is in charge of the roster, which soon will be at 53, and coach Jay Gruden decides who will play.

Reports of a two-hour meeting between Snyder and McCloughan may have pushed the needle in the direction of a disagreement between McCloughan/Gruden and Snyder, but a source with knowledge of the situation told PFT that the meeting was focused on sorting out exactly what happened with Griffin being cleared to play after suffering a concussion and then not being cleared to play. That discrepancy fueled the latest spike in perceived dysfunction, but it’s not yet gotten to the point where the guy whose primary job is to sign the checks is getting in the way of the people whose primary jobs are to run the football team.

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Bears release Tim Jennings

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Bears parted ways with one longtime cornerback earlier this offseason when Charles Tillman signed with the Panthers as a free agent.

They said goodbye to another one on Sunday when they released Tim Jennings. Jennings started 74 games for the Bears since signing with the team in 2010 and only missed two games during his five years with the team. Jennings had nine interceptions in 2012 and 16 overall during his time in Chicago.

Jennings, who made two Pro Bowls with the Bears, started the first two preseason games, but was playing in the second half this week after players like Sherrick McManis and Alan Ball had already gotten into the game. Given the ever-present need for corners around the league, Jennings should get at least a look in the near future.

The Cowboys, who lost Orlando Scandrick and employ former Bears assistant Rod Marinelli as their defensive coordinator, could be a possibility. Jennings pleaded guilty to reckless driving this year to resolve a DWI case, but hasn’t received any league discipline at this point.

The Bears will also be missing safety Ryan Mundy in their secondary this year. Mundy is headed to injured reserve because of a hip injury. They also formally placed wide receiver Kevin White on the PUP list after shin surgery and released running back Daniel Thomas.

Defensive back Malcolm Bronson, tight end Kevin Greene, tackle Cameron Jefferson, wide receiver Jeremy Kelley, cornerback Al Louis-Jean, long snapper Rick Lovato, wide receiver Levi Norwood, defensive end Olsen Pierre, tight end Chris Pantale and wide receiver John Chiles were also cut as the Bears got down to 76 players.

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Brandon Bostick cut as Vikings drop to 78 players

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Tight end Brandon Bostick was released by the Packers shortly after he mishandled an onside kick against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game this year and signed with the Vikings a couple of days later.

Nothing quite so dramatic happened during Bostick’s tenure with Minnesota and there won’t be any in the future now that he’s been released by the team. Bostick had one catch for four yards in the preseason and found himself behind Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and rookie MyCole Pruitt this summer.

The Vikings also parted ways with running back Joe Banyard, who played 18 games for them over the past two seasons.

Cornerback Jalil Carter, cornerback Justin Coleman, cornerback Demarcus Van Dyke, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, wide receiver Jordan Leslie, tackle Stephen Goodin, linebacker Josh Kaddu, defensive lineman Crishon Rose and defensive lineman Caesar Rayford were the other cuts in Minnesota.

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Tre Mason questionable for Week One

Kendall Langford, Tre Mason AP

The Rams used a first-round pick on Todd Gurley this year and drafted Tre Mason in the third round in 2014, but they may be starting Benny Cunningham in the season opener against the Seahawks.

Mason hurt his hamstring in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Colts and didn’t return to the field. Coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday that Mason won’t play in Thursday night’s preseason finale and that he’s questionable for Week One.

Gurley is returning from a torn ACL and started team drills last week, but hasn’t played in the preseason and Fisher said the team plans to “bring him along slow” when asked about Gurley’s status for the game against Seattle. Pushing to get either of them back for September 13 at the risk of losing them for some of the 15 to come would go against the patience they’ve shown with Gurley since he joined the club.

Cunningham ran 66 times for 246 yards and caught 45 passes in 16 games for St. Louis last season.

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Cardinals-Raiders airs tonight on NBC

Arizona Cardinals v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

Week Three of the NFL preseason comes to an end tonight in Oakland, where the Cardinals take on the Raiders in an 8:00 p.m. ET kickoff on NBC.

Carson Palmer returns to Oakland to take on one of his former teams, while the Raiders will see if Derek Carr and Amari Cooper can keep their impressive preseason going.

If you can’t watch on TV, you can watch tonight’s coverage on your desktop or laptop at NBC Sports Live Extra, or you can watch it on your mobile device by downloading the NBC Sports Live Extra app.

Halftime of tonight’s game will include Mike Florio, Rodney Harrison and Paul Burmeister doing a mini-version of their NBCSN Pro Football Talk show, with commentary on all the latest news around the NFL.

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Washington says Cousins hasn’t been named the Week One starter

Kirk Cousins AP

During the Sunday broadcast of the preseason game between the Texans and Saints, FOX displayed a large graphic with photos of the three potential Week One quarterbacks in Washington, along with a claim at the bottom of the screen that Kirk Cousins has been named the Week One starter.

It was couched not as a report but as a fact. And it was news to me. It was also news to the team.

The team says it’s not true, deferring to the statements made after Saturday night’s game by coach Jay Gruden. Starter Robert Griffin III, who is cleared to practice but not play after suffering a concussion 10 days ago against the Lions, could still be cleared to play in the regular-season opener.

“I’m not going to announce anything right now,” Gruden said on Saturday night regarding Week One against Miami. “First of all, I need to read these reports. These reports are confusing. We need to sit down and talk to all the players involved, and make our decision as a staff and go from there. This was all put on us in the last minute. We had a great game. Kirk [Cousins] played great. Colt [McCoy] played great. And the offensive line played excellent. Defense got some turnovers. I was happy with the way we played, and the rest of this stuff will sort itself out.”

Gruden is right; there are so many conflicting reports and accounts that everyone is confused about what’s happening. Including whoever made the graphic at FOX.

UPDATE 7:03 p.m. ET: FOX has now fixed the graphic, with the addition of a question mark.

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