In a loaded NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have been quietly going about their business. The Rams have watched their division rivals deal with season-ending injuries (Darnell Dockett, Kendall Hunter), contract disputes (Marshawn Lynch, Alex Boone) and off-field issues (Aldon Smith, Daryl Washington).
Outside of the loss of reserve running back Isaiah Pead, the Rams have been steadily preparing for the start of the season without many bumps in the road.
St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher. Here are five questions that will determine if the Rams will improve that total this year.
1. Can Sam Bradford finally put it all together?
Sam Bradford is entering his fifth NFL season and last under his rookie contract with the Rams. He’s healthy once again after a knee injury last season. The Rams receiving corps appears to be the most talented group of Bradford’s tenure and the offensive line no longer appears to be a significant liability.
It’s now time to see if Bradford can live up to the lofty expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick and guide the Rams to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Bradford had completed 61 percent of his passes last season with a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven games before going down with a torn ACL. It was a promising sign that Bradford may still have it in him.
2. Just how good can the Rams front seven be?
Robert Quinn and Chris Long combined for 27.5 sacks last season for St. Louis. Michael Brockers added 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and the team went out and added Aaron Donald with second of two first-round draft picks. With William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Kendall Langford still as rotational players, the Rams defensive line could be one of the league’s most formidable units.
Add in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker and the front seven for St. Louis looks like the strength of the team. Is it enough to vault the Rams defense into the conversation of the league’s best? That will rely on the answer to our next question.
3. Will secondary play be St. Louis’ Achilles heel?
As strong as the front seven is for the Rams, the secondary has its question marks. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams are relying on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to take hold of the starting jobs at cornerback. At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald were shaky at times last year too.
Rookies Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Mo Alexander at safety could help stabilize the back-end of the defense. The dominant pass rush should give the secondary a hand as well by putting repeated pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the Rams defense will likely only reach its ceiling if the play from the secondary can be adequate.
4. Do the Rams finally have a competent receiving corps?
The Rams have thrown draft pick, after draft pick, after draft pick at the receiver position in hopes of improving a group that has been perpetually lacking in St. Louis. Five receivers have been selected in the first four rounds in the last three years: Tavon Austin (1st round, 2013), Stedman Bailey (3rd round, 2013) Austin Pettis (3rd round, 2011), Brian Quick (2nd round, 2012) and Chris Givens (4th round, 2012). They also signed former Tennessee first round pick Kenny Britt this offseason.
Finally, the group may be good enough to give Sam Bradford the weapons he needs offensively. Austin caught 40 passes as a rookie to lead the Rams receivers. Britt looks to restart his career after a disappointing season where he fell out of favor in Tennessee. Quick, Givens, Pettis and Bailey give St. Louis capable depth.
A strong year from the receiving corps could help get the Rams over the hump.
5. Can Michael Sam make the roster and can he contribute if he does?
As detailed earlier, the Rams defensive line is loaded with star talent and quality depth. It makes it a difficult task for Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster, to earn his way onto the squad.
Sam has held his own and picked up a sack last week against the Green Bay Packers. The battle for the final roster spot along the defensive line appears to be between Sam, Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and Ethan Westbrooks. If he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster, the Rams could put Sam on their practice squad to develop.
If he does make the roster, Sam will likely be a deep reserve option only at the outset unless he can find his way onto the field in a special teams role.