With just 12.1 points per game, the St. Louis Rams finished the 2011 season with the lowest amount of points scored per game en route to a 2-14 finish after an encouraging 7-9 season in Sam Bradford’s rookie year. The Rams selected the Oklahoma product with the top pick in the 2010 draft, but they were back to their 2009 futility with just two wins. Bradford was poor with a 70.5 QB Rating and was, in all honesty, overrated in his rookie season. He struggled last year with a 53.5% completion percentage and an average of just 6.1 yards per attempt.
On defense, the Rams were at least mediocre with the pass, but that was hardly any solace after allowing opponents to have an easy time running it against them with an average of 4.8 yards per carry against. The team started the season by losing their first six games and ended it by losing their final seven, so things didn’t start or end well in St. Louis last year.
2011 Record 2-14
CB Cortland Finnegan
DT Kendall Langford
WR Steve Smith
RB Isaiah Pead (draft)
WR Brian Quick (draft)
DT Michael Brockers (draft)
CB Janoris Jenkins (draft)
C Scott Wells
LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar
LB Mario Haggan
WR Brandon Lloyd
G Jacob Bell
CB Ron Bartell
DE James Hall
C Jason Brown
DT Fred Robbins
DT Justin Bannan
LB Chris Chamerblain
The St. Louis Rams quarterback situation was not an enviable one, as the team was second-to-last in the NFL in net yards per passing attempt with 4.8. Even when Sam Bradford was healthy, the second-year QB was largely ineffective with running back Steven Jackson being a more consistent source of yardage than the 24-year-old quarterback. Not all the blame can be put on Bradford, as the team’s pass blocking was well below-average, leaving Bradford to be sacked 36 times. He’s already taken 70 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, so the lack of passing protection is a bigger concern to some than the play of the quarterback.
Still, Bradford looked like a deer-in-headlights when being rushed. He only threw six picks last season, but he was inaccurate. He will be better in year three, but one can wonder if Bradford is legitimate and can bounce back after a poor 2011. He had an encouraging rookie year, and 2012 will be an important year for him to try and dispel those who doubt that he can be an effective starting QB.
The running back position will once again be a solid one, as it has always been with Steven Jackson lining up in the backfield for the Rams. Although he wasn’t at his best last season, he was easily their best offensive player with over 1,100 rushing yards, 42 catches, and a solid YPC average of 4.4. Backup Isaiah Pead has plenty of promise and is an explosive young back who is a great pass-catcher with potentially game-changing speed. Pead has a lot of upside, and all eyes should be fixed on this rookie. The depth beyond those two is questionable, but Jeff Fisher likes seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson, who is a big back with talent but struggled with injuries playing D-II ball in college.
The wide receiver corps is of concern after the loss of Brandon Lloyd, but a lot of those concerns can be quelled if Steve Smith can get his career back on track after devastating knee injuries that costed him his days with the New York Giants. He failed to get things going last year for the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Rams have signed him this offseason and Smith looks like he is back in form. He used to be one of the best possession wide receivers in the game and was consistently a 100-catch guy with Eli Manning throwing it to him. Smith will play on the outside with Danny Amendola, another good possession receiver back from an injury last year, moving into the slot. Smith has looked great this offseason and has been faster than expected, so that’s certainly huge news for the Rams; he’s going to be their top target if healthy.
The way the rest of the wide receivers will line-up is tough to predict, as Smith and Amendola are the only known quantities- provided Smith is healthy. Danario Alexander has a lot of potential, but Brandon Gibson outplayed him last season and has been lining up as a starter for the team this offseason. Fourth-round wideout Chris Givens has good speed (under a 4.4 forty), but he isn’t a consistent receiver and will likely be beneath second-rounder Brian Quick. Still, Quick isn’t going to get the job easy and has actually been outplayed by Givens this offseason, but Quick is more talented and has more upside. Second-year wideout Greg Salas is also competing for one of the two receiver spots on the outside since moving from the slot, but I expect Gibson and Smith to win the two starting jobs with Amendola cemented in the middle.
Brain Schottenheimer loves utilizing tight ends in his offense, and the new Rams offensive coordinator will figure to use Lance Kendricks heavily. Expect many targets to come his way, especially since Dustin Keller would receive over 100 targets for the New York Jets when Schottenheimer coached there. Kendricks is firmly entrenched as the starter for the team, with backup TE Michael Hoomanawanui being used exclusively as a blocker. Kendricks is a guy Schottenheimer is high on, and he called him a “terrific all-around player” at one point. Last year’s second-rounder out of Wisconsin looked subpar last season after dropping many passes and failing to make an impact as a rookie.
On the offensive line, Roger Saffold and Jason Smith are both question marks, with Smith being on the hot seat in his contract year. Saffold hasn’t exactly been a good blindside protector for rookie Sam Bradford, as he is a subpar pass blocker and far too undisciplined due to the amount of penalties he commits. Smith agreed to take a pay cut, and this is his last chance to prove to the league that he isn’t a bust as a former No. 2 pick in 2009. The Rams signed Barry Richardson to back up Smith on the right side, but Richardson is one of the worst offensive linemen in the league; just ask any Kansas City Chiefs fan who had to suffer through his performances last year.
Fifth-round left guard Rokevious Watkins was supposed to be in a tight competition for the left guard spot with Bryan Mattison, but he started off camp slow after reporting to camp 16 pounds overweight. Watkins could challenge Mattison later on, as Mattison certainly doesn’t have the job locked up.
Harvey Dahl was part of a good offensive line for the Atlanta Falcons a couple of years ago before signing with the Rams last season. He and newly signed center Scott Wells are the only two solid players on the line. Dahl was forced to move to right tackle last season after Smith went down, and that didn’t bode well for anyone. At guard, Dahl is an absolute mauler and one of the best run blockers at the position. He’s also a good pass-blocking guard and should combine with Wells to form a solid interior. Wells was their second best signing this offseason after cornerback Cortland Finnegan, and he is a great run blocker and pass blocker.
Veteran defensive end James Hall is a key loss for the St. Louis Rams, and Fred Robbins was also a key cog in the team’s strong defensive line for a few seasons. Both players, however, aren’t getting any younger and moving forward was the best decision. Defensive end Chris Long may not provide anything as a run defender, but he is one of the best pass rushers in the game after recording 21 QB hits last season. Second-year DE Robert Quinn is a fast and explosive edge rusher with all the physical tools to have a big year in 2012 after recording 12 QB hits as a rookie.
On the inside of the defensive line, the Rams look like they have a solid duo in rookie Michael Brockers and offseason signing Kendall Langford. While with the Dolphins, Langford was one of the ten best 3-4 ends in the league and a key cog for one of the best lines in the NFL. Brockers is a work-in-progress as a pass rusher and a project player overall, but he has a lot of talent and athleticism. His upside is for the future with good coaching, but he should make a good impact in run defense as a rookie. The tackles won’t be as outstanding as the ends, but they should be above-average and give the Rams a great defensive line overall.
The linebacker situation was, for some, a competition between three players for two spots on the outside. Mario Haggan, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and Rocky McIntosh are three players competing for the OLB slots, but there isn’t a question as to which two players should be starting. Haggan is an underrated veteran OLB who is as consistent as it gets, and he is a great two-down run stopper who only struggles in coverage. He’s the best of three of them and clearly deserves a starting spot. Jo-Lonn Dunbar was terrible last season after missing 13 tackles, but he didn’t fit the New Orleans Saints system last season and showed talent earlier in his career. Dunbar has potential, and he is certainly better than Rocky McIntosh, who cannot get off of blocks and does not deserve to hold a starting spot.
Ron Bartell was a solid cornerback on this team who will be missed, and he was the Rams only solidifying presence at the position. He missed all of last season with an injury and, for as solid as he is, the dynamic Cortland Finnegan is clearly the better player. Finnegan is one of the best corners- players, really- in the league and has the ability to line up inside or outside and make life extremely difficult for receivers. The pesky CB is also a strong run defender who can make an impact rushing the passer on NB blitzes. Rookie Janoris Jenkins has huge maturity and attitude questions, but there is no denying the former Florida Gators standout’s talent, and the pressure will be on him as a rookie. He has already withstood that pressure so far, and Jenkins has looked like “the man” and the next great rookie corner so far in training camp. He should be an impact rookie if he doesn’t prove his detractors right about his character concerns.
Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl are both competing for the starting strong safety spot, and, if converted to safety, rookie Trumaine Johnson could also compete for that spot. I honestly think that Stewart ends up narrowly beating out Dahl based on how they played last season, as Stewart recorded 11 tips last season with 76 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, and three sacks.
Free safety Quintin Mikell is one of my favorite players in the game, and he was one of the best safeties in the league while with the Philadelphia Eagles. Only Troy Polamalu had a better all-around game than Mikell, as the Eagles superstar was clearly one of the most underrated players in the league with his ability to make a big impact both in coverage and in run defense as one of the most consistent players in football. But last season, Mikell’s play took a turn for the worst. He was signed by the Rams in the offseason, and it was a big signing. In year one, the elite safety didn’t replace O.J. Atogwe effectively. He wasn’t his usually tidy self in coverage, and he made some horrible errors tackling-wise and misjudged many angles; something I never thought I would see from one of the best defensive backs in the game. Mikell should bounce back next season, because I just can’t see how he doesn’t.
Former Tennessee Titans long-time coach Jeff Fisher has his first head coaching gig since leaving the Titans, and he has a tough task ahead of him. Fisher has to figure out which receivers to pick to help out Sam Bradford, and he also has to develop the young QB after a poor, injury-riddled 2011 season. Not only does he need to work with Bradford, but he also needs to figure out if he has an effective QB in his hands. That’s not an easy task, and the fact that he has two poor tackles to work with doesn’t help him or Bradford.
The good news is that the St. Louis Rams defense should be much better next season, with two stars in the secondary in Cortland Finnegan and Quintin Mikell. Janoris Jenkins looks good, and the linebackers should be about average. The defensive line looks dynamic with one of the best young DE pairings in the league and an above-average duo on the interior.
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will try to effectively issue a scheme that has brought him much criticism in the past when he held the same post with the Jets. He wants to involve the tight end more, but he needs to make sure that Lance Kendricks can make the jump in year two. Schottenheimer also needs to make sure he and Bradford are on the same page, because the QB-TE hook-up didn’t work last year.
Robert Quinn showed plenty of promise as a rookie with 13 QB hits and six sacks, and it’s time for him to make the jump into one of the best DEs in the NFC. He has all the tools to do it with his athleticism and speed off the edge. Quinn is an explosive pass rusher who should be able to notch ten sacks this season, or at least provide a lot of pressure in the process.
2012 Prediction 5-11
The St. Louis Rams had a great offseason, and adding new head coach Jeff Fisher has a lot to do with it. He will prove in his first season that he is the right guy to turn this franchise around, but it’s not going to be easy. Their passing attack is going to be a big weakness, because they lack a big-play receiver. Steve Smith should be back, but he and Danny Amendola are merely possession receivers. Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells are two great offensive linemen, but the other three OLs are well below-average. The pass protection will likely be poor for Bradford, and one can only wonder how many games this team will lose if Bradford gets injured within the first ten games of the season.
Despite the bad, there is plenty of good on defense with a much stronger secondary that should be one of the better units in the league. The linebackers should be able to effectively stop the run and help out a great group of young defensive linemen. The offense will struggle, but the defense should help lead this team to four or five wins. The running back duo of Isaiah Pead and Steven Jackson will relieve pressure off of Bradford, because they are both good pass-catchers. Jackson and Pead mix well, with Jackson being the 1,000-yard workhorse back, and Pead being the explosive change-of-pace back with a lot of upside.