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By VanRam of Turf Show Times
Hopefully, this year the story for the St. Louis Rams becomes rebound rather than rebuild. New leadership in the form of GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo took over the ruins of a team in decay. As refreshing as it was for fans to finally see serious, knowledgeable, competent football minds running the Rams, the leadership essentially had to start from scratch, hence the 1-15 record last season.
Version 2010 is the most talented Rams team to take the field in years, which is says more about just how far the team has to go as opposed to how far they have come. The jury is still out on the Rams 2010 draft, but the two priors draft classes form the nucleus of a very young team. Players like Donnie Avery, Jason Smith, James Laurinaitis and Chris Long are now considered veterans, and the front office spent the offseason working toward that end.
What looks like another solid draft, added another group of players loaded with potential, not the least of which is first overall pick QB Sam Bradford. The former Oklahoma QB, who we're told was asked by the Department of Defense to impart lessons about what pinpoint accuracy looks like to Predator drones, stands at the center of the whole project, the cornerstone of the franchise. The good news is that this is a Rams team catching their first whiffs of a dizzying bipolar upswing; the bad news is that so many young players in key roles means that the Rams are still not likely to be competing for anything other than a cheaper haul in the next NFL Draft.
Subtractions: QB Marc Bulger, OT Alex Barron, LB Paris Lennon, DT Adam Carriker, DE Leonard Little
Most of the needed roster turnover happened the year before, sometimes on purpose, something because of injuries. The biggest change is at QB, where a battered and gun shy Marc Bulger was finally cut loose. Bradford's rookie success will hinge in part on changes to the offensive line, notably the addition of second round pick Rodger Saffold to hold down the right tackle spot. The linebackers get the biggest upgrade. Carpenter was a man without a role in Dallas' 3-4 defense, and the Rams believe that the former first round pick can rejuvenate himself on the outside in Spagnuolo's 4-3 defense. Diggs and Carpenter make the Rams bigger on the outside, and will hopefully provide a fix for a defense that struggled against the run. Robbins should bolster the defensive line, even as a rotational player. He is not a true gap filler but he can tie up blockers enough to allow Chris Long to wreck havoc in the backfield. Nobody will notice the absence of Carriker, since injuries have limited his playing time in recent years.
Steven Jackson was the only thing worth watching on that side of ball, and somehow managed to have the second best season of his career despite a unit that hit rock bottom. Health questions aside, Jackson will need some help from the other moving parts of the offense if his stats are going to mean anything for the team as a whole. Where will that help come from?
The wide receivers have two things in common: youth and inexperience. Donnie Avery, entering his third season, is the old man of the bunch. Next to him is what the coaches believe to be a complimentary group of receivers, each with a slightly different strength, yet ideally capable of getting yards after the catch. Fans and coaches alike are counting on a health Laurent Robinson to pick up where he left off before suffering a season ending injury in week three. After that Brandon Gibson, Keenan Burton and fourth round pick Mardy Gilyard will all compete for snaps. The Rams flirted with none other than Terrell Owens in the days leading up to camp. If anything comes of that, Owens could hopefully give the Rams a multidimensional offense as an experienced receiving threat and someone to keep coverage lax on the others.
At tight end, Daniel Fells is the de facto starter with blocking specialist Billy Bajema behind him. They added two rookies via the draft to round out the group. Illinois product Michael Hoomanawanui is a solid blocker whose decent hands might get him some looks in the red zone, a veritable foreign land for the Rams lately. Sixth round pick Fendi Onobun continues the tradition of Division I basketball stars coming to the NFL as a tight end. How soon and whether or not he pans out remains to be seen.
Up front, the offensive line will look very different. Jason Smith moves to the left side where he should hopefully reprise some of the two point stance blocking that he was so successful with at Baylor. On the right side, Rodger Saffold is a pure drive blocker, so hopefully he can open lanes for Jackson in his first year. In the middle, the Rams return C Jason Brown, a steady, do-it-all presence that bolstered the unit last year. Flanking Brown on the left is Jacob Bell, who can be effective when he can stay healthy. There is an open competition at right guard and either John Greco, Adam Goldberg or Hank Fraley will win out with the others providing good depth.
After a so-so rookie season and a slow start to his sophomore year, DE Chris Long came into his own down the stretch last year. He led the team in QB hurries and was a close second in QB hits; all of which bodes well for improvement as a pass rusher. That will depend on what kind of play the Rams have in the middle and on the opposite side of Long. One of the key offseason additions was DT Fred Robbins. The former Giant gives the Rams an experienced presence in the middle. Ideally, he can be a "good enough" solution and should be an upgrade over last year's cast of undrafted free agents. James Hall is the other starting DE, and the Rams will be hoping that one of three ends selected in the 2010 draft - George Selvie, Eugene Sims and Hall Davis - to add something to the pass rush.
James Laurinaitis made a powerful impression during his rookie campaign. The Rams have been lacking at MLB since London Fletcher left. Laurinaitis proved quite capable of quarterbacking the defense as a rookie and his acumen for the game keeps him a step ahead of opponents. Hopefully, two more Ohio State products, Diggs and Carpenter, playing next to him will improve a unit that's been undersized and far too generous to opponents for too long. David Vobora, Mr. Irrelevant in the 2008 draft, had a strong showing as the starting strongside linebacker last year and will be battling Diggs for that role in camp. As mentioned above, Carpenter and Diggs bulk up the outside linebackers for the Rams, who have been rather smallish at that position in recent seasons.
After a harrowing round of brinkmanship in contract talks with O.J. Atogwe, the Rams re-signed their top defensive playmaker. He agreed to a contract that will give the team something of an evaluation year before a big payday in 2011. It will be in Atogwe's financial interest to get back to form after a season marred by injury in 2009. At strong safety, the Rams have the solid James Butler who has a nice balance between his ability against the run and the pass. Craig Dahl could give Butler a challenge for the starting job after an impressive run filling in for injured starters at both safety spots last year. Newly acquired Kevin Payne gives the Rams versatility in their depth at the position.
Ron Bartell, the team's number one cornerback, played with an injured him most of last season that took away much of his effectiveness. A healthy Bartell improves the unit, but the team will need better results on the other side. Bradley Fletcher, a third round pick last year, made a solid contribution in three games as a starter before a nasty hyperextended knee ended his season. The Iowa product can play well in man coverage and excels at pressing opposing receivers. He could be challenged by this year's third round pick Jerome Murphy. Kevin Dockery will most likely be the team's nickel corner, a role he should be familiar with from his days with the Giants. The Rams had no interceptions from their corners last year, and that will have to change for the unit to be more effective in 2010.
With two of the best legs in the business, K Josh Brown and P Donnie Jones, the Rams had a pretty strong showing on special teams. Their coverage improved greatly, and they finally found a reliable return man in Danny Amendola. The unit should again thrive this season. Rookie WR Mardy Gilyard will compete with Amendola for return duty.
Head coach Steve Spagnuolo had the unenviable job of fielding a competitive team without many players capable of starting. Coaches are judged by their win-loss record, ultimately, but Spags got a mulligan given the state of the roster last year. Instead, his task was to change a losing culture and the associated malaise that infected the roster. On that front, results look good, and with Spagnuolo's steady hand on the wheel the team will put that to the test in year two.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur frustrated plenty of fans last year with a vanilla playbook. Of course, he did not have much to work with as the Rams QBs were awful and the receivers inexperienced. Even with a rookie QB, Shurmur should be able to get a little more creative this year, particularly with the shotgun, Sam Bradford's second language. Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole brings a similar approach to the one Spagnuolo had with the Giants with an emphasis on the aggressive. Rookie special teams coach Tom McMahon had a solid first year and will look to build on that in 2010.
Progress might have to be enough for the Rams in 2010, and progress should be apparent. Even with a rookie QB, the Rams will be a more competitive football team this year. Six wins is an optimistic guess that depends on the ball finally bouncing the right way for this team for a change.