The St. Louis Rams were something of an anomaly last season. They began the year with no expectations, and were quickly left behind as the rest of the NFC West got off to a good start. Then, the Arizona Cardinals fell flat after a 4-0 start and the Rams had actually picked up a few quality wins.
They finished with a 7-8-1 record, but the key to success in this division is to ... beat the rest of the division. St. Louis managed to do that, for the most part. They went 4-1-1 within the NFC West, with the tie coming against the San Francisco 49ers, who made it to the Super Bowl. One of their wins was also over the 49ers.
Still, they're not yet counted among the NFL's elite. They're quietly building a solid defense, which is how both the Seattle Seahawks and the 49ers rose to prominence, but they're not at that level yet. They'll need to make some smart moves in the offseason to really get things going.
Biggest need: Free safety
The Rams have a couple needs that need filling this offseason, but free safety is the one spot that won't have a starter next year. While Quintin Mikell played well at the strong safety position, Craig Dahl struggled through most of the season.
Dahl is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason and it would be shocking if the Rams offer him a contract. He missed tons of tackles this year, including one in each of St. Louis' final eight games.
Mikell is getting up there in years as well. Plus he's got a huge cap hit this coming season, so it's likely that the Rams will bring in a younger guy to compete and hopefully take the starting role previously filled by Dahl. Fortunately, this is a very deep safety draft class, for the first time in years.
Other needs: Offensive tackle, strongside linebacker, running back
Rodger Saffold came back from injury and played decent football on the left side, and Barry Richardson had a strong finish to the season on the right side. However, the former is still very unproven and the latter struggled a lot throughout the first half of the season.
The Rams are sticking with Sam Bradford at the quarterback position and they desperately need to keep him upright and protected. If they are unable to do that, they won't go anywhere.
James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar are pretty good linebackers, but the Rams don't have much on the strong side. They need to address the position going forward.
At the running back position, the Rams will be without Steven Jackson for the first time in a long time. He recently voided his contract for 2013, meaning that he won't be back at the $7 million figure that he was signed for. The Rams didn't want to pay it to him and he knew that, so he basically took his release a few days early to get a jump start on free agency.
The team does have Daryl Richardson, but it's really up in the air as to what that actually means going forward. He played well in 2011, but it's unclear if he's the unquestioned starter or if the Rams will add competition. At the very least, he needs a backup.
NFL Draft outlook: Two first rounders for St. Louis
The Rams have a high pick, once again, but they also have a late one. The Rams have two first-round picks this year, with one coming from the Washington Redskins due to last year's trade that saw the Redskins take quarterback Robert Griffin III.
On top of having two first-round picks, the Rams have picks in the rest of the rounds, but no doubles outside of the first. This is a strong draft class for safeties and offensive linemen as far as depth goes, so the Rams are in really good shape. The team wants to build through the draft, so it's a win/win.
The latest mock draft form SB Nation has the team drafting Lane Johnson, an offensive tackle out of Oklahoma, with their No. 16 overall pick int he first round. Then, they have wide receiver Keenan Allen out of California going at pick No. 2..
Salary cap situation: Wiggle room gained
The Rams had one of the best cap situations in the NFL a couple seasons ago, but they gave big contracts to Chris Long and James Laurinaitis. The former is set to have a cap hit of more than $14 million in 2013, and the latter is right around $12 million per year.
St. Louis has already made some moves to save money, though. Wayne Hunter, the primary backup offensive tackle, was released, which saved the Rams around $4 million next year. Then there's the Jackson contract off the books, which saved them $7 million. In all, they have around $13 million in space after their moves. They can do more, though.
Mikell, as mentioned above, has a cap hit of around $9 million. The Rams will try to get him to restructure but it's unclear if they'd cut him if he doesn't agree.