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St. Louis Rams 2014 Season Preview

Aug. 26, 2014 at 1:33 PM   |   Comments

The St. Louis Rams already figured to be entering the season at a crossroad with quarterback Sam Bradford, but a decision on his future may have already been taken out of their hands because of, well, a knee.

With two seasons left on the six-year, $78.05 million deal Bradford signed after getting selected with the top pick of the 2010 draft, it was put up time for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

The wins just hadn't been coming with the 26-year-old under center and his 2013 campaign ended following a torn ACL in Week 7.

Looking to bounce back, Bradford instead saw his upcoming campaign finished before it started as he again tore the ACL in his left knee during the club's third preseason game.

"We've got two issues here I think," said head coach Jeff Fisher. "We lost our starting quarterback, but for Sam personally, it's devastating. The news was devastating to him as you can appreciate. Anyone that's gone through that procedure and the rehab understands, and to have it happen again within the calendar year is very, very difficult."

It also leaves the offense in a difficult spot, with veteran Shaun Hill now in line to be the No. 1 quarterback and second-year pro Austin Davis as the backup.

Bradford's injury put a damper on a season of hope for the Rams, who came into the season having had themselves quite a draft. As owners of two of the first 13 picks, St. Louis was in position to add a pair of impact players right off the bat and did so by grabbing Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson second overall and then making the rich even richer when it added Pittsburgh product Aaron Donald to an already-stacked defensive line.

A few days, and many picks, later the Rams made perhaps one of the most talked about selections Radio City Music Hall ever saw: they took defensive end Michael Sam 249th overall, officially making him the first ever openly gay player to drafted into the NFL.

The Rams knew what they were taking on when they selected Sam and it began that night when his reaction to being drafted was aired on live television and featured Sam sharing a kiss with his boyfriend. That moment, similar to that of many drafted into the NFL, got a reaction across the nation both positive and negative.

But St. Louis insisted that it saw value in Sam as a football player and not as any kind of statement.

"When we got to our pick, or shortly before we got to our pick, Michael's value as a football player was off the charts. We drafted Michael as a football player and he has an opportunity now to come in and compete to try to make our football team," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said days after Sam was selected.

But with all the hoopla of the Sam pick aside, the Rams aren't getting a lot of love for their product on the field thanks to an NFC West that contains the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and powerhouse San Francisco 49ers.

St. Louis, though, isn't sitting ideal. The offense made big strides last season under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, even without Bradford, and the Rams hope the signing of wide receiver Kenny Britt can help elevate the passing game.

Meanwhile, the Rams have made stocking up on the line a priority. In addition to drafting Robinson, much to the delight of all St. Louis running backs, versatile lineman Rodger Saffold was re-signed and former Pro Bowler Davin Joseph was added to the mix as well.

On defense, end Robert Quinn is one of the top pass rushers in all of football and the addition of Donald is just another talented and young piece to the puzzle.

Even after last year's showing -- 13th in points against per game and ninth against the run -- St. Louis made the switch a defensive coordinator Gregg Williams knowing the unit has to be a strength.

"We have to be very good (on defense) to compete in the division, and I think we've got a chance to do that," said Fisher. "We're still going to bring some young guys along, but our front's going to be impressive up front, particularly because of what the guys were able to do the last couple of years."

2013 RECORD: 7-9 (4th, NFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to the Atlanta Falcons in divisional round

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jeff Fisher (14-17-1 in two seasons with Rams, 156-137-1 in 19 seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Schottenheimer (third season with Rams)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gregg Williams (first season with Rams)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Shaun Hill (from Lions), RB Tre Mason (3rd round, Auburn), WR Kenny Britt (from Titans), T Greg Robinson (1st round, Auburn), G Davin Joseph (from Buccaneers), DE Alex Carrington (from Bills), DT Aaron Donald (1st round, Pittsburgh), FS Lamarcus Joyner (2nd round, Florida State)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Kellen Clemens (to Chargers), QB Brady Quinn (free agent), RB Daryl Richardson (to Jets), TE Mike McNeill (to Panthers), G Shelley Smith (to Dolphins), G Harvey Dahl (free agent), G Chris Williams (to Bills), LB Will Witherspoon (free agent), CB Cortland Finnegan (to Dolphins), SS Darian Stewart (to Ravens), FS Matt Giordano (free agent)

QB: It is unknown if Bradford's latest injury will spell the end of his tenure in St. Louis, but it certainly will have the front office thinking.

Bradford had decent numbers in 2012, but just a 7-8-1 record to show for it. However, he appeared on his way to a career year a season ago, with 1,687 passing yards and 14 TD passes to only four interceptions through seven games before going down with injury.

Kellen Clemens was decent in relief of Bradford, but signed with San Diego in the offseason so Hill was brought in backup before getting thrust into the starter's role. He does bring a veteran mindset to the table, but has not started a game since 2010 and while getting into only four NFL games over the previous three seasons with Detroit.

The Rams appear as if they are going to go with the 34-year-old Hill, but they will probably also dip their feet into the free agent QB pool at some point.

"We move forward as a football team," said Fisher. "Shaun is our guy. We brought him here. He's got experience. We've got all the confidence in the world in him. We have, around our quarterback position right now, probably as good of talent as we've had since we came here. Shaun is excited about that and I know he'll benefit from that."

Fisher also said that the Rams won't change their offense now that Hill is the starter and feels that the veteran is smart, mobile and reliable.

Though Davis has had a decent training camp, he has yet to appear in an NFL game.

GRADE: D

RB: The Rams moved on from Steven Jackson last season with Daryl Richardson expected to be the No. 1 back, but it was rookie Zac Stacy who seized control of the job in Week 5 and never looked back.

Over 12 starts, Stacy ran for 969 yards with seven touchdowns and added 26 catches for another 141 yards. His rushing total from Week 5-17 was the seventh most in the NFL over that time.

Stacy now heads into his second season as the starter and with another young back behind him in third-round pick Tre Mason out of Auburn. Running behind a line led by Robinson, he totaled 1,816 rushing yards with 23 touchdowns while getting named a Heisman Trophy finalist.

With Isaiah Pead likely out for the year with a torn ACL, second-year back Benny Cunningham should see time in the backfield as well as the Rams try to establish the run.

"Last year, earlier in the year some things got away from us but the shift to the running game is nothing new," Schottenheimer of this year's game plan. "That's what we're going to be based on -- play great defense, run the football, our play-action game comes off of that. Running game looks good. Got a really good young stable of backs."

GRADE: C+

WR: After seeing his playing time decrease with Tennessee a season ago, Britt is looking to rebound under his former coach in Fisher, who Britt played for in 2009-10.

Britt had career highs in 2010 with 775 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, but tore his MLC and ACL the following year. He'll give Hill a big target at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds.

Second-year wideout Tavon Austin is a playmaker and was second on the club last year with 40 receptions and finished third with 418 yards. And while it takes time for receivers to establish themselves in the NFL, Austin's rookie campaign saw him become the first player in NFL history with a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown, an 80-yard TD catch and 65-yard rushing score all in the same season.

The rest of the receiving core is just as young as Austin, with Brian Quick and Chris Givens entering just their third seasons and Stedman Bailey his second. Givens actually led all Rams wide receivers a year ago with 569 yards, while Quick and Bailey combined for 35 catches.

Austin Pettis is also lurking for depth and caught four scoring throws in 2013.

GRADE: C

TE: Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan under Fisher, was one of St. Louis' big free agent gets last year and slowed down a bit after a big Week 1 debut. However, he still set St. Louis franchise records by a tight end with 671 receiving yards while leading the team with 51 receptions.

Fisher will look for a more consistent Cook this season.

Lance Kendricks is also capable of catching passes out of the tight end spot and made 13 starts last season.

Cory Harkey is a blocking tight end who also saw time last season at fullback.

GRADE: B+

OL: It makes sense for the Rams to emphasis the run more given the selection of Robinson, who many hope will be the next coming of Orlando Pace in St. Louis.

As shown in college Robinson is athletic and an outstanding run blocker, so much so that he became the first offensive lineman that Fisher has ever drafted in the first round in 18 full seasons as a head coach.

"We're a lot better now," Fisher said. "We all know what Greg (Robinson) is capable of doing. He's an outstanding young man. We'll plug him in where we feel he's got the best chance to be successful right now. You talk about an athlete. Powerful, quick, great quickness and strength. He's got a chance to be a dominant player."

Robinson is slotted in at left guard along side left tackle Jake Long, the former top choice of the 2008 draft by Miami who signed with St. Louis last offseason and is coming off a torn MCL and ACL suffered in late December that could slow him at the start of this season.

Center Scott Wells missed the final four games of last season due to injury and returns for his third season with the club, while Saffold will begin the year at right guard.

Saffold showed his worth last season, his fourth in the NFL, by seeing time at both tackle spots and right guard and earned a new five-year deal. He'll be backed up by Joseph, who made 16 starts at right guard last year with Tampa Bay and will slide into a starting role if Saffold is moved to another spot.

Joe Barksdale played in 16 games a season ago and returns to right tackle, where he made 13 starts, and is part of a line that figures to be St. Louis' biggest strength on offense when healthy.

GRADE: A-

DL: As good as St. Louis' offensive line could be, it is the defensive unit that defines the team. The Rams lead the NFL with 187 sacks since 2010 and the bulk of that comes from the group up front.

Quinn finished second in the NFL last year with 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles as he broke Kevin Carter's club record of 17 sacks set in 1999. He was a consistent force as well, notching a sack in 11 of his 16 games played.

The best part for St. Louis is the fact that Quinn is just 24 years old and could find a way to get even better.

"Yeah, he really thinks he does (have room to develop)," said Fisher. "He thinks he can get better, he's working at it. The plays that he made last year at critical times in ball games were very, very impressive if you go back through the end of the games, the end of halves, the two-minute things. Yeah he feels like he can get better, we're doing everything we can to help him get better."

Though his numbers have dipped since making 13 sacks in 2011, teams still have to keep an eye on the Rams' other end Chris Long, who had 8 1/2 sacks a season ago, while William Hayes has 12 sacks in two seasons despite no starts.

Then there is Sam, no lock to make the team as he finds himself looking to adjust to the size and speed of the NFL. At least the focus on the Missouri product's lifestyle has died down a bit.

"I hope so, but like I said, my focus is on making this team," noted Sam. "I don't really care what people come up and tell me. My job is to make this team, that's my number one priority."

With two dominant ends, the Rams have to feel blessed to have added the quick Donald to the mix. His addition should help the Rams handle the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch a bit better.

"I'm real excited. Best defensive line in the NFL, and I have an opportunity to be a part of that now. I'm real pumped up about that. I'm ready to get out there and play," Donald said when drafted.

In addition to the high sack total, the Rams finished ninth in the NFL against the run thanks to defensive tackles Michael Brockers (46 tackles) and Kendall Langford (49 tackles), with the duo also combining for 10 1/2 sacks.

GRADE: A+

LB: The Rams appear to have a changing at the guard, with second-year pro Alec Ogletree set to take the torch from the 27-year-old James Laurinaitis.

Ogletree's 117 tackles last season were one better than Laurinaitis, snapping the latter's four-year run as the club's leading tackler. Ogletree also forced six fumbles and returned an interception 98 yards to tie an NFL record for longest INT returned for a score by a linebacker.

Not that Laurinaitis was ineffective. The veteran middleman is an every-down linebacker that plays both the pass and run well as he is always around the ball. In addition to being a tackling machine, Laurinaitis' nine interceptions since 2009 are the fourth most by any linebacker in football.

Right outside linebacker was less noticeable last season in 12 games after a solid campaign in 2012, his first in St. Louis after four years with New Orleans, while Phillip Steward, Daren Bates and Ray Ray Armstrong are all young backups.

GRADE: B

DB: Youth is also served in the secondary following the departures of Cortland Finnegan, Darian Stewart and Matt Giordano.

Finnegan was brought in two seasons ago as a veteran presence, but was limited to just seven games last year before an eye injury landed him on injured reserve. That led to second-year corner Trumaine Johnson getting a bigger role alongside Janoris Jenkins. Johnson led the Rams with three interceptions, but the group collected just 14 in total and will try to improve on that number with more experience under their belt.

Special teamer Brandon McGee will see an elevated role with Finnegan gone and sixth-round pick E.J. Gaines has moved up the depth chart for a very young and inexperienced unit.

There isn't much experienced behind the corners either.

Free safety Rodney McLeod was voted a special teams captain prior to last season, his second in the league, and ended up making 16 starts while finishing third with 79 tackles, while 2012 third-round pick T.J. McDonald missed six games due to injury while starting the other 10.

St. Louis also spent a pair of 2014 draft picks on safety, getting Lamarcus Joyner (second round) and Maurice Alexander (fourth round).

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Johnny Hekker is coming off a Pro Bowl selection as he set a new single-season net average of 44.2 yards per punt while finishing 10th with a 46.3 gross average.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein showed off a big leg as a rookie in 2012, but was more consistent last season. He hit on 26-of-28 on field goal tries with a long of just 54 yards.

Long snapper Jake McQuaide has played in 48 games with 430 clean snaps over four seasons.

Both Austin and Cunningham had kickoff return averages over 22 yards.

GRADE: A

COACHING: Fisher's rebuild project is coming along in St. Louis as he has the club heading in the right direction. He has added to his career win total, which now stands at 156 regular-season games to put him third among all active head coaches.

Fisher is getting the most out of a young roster, a task he'll repeat against his season, so he has kept veteran coaches around him as well. That doesn't change with Williams, who in 15 seasons as a head coach or defensive coordinator has coached a top 10 overall defense.

Of course, Fisher and Williams are no stranger to each other, having spent time together in Tennessee. The duo won an AFC championship together in 1999 and the Titans had the No. 1 ranked unit in total defense the following year.

GRADE: A

THE SKINNY: The Rams may have been considered a nice sleeper team in any other division, but four total meetings with the Seahawks and 49ers are tough for any team to overcome and that was before Bradford's injury. St. Louis will need even more now out of its running game this year and the offseason moves made were intended to further that goal.

On defense, the Rams are one of the most talented teams up front, but that unit also had a lot of pressure on it given the inexperience in the secondary. Don't be surprised if St. Louis gives up some back-breaking plays down the field as the rebuild continues.

[SportsNetwork.com]

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