The Rams are continuing to rebuild the roster in the second year of coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead’s new regime. They’re in a difficult division, though, and will have to square off against two of the best teams in the NFL four times in total, as well as a Cardinals team that seems to be improving. The Rams finished 7-8-1 last year, a surprising step up from the 2-14 end of the dismal Steve Spagnuolo era, but where do they go from here?
1. Can the Rams improve on last season?
Of course they can and hopefully will improve, but the better question might be “Will those improvements bear any fruit?” In addition to the four games against the 49ers and Seahawks, the Rams have the sturdy NFC South on their scheduel, with road games at Atlanta and Carolina. They draw the AFC South in inter-conference play, but they have the two toughest opponents on the road (Indianapolis and Houston). The Rams performed well against the 49ers and Cardinals last year, going 2-1-1 in their four matchups, but they had some dismal games as well (losing at home by two touchdowns to the Jets and Vikings, losing 45-7 to the Patriots at home). They could easily lose all four of those road games. Home vs. Chicago and at Dallas won’t be easy, either.
I think the Rams will improve from last year, but it’s still questionable if that results in a better record than 2012’s. Of course, so much of where the team is headed depends on one guy…
2. Is Sam Bradford the real deal?
I caught some of the Rams’ preseason game against the Packers on Saturday– not enough to offer definite opinions on anyone, but a few notable plays stood out to me. In particular, take this Sam Bradford sequence:
Bradford hits an open (but not by very much) Chris Givens perfectly in stride for a 57-yard completion, where 55 of those yards were air yards. The ball traveled about 60 yards in the air, beautifully, and hit its intended target right on the money.
The very next play, first and goal at the 2, Tavon Austin ran a route in the flat one yard past the line of scrimmage and Bradford overthrew him.
It’s that maddening inconsistency that makes Bradford such a contradiction. At times, he puts it all together and you see immediately why everyone was so high on him as a prospect. Other times, he makes a baffling decision or shows bad accuracy. He does throw a nice deep ball, but he’s got to work on his consistency and decision-making to all areas of the field.
Bradford’s an odd case. He improved to a point where he put up decent numbers last year, but not quite enough to be convinced in him beyond 2013. If he takes another step forward, the Rams have an interesting question (especially if they find themselves with a decent first-round draft pick, as a large number of potential franchise QBs are expected to be eligible next year): Is Bradford good enough to commit to? The answer, of course, depends on just how big that step is.
Bradford is entering his fourth year in the league (after staying in school for his senior year, even though he was widely expected to be one of the top two picks if he declared). If he’s going to show he can be a franchise quarterback, now is the time.
3. How about those receivers?
Much like the approach the Titans seem to be taking with Jake Locker, the Rams are trying the “no more excuses” route when it comes to questions of Bradford’s development. The team lost its most reliable receiver, Danny Amendola, though he was rarely healthy. In his place, the team now has a complete crew of wideouts stocked from the last two drafts: Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey (along with 2011 3rd-round pick Austin Pettis). The team signed free agent tight end Jared Cook to a 5-year, $35-million contract, so they clearly believe in his ability to perform (an ability Locker failed to tap into in 2012).
With these weapons on offense, plus new left tackle Jake Long, Bradford should have no more excuses. Givens already seems pretty legit, Austin is of course a tremendous athlete, and Cook should be at the very least a reliable receiving option. It’s still up in the air as to whether any of them have big breakouts, but that top three is, I think, good enough to determine if Bradford is the guy going forward.
4. What’s up with that running game?
In a repeat of fourth-round pick Chris Givens passing second-rounder Brian Quick on the wide receiver depth chart, the Rams are poised to start 2012 seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson over that year’s second-rounder Isaiah Pead. I’m not sure what’s going on in the Rams scouting department that the players they’re drafting in the top 50 are being beaten out by the guys they selected on day three, but watching Pead run on a series of goal-line plays, I can see why. Pead doesn’t seem particularly fast, nor does he seem to have the vision to find the cutback lane. When I saw him run the ball, he looked slow and tentative. Richardson is not a flashy prospect at all, but he seems more consistent at being able to move forward, at least. I honestly expect fifth-round rookie Zac Stacy to surpass Pead on the depth chart, and while I’m not sure if the combination of those two can get it done alone, I think we’ll see Tavon Austin used on some running plays as well. Richardson’s keep-moving running style (which reminds me of Pierre Thomas in that sense) should combine well with Tavon’s top-end speed and acceleration.
I don’t think it’ll be an elite running game, but it’ll be good enough that it won’t be the problem with the team, at least.
5. How good can the defense be?
The Rams have been quietly stocking talent to build into one of the better young defenses around. Chris Long is a legitimate #1 pass rusher, and Robert Quinn, while not having a great year overall, got plenty of sacks last season and has the athletic talent to improve on his performance. Michael Brockers played fairly well by the end of the last season and figures to improve as well, as a relatively young and raw prospect. Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins make for a very good cornerback duo. James Laurinaitis is a fine MLB, and the team was apparently really high on Alec Ogletree (I’m starting to think that when other teams move players down on their draft board for character reasons, Jeff Fisher moves them up).
The talent is here. There are holes– safety in particular is weak, as the Rams are counting on third-round rookie T.J. McDonald at one spot and “I don’t know” at the other– but looking up and down the roster, there seem to be enough talented players that the team could really come on strong.
Of course, so much of that talent is young, thanks to the Rams’ excess of picks these last two years from draft-day trades (most notably, of course, picking up three first-round picks from Washington for the right to draft Robert Griffin III). How it develops is crucial: Brockers may not take that next step, Quinn could end up being just a situational pass rusher, Ogletree and Jenkins’ character issues catch up with them, and any or all of the receivers could bust. I think the most likely scenario is that the Rams’ young talent will mostly develop well (even with the odd decisions on Quick and Pead), and the team will be in better position to compete in 2014. Whether that’s with Sam Bradford at the helm or a new quarterback instead is the biggest question the team will face all season.