I’d say the greatest enigma at quarterback going into 2014 is Sam Bradford. The question isn’t so much what type of quarterback has he been in the past, but how will he do in 2014 in his 5th year in the league? Can you win a Super Bowl with him going forward or do the Rams have to start over at the position? The Rams drafted Bradford #1 overall in 2010, the final season before the rookie salary cap, so they’ve already given him 51 million over 4 seasons. Bradford is owed another 14.015 million in 2014 and 12.985 million in 2015, both non-guaranteed. They were hoping that he’d get this team out of being stuck in the mud when they drafted him, but they haven’t won more than 7 games in any of the 4 seasons he’s been with the team, going 23-40-1, including 18-30-1 in games that Bradford has started. As a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 or gone above .500 since 2003.
The Rams kept him for 2014 at that 14.015 million dollar amount, opting to pass on a quarterback both with the 2nd and with the 13th overall pick in the first round, in order to add talent at other positions. This was in spite of the fact that the regime that drafted him is gone. Bradford will need to play well and prove he’s the long-term solution this season in his 5th year in the league. If he doesn’t, not only will the Rams not want to pay him the 12.985 million non-guaranteed he’ll be owed in 2015, but they won’t want to go into 2015 with a contract year quarterback or pay Bradford the type of money it’s been costing teams to keep their quarterbacks recently.
The reason the Rams kept Bradford for this season was because it was a poor quarterback draft and they didn’t want to start over at the quarterback position when Bradford had shown signs of becoming the long-term answer last season. Bradford completed 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 2013. That TD:INT ratio looks pretty good, but I put more stock in completion percentages and YPAs because they show you what happens on a greater percentage of snaps. Even if Bradford has a breakout season, he won’t throw an interception on just 1.5% of throws like he did last season. Bradford set a career high in completion percentage and had the 2nd best YPA of his career, but neither 60.7% nor 6.44 YPA is really that impressive.
On top of that, Bradford went down with a torn ACL after 7 games and missed the rest of the season. We’ve seen better quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Robert Griffin, Carson Palmer) all struggle in their first season back from that type of injury so it doesn’t really bode well for his chances of having the type of season he needs to stay long-term and the Rams need to be competitive this season. Also concerning is that this isn’t his first serious injury, as he missed 6 games with a severe ankle problem in 2011. He was also severely limited when on the field that season, completing 53.5% of his passes, for 6.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.
The Rams went 3-4 in games that Bradford started last season and 4-5 in games that he missed and backup Kellen Clemens started. That doesn’t necessarily mean Clemens was as good as Bradford. Bradford finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked quarterback (17th in passing grade), while Clemens finished 25th (23rd in passing grade). He completed 58.7% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. The Rams offense moved the chains at a 68.78% rate when Bradford was in the lineup and a 67.58% rate when Clemens was in the lineup. And that was even though the Rams averaged 4.64 yards per carry in games Clemens started (1258 yards on 271 carries) and 3.19 yards per carry in games Bradford started (494 yards on 155 attempts).
The Rams should benefit from Bradford’s return, but he might not be 100% and he could get hurt again, which would leave backup Shaun Hill under center. Hill has a 62.0% completion, 6.69 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in 12 seasons in the league as a career backup, but he’s also going into his age 34 season and didn’t attempt a pass last season. The Rams’ chances of being much better offensively than they were last season, when they finished 22nd in the league, moving the chains at a 68.11% rate, aren’t great.
If the Rams can run like they did to end last season and Bradford can be 100%, they could be an improved offense. I’ve already explained why one of those things is unlikely, but it’s also unlikely that the Rams average over 4.6+ yards per carry next season as well. That’s because feature back Zac Stacy only averaged 3.89 yards per carry (973 yards and 7 touchdowns on 250 carries) last season, including just 3.59 yards per carry in the 2nd half of the season (625 yards and 7 touchdowns on 174 carries).
The reason they were able to put up big rushing numbers and make up for the absence of Bradford in the 2nd half of the season is because backup running back Benny Cunningham and slot receiver Tavon Austin combined to rush for 412 yards on 56 carries, an average of 7.36 yards per carry. That’s unlikely to continue. Most of Austin’s rushing yards came on one fluky 65-yard run and Cunningham might not even be Stacy’s backup this season, as the Rams drafted Tre Mason in the 3rd round. Mason will probably be Stacy’s primary backup and the Rams’ change of pace back.
Mason could also cut into Stacy’s carries as well. Stacy carried the ball 249 times in his 12 starts (an average of 20.75 carries per game, 332 carries over 16 games). Stacy rushed for 2.45 yards per carry after contact, as the 5-8 216 pounder ran with great power and strength, but he didn’t average a high YPC overall because he doesn’t have great burst or ability to turn into a 2nd gear. There’s a reason he fell to the 5th round in the 2013 NFL Draft. He’s also pretty poor as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 141 yards. I don’t expect him to have more than 300 touches this season with Stacy as his primary backup and I don’t expect a high YPC either.
Jake Long was the Rams’ best offensive player last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked offensive tackle. However, he tore his ACL week 16 and, even if he is on track for week 1, he might not be 100%, especially not to start the season. It wouldn’t be as concerning if Long didn’t have an injury history. Long, the 1st overall pick in 2008, was arguably the best offensive tackle in the game from 2008-2010, grading out 10th, 2nd, and 3rd respectively on Pro Football Focus in those 3 seasons.
However, back problems slowed him in 2011 and 2012, causing him to finish 20th and 46th in those 2 seasons respectively and miss a combined 6 games. The Rams’ medical staff had to give him a thorough physical before they signed him last off-season and Long had to settle for a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal, when he could have gotten upwards of 10-12+ million dollars yearly if he had continued to play as well as he did from 2008-2010. Now going into his age 29 season, I expect him to be inferior to last season in 2014.
The Rams used the 2nd overall pick on Long’s long-term replacement, Greg Robinson. The massive 6-5 332 pounder will begin his career at left guard, a la Jonathan Ogden, who his abilities were compared to pre-draft. He should be an immediate upgrade over Chris Williams, Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season, even though Robinson is only 21 years old (22 in October) and doesn’t have much guard experience. He has a massive upside long-term.
The Rams will also start a former offensive tackle at the other guard spot as Rodger Saffold will be their starting right guard. Saffold, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league at left tackle and then again last season at right tackle last season, but he was much better in 6 starts at right guard last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked guard on just 353 snaps. The Rams re-signed him on a 5-year, 31.7 million dollar deal this off-season with the intention of having him play right guard long-term. That makes him the 8th highest paid guard in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.
His experience at the position is really limited, but he could continue to be an above average starter next season. His biggest issue is injuries as he’s missed 17 games and been limited in others in the past 3 seasons combined. He originally had a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal agreed to with the Raiders to play left tackle, but it fell through because he failed their physical. The Rams are clearly comfortable with his health, but it’s still a glaring issue for Saffold. Their primary reserve at the position is veteran Davin Joseph, who was signed to a cheap deal in late May, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked guard in 2013 and going into his age 31 season.
With Saffold and Robinson playing guard, the Rams will keep Joe Barksdale at right tackle. Barksdale, a 2011 3rd round pick, played a combined 282 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons and getting cut by the Raiders mid-season in 2012. That appeared to be a mistake for the Raiders as Barksdale broke out as a starter in St. Louis last season, making 13 starts, playing early in the season when Saffold was hurt and late in the season when Saffold was at guard. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle. He’s still a one-year wonder so there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good as that next season, but the Rams made the right choice putting Robinson and Saffold at guard and leaving Barksdale at right tackle. Now in his contract year, another good year could get him a significant contract next off-season.
The weakness on the offensive line is center, where Scott Wells was kept on a cheaper, restructured deal this off-season, going into his age 33 season. Wells was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2011 in Green Bay, helping him get a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Rams. However, he’s graded out below average in both seasons in St. Louis, finishing 24th out of 35 eligible centers in 2013, and missing a combined 13 games with injuries. I guess the Rams really didn’t have much of another option except keeping him, with 2013 4th round pick Barrett Jones reportedly struggling and still listed as the 3rd string center. Wells could really struggle this season. The guard positions are better for the Rams this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Long, Wells, and Barksdale all had inferior seasons in 2014, as compared to what they did in 2013.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Rams have tried really hard to surround Bradford with pass catchers, leading the league in draft capital spent on wide receivers and tight ends since 2010, the year they drafted Bradford. That includes a first round pick, two second round picks, two third round picks, and three fourth round picks. They also gave tight end Jared Cook a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal last off-season. As a result, the Rams have a lot of quantity at wide receiver and tight end, but they have yet to show much quality as they haven’t had even a 700+ yard receiver in any of the 4 seasons Bradford’s been in town. Some of that is on Bradford, but you can’t argue the Rams have done a good job evaluating pass catchers pre-draft.
My pick to lead this team in receiving and quite possibly go over that 700+ yard threshold is Tavon Austin. Austin was the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, after the Rams moved up to get him, the biggest investment they’ve made in a pass catcher through the draft in the Bradford era. Austin only caught 40 passes for 415 yards and 4 touchdowns on 62 attempts (61.5%) on 305 routes run, an average of 1.37 yards per route run. He contributed as a runner (9 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown) and a return man (18 kickoff returns for 398 yards and 33 punt returns for 280 yards and a touchdown), but not as a pass catcher. That’s led to a lot of people calling him a bust, but I think that’s really premature.
Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. Austin could be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league. He finished the season out well, catching 9 passes for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 4 games. That’s 844 yards and 8 scores over a 16-game season.
The biggest thing he needs to improve on is route versatility. Austin primarily caught short passes and screens and attempted to turn them into long gains. He averaged 5.5 yards per catch after catch, showing tremendous athleticism in the open field, but he couldn’t get open downfield, averaging just 5.0 yards per catch in the air and catching just 6 of 16 targets 10+ yards downfield. He should be more productive overall in his 2nd season in the league, but he might not have a true breakout year until 2015 and he might need better quarterback play. On top of that, there’s a chance that the lightest receiver drafted in the top-10 ever (5-8 174) just never turns into a #1 wide receiver. He was drafted highly in what was regarded as one of the weakest drafts in NFL history at the top.
Austin is currently working as the starting slot receiver with Kenny Britt and Brian Quick starting outside. Britt is the wild card of the receiving corps. He wasn’t drafted by the Rams, instead being picked up for the minimum this off-season as a free agent. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run.
However, a torn ACL suffered 3 games into 2011 derailed his career big-time. As good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including that torn ACL. He averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 2012 in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees.
In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches, which is why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency. He’s reportedly dominating off-season practices though, which is why he’s listed as a starter. I’m still skeptical, but he’s only going into his age 26 season, we know he has insane natural talent, and he has every reason to give 110%.
Brian Quick, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick of the Rams in 2012, but he’s yet to live up to his talent and athleticism, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, on a combined 548 snaps. He’s caught a combined 29 passes for 460 yards and 4 touchdowns on a combined 61 targets (47.5%) and 339 routes run, an average of 1.36 yards per route run. The Rams are holding out hope he can put it all together in his 3rd year in the league, but he could easily continue to struggle.
Also in the mix are Stedman Bailey, Austin Pettis, and Chris Givens. Bailey played 194 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2013 and could have a bigger role in 2014, after he returns from a PED suspension that will cost him the first 4 games of the season. Austin Pettis is the “veteran” of the group as the 2011 3rd round pick is going into the contract year of his rookie deal. He’s graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 598 snaps in 2013. He’s caught 95 passes for 916 yards and 8 touchdowns on 151 targets (62.9%) and 885 routes run, an average of 1.04 yards per route run. He’s pretty much maxed out in terms of his abilities and should be purely a depth receiver this season.
Chris Givens is an interesting case. Givens caught 42 passes for 698 yards and 3 touchdowns as a 4th round rookie in 2012, the highest receiving total by a Rams receiver since Torry Holt in 2008. However, he only caught 54.5% of his targets and graded out below average as a pass catcher. He also didn’t progress going into his 2nd year in the league in 2013, catching 34 passes for 569 yards and 0 touchdowns on 77 targets (44.2%) and 438 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 99th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible. Now he’s buried on the depth chart going into his 3rd in the league. The former 4th round pick is showing why he only went in the 4th round and may have maxed out his abilities already.
The Rams’ leading receiver in 2013 was tight end Jared Cook, who caught 51 passes for 671 yards and 5 touchdowns. Still, he didn’t really live up to the insane 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal he got last off-season, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. That deal was undeserved as he graded out above average in just 2 of 4 seasons in 2009-2012. He’s not much of a run blocker and he’s maxed out at 49 catches for 759 yards and 3 touchdowns.
My guess is either he or Austin leads this team in receiving yards, but Austin has more long-term upside. As for the rest of the receiving corps, it’s very up for grabs. For fantasy purposes, the Rams might not have a single other fantasy relevant receiver. Rounding things out is Lance Kendricks, who is their #2 tight end and primary blocking tight end. The Rams drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011 in hopes that he’d be a solid starting tight end, but he struggled in his first 2 seasons as a starter as a pass catcher, grading out below average in pass catching grade. After Cook got brought in, Kendricks became primarily a blocker, which is something he’s typically done a better job with in his career, grading out above average in that aspect in 2 of 3 seasons.
As I said, I don’t expect the offense to be much better than last season, so the defense will have to be better. The Rams drafted Aaron Donald 13th overall in the draft. Donald was expected to be a top-10 pick and is drawing rave reviews in practice. The Rams didn’t need another defensive tackle, but he was just too good to pass on. He’ll work in a rotation with Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford and I expect above average play. He’ll add to a defensive line that was already one of the best in the NFL last season.
Brockers is another first round pick, taken 14th overall in 2012. He hasn’t lived up to expectations, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, only his age 24 season, but the 6-5 322 pounder could just be best off as a base player and a situational run stopper. Langford, meanwhile, is a veteran, getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. He signed a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal after the 2011 season, after grading out above average in 2 of 4 seasons in Miami as a 3-4 defensive end, including #7 in both 2009 and 2010. He hasn’t been as good in St. Louis in a 4-3 as a defensive tackle, grading out below average in both seasons, including 82nd out of 85 eligible in 2012. Owed 6 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his deal in 2015, his age 29 season, this could be his final season with the team.
The best player on this defensive line is Robert Quinn, who was arguably the best defensive player in the league last season, finally cashing in on his 1st round talent in his 3rd year in the league, after getting drafted in 2011. He graded out by far as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end last season. The only player who had a bigger gap between them and the player ranked in 2nd below them at their position on Pro Football Focus was JJ Watt.
He tied for the league lead with 19 sacks, but that wasn’t all he did. He also added 21 hits and 51 hurries on 514 pass rush snaps, a 17.7% rate. Quinn’s pass rush productivity number of 15.3 was not only far and away the best among 4-3 defensive ends (Cameron Wake was 2nd at 14.0), but only Jerry Hughes, a 3-4 outside linebacker from the Bills of all people, had a higher pass rush productivity at any position and he was at 15.4.
Quinn also played well against the run as his 25 run stops on 312 run snaps gave him an 8.0% rate that ranked 14th at his position. As a result, Quinn graded out 3rd at his position against the run, which is part of how he was able to grade out so much higher than everyone at his position. He’s still only a one year wonder, grading out well below average in each of his first two years in the league, including 49th out of 67 eligible in 2011 and 57th out of 62 eligible in 2012. However, he’s naturally very talented so I won’t be surprised at all if he continues to dominate. The Rams wisely picked up his 5th year option for 2015, expecting him to continue that level of play. Any regression in his play will really hurt this team.
Quinn has already surpassed veteran Chris Long, who was a 1st round pick in 2008 (2nd overall), giving them 4 former 1st rounders on the defensive line. Long is the most veteran of the bunch, going into his age 29 season. As Quinn is on the up at his position, Long appears to be going down, grading out below average last season. That was actually the 3rd time in his career that he had graded out below average overall, first doing so in 2008 and 2009. However, he’s graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 6 seasons in the league, including 7th in pure pass rush grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, 7th in 2012, 4th in 2011, and 7th in 2010. He really struggles against the run, but rushing the passer is more important and Long does that well.
William Hayes is the primary reserve at defensive end. Hayes has turned into one of the best 3rd defensive ends in the NFL, after grading out above average twice in 4 years in Tennessee, who drafted him in the 4th round in 2008. In 2 years with St. Louis, Hayes has graded out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and 8th in 2013, on 374 snaps and 354 snaps respectively, who no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher than him in either season. He could easily step into the starting lineup if needed, adding to the depth of this strong defensive line. The Rams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd best team in pass rush grade last season and could easily be as good or better this season. By the way, if you’re looking for Michael Sam here, he’s not going to be written about because he’s not relevant. If you want a 20 minute breakdown of the one tackle he had in the Rams’ first pre-season game, let me refer you to NFL Network.
The Rams’ defensive line will have to play really well this season because their back 7 is a mess. At linebacker, James Laurinaitis is another overpaid veteran, signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension early in the 2012 season. Laurinaitis graded out above average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league after going in the 2nd round in 2009, but he was never worth that kind of money, maxing out at 15th in 2010. Since signing that deal, he’s graded out below average in both seasons, including 31st out of 55 eligible in 2013. He’ll continue to play every down, but he’s not as good as his raw tackle total and salary suggest.
Also playing every down is Alec Ogletree, who the Rams drafted in the 1st round in 2013. He graded out below average as a rookie, finishing 27th out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. JoLonn Dunbar will continue playing a two-down role outside. Dunbar was a dominant run stuffer in 2012, finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in pure run grade, but he struggled overall in 2013, finishing 31st out of 35 eligible at his position. He could be better this season, now that he won’t be starting the season with a 4-game suspension. His role isn’t terribly important anyway, as it’s purely a two-down, base package position with an emphasis on run defense.
The Rams cut Cortland Finnegan this off-season, which isn’t a big loss, considering he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback last season, despite being limited to 367 snaps by a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. The Rams are now going forward with a full-on youth movement in the secondary. 2012 2nd and 3rd round picks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will be the starters, as they were for most of last season.
Jenkins was the better of the two in 2012, but he still graded out slightly below average and he struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 101st out of 113 eligible cornerbacks. Johnson graded out slightly more below average in 2013, but flashed on 366 snaps as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. They’re now going into their 3rd years in the league and either one could have a breakout year, but, for right now, I don’t expect much better than average play from either of them.
Rodney McLeod was a hybrid safety/slot cornerback last season. The Rams also drafted LaMarcus Joyner in the 2nd round who fits that mold. Both will see significant playing time this season. McLeod can play every down, playing safety in base packages and nickel cornerback in sub packages, with Joyner coming in and playing safety in that situation. The other way around is also possible. We could also see McLeod focus purely on safety and Joyner play purely on the slot and vice versa. Either way, they’re going to be big parts of this secondary, which is an issue considering Joyner is an unproven 2nd round rookie and McLeod is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first season of serious playing time.
TJ McDonald is locked into the other safety spot, which is also an issue. McDonald graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety as a 3rd round rookie in 2013. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he was only a mere 3rd round pick and a reach of a 3rd round pick at that, so no one should be surprised if he never develops into the solid starter the Rams want him to become. He’s part of a secondary whose top-5 players have all been drafted (or undrafted) since 2012. On top of the youth and inexperience, there might also not be a lot of talent, unless some young guys breakout. The Rams’ back 7, especially the secondary, is a serious problem.
The Rams weren’t as good as their 7-9 record suggested in 2013, as they finished 28th in rate of moving the chains differential at -5.32%. They moved the chains at a 68.11% rate, 22nd in the NFL, and they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 73.44% rate, 23rd in the NFL. They were able to go 7-9 because of some fluky things. Since 1989, there have only been 28 instances of a team winning a game by 17+ points despite losing the first down battle by 9. The Rams did that 3 times last season alone. Despite those 3 fluky blowout wins, they didn’t exceed their Pythagorean Expectation (-16 point differential), as they also had 5 losses by 15+ points. They were very reliant on fluky things to get to even 7 wins.
The Rams could be better on both sides of the ball this season, with a potentially healthy Sam Bradford and the addition of Aaron Donald, but not improved enough for it to be noticeable in their record. If I had to pick over/under the Rams’ 7.5 win odds maker projection, I’d probably take the under. This team hasn’t won more than 7 games since 2006 and they play in the toughest division in football. The talent just isn’t really here for them to get out from stuck in the mud. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.
Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC West