Football is a game of parity. A team sees an average change of 3 wins per season in either direction and teams that have big improvements on average regress about half of that the following season and vice versa. The Rams have been doing quite a bit of bouncing around in the past few years, going from 1 win to 7 wins to 2 wins to 7 wins and a tie. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to bounce into the playoffs at any point and if history is any indication, they are due to bounce back down, at least a little bit.
There were a couple unsustainable things that led to the Rams’ win improvement last season. They were 6th in the league in adjusted games lost, meaning they had significantly fewer injuries than the league average. This was a season after they ranked dead last in that category in 2011. They also exceeded their Pythagorean Expectations by a whole win (assuming a half win for the tie) as they were outscored by 49 points on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, 23rd in the NFL. They did have a really tough schedule last season, but things don’t look much easier this season.
The Rams will have to hope that all of the talent they’ve added through free agency in the past few off-seasons have paid off and that they will continue climbing the wins ladder because they are legitimately a more talented team. They’ve signed Harvey Dahl, Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Kendall Langford, Jake Long, and Jared Cook to significant contracts in the last 3 off-seasons, to go with Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, and Tavon Austin added in the first round of the last 3 drafts. Austin, Long, and Cook are the big additions of this off-season as the Rams made surrounding Sam Bradford with more talent the single primary concern of their off-season.
The Rams have a lot tied into Sam Bradford. They gave him 50 million guaranteed before he even took an NFL snap as they took him with #1 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, the final one of the non-rookie salary cap era. They also essentially traded Robert Griffin in favor of keeping Bradford as their quarterback when they had the opportunity to bring in Griffin through the draft last April. And so far, it’s really unclear what they have in him. There’s reason to be optimistic certainly, but he’s a big mystery.
Bradford had a very good rookie season, completing 60.0% of his passes for an average of 6.0 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, setting the NFL record for completions by a rookie, attempts by a rookie, and consecutive attempts without an interception by a rookie, leading the previously 1-win Rams to a respectable 7-9 record. However, 2011 was a lost season, as injuries caused him to miss 6 games and limited him to 53.5% completion, 6.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in a 2-14 campaign.
Bradford bounced back in his 3rd year in the league, playing all 16 games again and improving on his rookie numbers by completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in a 7-8-1 season. It was a respectable season by a young quarterback, but when you look at what even younger quarterbacks in Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick (technically Kaepernick is 5 days older), Andrew Luck, Matt Stafford, and even Andy Dalton (9 days older, but whatever) have done, Bradford’s young career pales in comparison.
He’s on better footing than Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, and Josh Freeman on the young quarterback totem pole as all 5 of those quarterbacks could lose their starting job this season, but at some point, Bradford will have to start proving he’s the type of guy who can win you a Super Bowl. That season could be this year as he has undoubtedly his most talented offensive supporting cast and you can give him a pass because of the crap he’s played with around him so far, but I need to see it from him first to make sure he’s not just Alex Smith, someone who is good enough to keep his job and that’s it. Needless to say, it’s a huge year for him.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
While Bradford has an improved supporting cast this season, I do think the players they brought in are being overrated, at least in terms of what they can add this season. It’s undoubtedly a better group, but there are still issues. For one, 8th overall pick Tavon Austin is still just a rookie. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Austin will do some nice things as a rookie and they’ll line him up in the backfield on occasion to get him his touches, but I think he’s at least a year away from being the type of player a lot of people think he already is. He might not even start as a rookie.
Austin is competing for a starting job with relative veterans Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, and Brian Quick. Givens is the one I’m actually most excited about and the player I think will lead this team in receiving. He was just a 4th round pick in 2012, but I had a borderline 2nd round grade on him coming out of Wake Forest, ahead of teammate Quick, a 2nd rounder in that same class, and ahead of 49er 1st round pick AJ Jenkins. After Kendall Wright, I thought he was the best speed receiver in the class, after a junior season in which he averaged 16.0 yards per catch on 83 catches for 1330 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has adequate size at 5-11 198 with steady hands, great route running ability, and recorded a 4.41 40 at The Combine.
As a rookie, he led the Rams’ nondescript receiving corps with 698 yards and caught 42 passes and 3 touchdowns. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round, as the statistic I mentioned earlier suggests. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. Givens, a 4th round rookie, exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should be able to improve on them as he’s another year matured and another year more comfortable with the offense and Sam Bradford, especially since he figures to play more snaps.
Givens didn’t see significant action until week 4 and only played in 386 of the team’s 641 pass snaps, which was 113 less than Brandon Gibson, who led the team. He averaged 1.90 yards per route run, 25th in the league out of 82 eligible wide receivers. This year, with Brandon Gibson and the oft injured Danny Amendola gone, Givens is by far the team’s leading returning receiver. Unlike the new batch of receivers, he has a year of experience in the offense and with Sam Bradford.
Austin Pettis, meanwhile, is actually listed as the other starter right now and that might continue to be the case going into week 1, with the raw Austin focusing on the slot early in his rookie year. Either way, he’ll see a lot of action. The 2011 3rd round pick is going into the 3rd season that is so often a breakout year for young receivers, but I don’t know if he has the talent to be more than a marginal starter at best going forward because he really lacks speed, athleticism, and after the catch ability. He’s probably best suited for a depth role. He’s caught 57 passes for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 2 seasons in the league as a depth possession receiver.
Brian Quick will also see a lot of action as the Rams figure to get all 4 of their young receivers action. Quick was, as I mentioned earlier, a 2nd round pick as a rookie last year, but he was very much upstaged by the 4th round pick Givens as a rookie, catching just 11 passes for 156 yards and 2 touchdowns. Still, he’s got a lot of talent and you can never write a talented receiver off after just one season, especially one that was always expected to be a project transitioning from Appalachian State to the NFL. He should be improved this season.
Jared Cook, by default, is the veteran of the group as the aforementioned 3 receivers are all in their 3rd year or younger. There might be too much youth here, especially with a young signal caller under center. Cook was given a 5 year, 38.5 million dollar contract this off-season, with 19 million guaranteed, but that looks like a serious overpay.
Jared Cook was underutilized in Tennessee and put up good per snap numbers as a receiver despite never really having great quarterback play. He has 1718 career receiving yards on 1057 career routes run, a rate of 1.63 yards per route run. For comparison, Owen Daniels had 1.63 yards per route run this season, good for 11th in the NFL. However, he doesn’t block, which is a big part of the reason why he was only a part-time player in Tennessee and he’s still relatively unproven. The Rams are paying a lot of money to find out if he can be an elite tight end in the right situation. They’ll give him every opportunity to live up to his contract, but I don’t think he will.
Also in the mix at tight end is Lance Kendricks, a 2011 2nd round pick. He’s not a bad 2nd string tight end, but he doesn’t complement Cook well because he can’t block at all either. He’s undoubtedly the 2nd best receiving tight end on their roster, catching 45 passes for 529 yards and 4 touchdowns in his 2nd season in the league last year, but he could lose playing time to blocking specialist Cory Harkey, a 2012 undrafted free agent who is a solid blocker, but can’t pass catch at all.
The other big time off-season addition they made was on the offensive line, where they signed Jake Long to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed to play left tackle. Long is a household name because he was the 1st overall pick of the Dolphins in 2008 and because he deservingly made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, after ranking 10th, 2nd, and 2nd on ProFootballFocus in 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively, injuries helped drop him to 21st in 2011 and all the way down to right around league average in 2012. There’s a reason the Dolphins didn’t seem too eager to bring him back and why the Rams gave him an extensive physical before signing him. If he can stay healthy, they’re getting a steal, but that’s a big if and this might look like a big overpay in 2 years’ time because of his injury history.
At the very least, Long’s presence on the blindside will allow Rodger Saffold to kick to right tackle. Saffold wasn’t happy about the positional switch earlier this off-season, but has since calmed down and I think it fits his skill set better. He’s been pretty good on the blindside when healthy in his career, though he’s missed 13 games in 3 seasons and been limited in several others with injuries, but I think he could be one of the better right tackles in the league if he were to stay healthy. That’s a big if however for the 2010 2nd round pick. He’s going into a contract year, so maybe he’ll have a big year. Worst case scenario, he’ll be better than the Jason Smith/Barry Richardson mix they’ve been trotting out there at right tackle in the last few seasons. The lead footed Joe Barksdale is his backup so they’ll be in trouble if he can’t stay healthy.
On the interior of their offensive line, the Rams have two other big money offensive linemen in right guard Harvey Dahl and center Scott Wells. Dahl has been with the Rams for 2 seasons and he’s graded out significantly below average in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s been a reliable above average starter for years dating back to his days with the Falcons and the only concern here is that he’s heading into his age 32 season. It shouldn’t be an issue yet though.
Wells, meanwhile, graded out as an above average center in the previous 4 seasons before coming to St. Louis from Green Bay last off-season, including top-10 grades in 2008, 2010, and 2011, topping out at 4th in 2011. However, injuries limited him to 434 below average snaps in 2012. There’s definitely potential for a bounce back year, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and, unlike Dahl, he’s shown signs of slipping up so there’s definitely reason for concern here, especially considering they gave him the richest contract ever for a center last off-season.
Rounding out the line at left guard will be one of three players, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, or Rok Watkins. Chris Williams is a former first round pick (2008) bust of the Chicago Bears who has bounced all over the offensive line before winding up with the Rams last season after being a mid-season cut. He once again struggled with the Rams, playing significantly below average on 88 snaps. Smith, meanwhile, graded out significantly below average on 360 snaps last season in the 2010 6th round pick’s first real action in the NFL. Watkins, meanwhile, was a 5th round rookie last season who played 37 snaps week 1, struggling mightily before going on season ending injured reserve. It’s a position of serious weakness on an overall improving offensive line. The talent is there though, more so than it’s ever been in Sam Bradford’s career.
While the Rams have made major additions to their receiving corps and offensive line, they actually had a significant loss at running back as long time bell-cow back Steven Jackson signed with the Atlanta Falcons this off-season. Jackson is on the decline and the Rams didn’t put forth much effort into trying to bring him back, but he leaves behind an uncertain situation. In his absence, the Rams will have a 3-way battle for the starting job and all 3 backs figure to see carries.
Daryl Richardson was Jackson’s primary backup last season, rushing for 475 yards on 98 carries, while contributing 24 catches for 163 yards. The 7th round rookie leapfrogged 2nd round rookie Isaiah Pead on the depth chart for that job. Pead is also in the mix at running back this season, after just 10 carries as a rookie. The 2nd rounder has talent and I’m not going to write him off or anything, but it’s certainly been a disappointing start to the career of a player who I thought was overdrafted (he’s a change of pace/passing catching back/return man). The 3rd back is 5th round rookie Zac Stacy who I think could prove to be a steal. The 5-9 210 pounder is a very hard runner. Whatever happens, it’s a position of much youth and uncertainly, much like most of their offense.
On the defensive line, the Rams have a trio of former 1st round picks and a big contract free agent signing and it’s a big part of the reason why they had an NFL best 56 sacks last season. However, that’s a little misleading. They were ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked pass rush team and while I won’t argue that they were the 17th best pass rush team in the league last year, looking purely at sack numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.
Their most talented defensive lineman is Chris Long, the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Long is legitimately one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the NFL, with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and 55 hurries on 568 pass rush snaps, a 13.3% rate. However, he got destroyed against the run, which is nothing new for him. Since 2010, he’s been one of the worst run stopping 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, grading out dead last in that aspect in both 2010 and 2011 and 4th worst in 2012.
However, he’s simultaneously been one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the league since his breakout 2010 season, ranking 7th in that aspect in 2011 and 4th in that aspect in both 2010 and 2012. Overall, he’s graded out as a significantly above average defensive lineman in the last 3 seasons, but his run play prevents him from being considered one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL in my book.
Opposite him, Robert Quinn, the 14th overall pick in 2011 NFL Draft, had 11 sacks in his first season as a starter. That’s an impressive total, but he benefitted incredibly from Long’s presence opposite him and even with Long, he still managed just 8 hits and 26 hurries on the season on 541 pass rush snaps, a 8.3% rate. You can’t just look at sack numbers because they don’t tell you anything about how long the quarterback held the ball, what kind of blocking the pass rusher faced, and who actually forced the sack. Quinn benefitted from good luck in all 3 of those aspects and was not the pass rusher those 11 sacks suggest. He also got blown up against the run and overall he was ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible. The former 1st round pick could be better this season, however.
The Rams also frequently use 3 defensive end sets on passing downs with reserves William Hayes and Eugene Sims coming into the game on passing downs. Sims struggled mightily to get pass rush with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 4 hurries on 244 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 4.5% rate. Hayes was better, but still pretty average rushing the passer with 7 sacks, 6 hits, and 11 hurries on 225 pass rush snaps, a 10.7% rate. He excelled as a run stuffer though, ranking 5th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect.
The 3rd former 1st round pick on the line is Michael Brockers, the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Injuries delayed his debut until week 4, but the rookie still started 12 of 13 games upon his return, playing 615 snaps and grading out above average, especially against the run. He should be even better in his 2nd season in the league as he’s healthy and he doesn’t turn 23 until December. He was really raw coming out of LSU.
Brockers will once again start inside next to Kendall Langford. Langford signed a 4-year, 24 million dollar contract last off-season, but got blown up against the run in his first season playing 4-3 defensive tackle after spending his early career as a 5-technique defensive end in Miami. He rushed the passer alright though, with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 13 hurries on 411 pass rush snaps, a 4.9% rate. That’s not great for a defensive tackle, but it’s passable. The Rams were obviously counting on more from him when they gave him that contract though, so they’ll have to hope he bounces back. They don’t really have much of another option at the position if he doesn’t as Jermelle Cudjo, a mediocre backup, is their only other experienced player at the position.
Before last season, the Rams signed middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar deal that was a real overpay. Laurinaitis is a great leader on the field and always puts up big tackle numbers, but those tackles are more often filler than substance. Of his 482 total tackles in the last 4 seasons, last than half, 221, were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on second down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. I’m not saying he’s a bad player, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his 4 seasons and he’s nowhere near the middle linebacker that Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, even youngsters Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are. His deal was a serious overpay for a team that’s spent a lot of money in the last few off-seasons and seems headed for salary cap hell.
Laurinaitis will play every down once again, as will 1st round rookie Alec Ogletree. Ogletree was regarded as having top-10 talent, but fell to the Rams at 30th overall (after a trade down) because of off the field and work ethic concerns. We’ll have to see how this works out for the Rams, but it was certainly a risk for them. It’s not like it wasn’t a position of need, however.
Jo Lonn Dunbar actually graded out above average as an every down linebacker for them last season, but did so on a very strong run grade (3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers) and a strong blitzing grade with 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 9 hurries on 135 blitzes (further reason why I think it’s unlikely they match the 56 sacks they had last season). He struggled miserably in coverage, as could be expected from him, grading out worst at his position in that aspect, and he’ll be a much better fit in the 3rd linebacker spot. He’ll certainly be an upgrade over Rocky McIntosh, who graded out 37th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in that spot last year despite being a part time player. Jo Lonn Dunbar has a chance to be one of the better two-down linebackers in the NFL. He’ll come off the field on obvious passing downs for an extra defensive back.
The Rams spent big money bringing Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis and reuniting him with former Head Coach Jeff Fisher last off-season, but he was largely a disappointment in his first season with the Rams. After grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked cornerback in 2011, he was below average overall in 2012, allowing 77 catches on 105 attempts for 747 yards, though he didn’t allow a touchdown and had 3 interceptions. He also just deflected 3 passes and missed 11 tackles, though he was penalized just twice. He’s really been up in down in his career as he ranked 96th out of 100 eligible in 2010 before that great 2011 season and he was a slightly above average player in both 2008 and 2009. It’s tough to know what to expect from him this season, but a bounce back wouldn’t really surprise me. He covers the slot in 3-cornerback sets, in addition to starting and covering #1 receivers.
The other starter for the Rams is Janoris Jenkins, a 2012 2nd round pick. Jenkins kept his nose clean in his first season in the NFL as off the field issues got him kicked off the Florida team and dropped him to the 2nd round after he transferred to North Alabama. He did some good things and some bad things on the field as a rookie. He scored 3 times on interception returns, though his overall total of 4 interceptions isn’t particularly impressive. However, he also missed a position leading 18 tackles and allowed 66 catches on 107 attempts for 715 yards and 5 touchdowns, while deflecting 10 passes and committing 2 penalties to go with those 4 interceptions. Overall, he graded out below average, ranking 101st out of 113 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie, but he should be more consistent in his 2nd season in the league.
Trumaine Johnson is also a 2nd year defensive back. He’ll be the 3rd cornerback and play outside with Jenkins when Finnegan moves to the slot. Johnson took over that role about halfway through last season from veteran Bradley Fletcher and played extremely well on 366 snaps, making 3 starts. Despite the limited playing time, Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked cornerback, allowing 22 catches on 42 attempts for 308 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and not committing a penalty. The big 6-2 205 pounder also played the run well. He was a 3rd round pick last April, but not for lack of talent. The Montana product also had off the field issues. He’ll see more playing time in his 2nd season in the league and could really show himself as one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and set himself up for a future starting job.
It’s possibly Johnson’s future as a starter could be at safety, considering his size and the fact that the Rams have much bigger holes at safety than cornerback. In fact, they might have the worst safety duo in the NFL. Craig Dahl and Quentin Mikell do not return as starters. Dahl won’t be missed that much because he was one of the worst safeties in the league last season, but Mikell was still an above average starter, playing the run well and showing himself to be an exceptional blitzer (3 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 65 blitzes).
In their absence, the Rams will start Darian Stewart and TJ McDonald. Stewart was one of the worst starting safeties in the NFL in 2011, grading out 83rd out of 87 eligible before seeing just 82 snaps as a pure reserve in 2012. Rams fans shouldn’t be excited to see him back in the starting lineup after he missed 20 tackles in 2011. McDonald, meanwhile, is a mere 3rd round rookie and he was a reach at that. The next Taylor Mays, the USC product has great speed and size (6-2 219, 4.59 40), but he’s a penalty prone, undisciplined tackler who can’t cover. Both of their safeties will be exposed early and often.
Jeff Fisher was out of the league in 2011 after being fired by the Tennessee Titans, but he remains a solid Head Coach. He held out for the right opportunity and was a hot commodity on the open market last offseason, deciding on St. Louis over Miami. He finished with a 142-120 record over 16+ seasons in Tennessee and was the longest tenured Head Coach in the league when he was finally fired. In his 16 full seasons, he’s finished at .500 or above 11 times. He made the playoffs 6 times, finishing 5-6 with one trip to the Super Bowl in 1999. In his first season with the Rams in 2011, he took them from 2-14 to 7-8-1 and has made them a competitive young team.
The Rams are undoubtedly a more talented team this season, but they would have probably seen another bounce down (at least a few games) this season if they hadn’t added the extra talent. I just have a hard time seeing them improve on last year’s record in the loaded NFC. They have talent, but they’re not a great team or anything and you look at the rest of the NFC, I don’t know if there’s a single NFC team that you can say, they’re definitely worse than the Rams. Someone has to lose all those games. I’m not saying they’ll lose a ton of games, but it’s more likely they go 4-12 than make the playoffs. Overall, I have them somewhere in between and making a small bounce back down wins wise. They’ll be a pesky opponent for playoff caliber teams though, as they’ve proven with wins over Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco last year that they can pull upsets.
That being said, they’ll be lucky to win one game against San Francisco and Seattle this year. Both of those teams are just significantly more talented. I’ll give them one and a season split with Arizona for a 2-4 divisional record. Outside the division, they host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Chicago, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay. Jacksonville and Tennessee should be pretty easy wins and they could pull an upset over New Orleans, a poor road team. Chicago and Tampa Bay won’t be unwinnable either, so I have them at 3-2 in those 5 games. However, trips to Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Carolina, and Indianapolis will be tough. They’ll be lucky to win one of those games
Projection: 6-10 3rd in NFC West