It’s been a busy off-season for the St. Louis Rams. Free agency, which included the additions of key components like backup quarterback Shaun Hill and two-time Pro Bowler Davin Joseph, soon gave way to the draft, where the club turned out to be the toast of Radio City Music Hall. In addition to picking stellar first-rounders Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald, St. Louis snatched multiple individuals who should become primary 2014 contributors in Tre Mason, Lamarcus Joyner and Mo Alexander.
All the while, head coach Jeff Fisher did another outstanding job of implementing a specific plan for the spring and seeing it through, keeping players hungry and focused during the off-season’s three stages. Phase One, featuring goals and objective-setting for the upcoming season, served as the first order of business in April. Classroom study, weight lifting, cross training.
Phase two moved on to OTAs and the on-field installation of new schemes within the offense, defense and special teams. The minds of first-year players tend to race at this juncture due to the overload of football data and natural adjustments that come with living in a new city. A team mindset and goals are continuously reinforced here.
Training camp – or Phase Three – still awaits, of course. The scheme installation that took place during OTAs is regurgitated, but everything begins to move at a faster pace. There is a standard learning curve for the youngsters, early, though, and Fisher’s method of teaching allows for a graceful transition into the preseason.
With OTAs finally in the rear-view mirror, Fisher and general manager Les Snead’s well-documented desire to increase the overall talent level on the roster demands an examination of all three phases of the team at the moment.
Despite Zac Stacy’s considerable efforts in his first year out of Vanderbilt, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer recently made it clear that nothing is guaranteed.
“Right now, competition is for who’s the starter,” Schottenheimer said. “We’re just going to let them all roll and see what happens. … Zac’s obviously a really, really good player, but we’re going to create competition for all the guys. That’s a long way off, but we know we have a good stable group of backs and they all have different skill sets, which we’ll try to use throughout the course of the year.”
The Rams’ nine OTA sessions also revealed enhanced competition at the wide receiver position. Free-agent acquisition Kenny Britt brought immediate skill and sizzle to the group. Second-year pros Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey improved their route running daily, catching the ball outside the frame and diligently working on the little things. Somewhat lost in the shuffle among the media was Chris Givens who quietly went about the process of fine-tuning his respective game.
Obviously, getting quarterback Sam Bradford and left tackle Jake Long healthy and back in the fold remains of critical importance. Both are in the final stages of rehabbing ACL injuries.
“I was happy with everything that went on during OTAs,” Bradford said. “A big part of it for me was getting back onto the field, seeing how my knee reacted. It’s been fantastic.
“We were actually able to do a little more than we anticipated. So, that’s very positive and then this week to actually practice twice, get a little more comfortable out there. It’s tough kind of going once a week.”
It won’t be long, either, before Long joins a monstrous O-line that includes Robinson, Joseph, Wells, swing man Rodger Saffold and Barksdale, giving St. Louis experience, power, strength and depth.
Drafting Donald, the best interior pass rusher in the 2014 class, will prove to be a major coup for Fisher and Snead. The Pittsburgh product will find his place amidst an already-dominant front that boasts defensive ends Chris Long, Robert Quinn and William Hayes, not to mention stout tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford.
The man in charge of finding reps for all of these quarterback-chasers, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, recognizes the exciting challenge in front of him.
“There’s an awful lot of things that have to be done if you’re going to be in the top of our profession,” Williams said. “We’re looking to move up the ranks. We don’t want to be fourth in the NFC West. This is a tough division. We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to accomplish. This is a really, really good division. It’s a fun division to be in. We had to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. We’ve come a long ways, but again, it’s a process and training camp will be the next step.”
Williams promises to bring a high-pressure defensive assault with a barrage of blitz packages from multiple formations and personnel packages. What is already noticeable is the fierce attitude and aggressiveness across the board, with players pushing one another past the comfort zone while protecting one another. Some analysts are concerned with the back end of the Rams’ defense, but Williams will likely stack the box against the run and squeeze the pocket versus the pass, hoping to control the opponents tempo with his front seven and thus giving the secondary ample time in coverage.
For the second straight year, the Rams will be the youngest team in the league. However, that won’t stop special teams coach John Fassel and his crew from playing at a high level.
Penalties were an issue early in 2013, nullifying many big returns and killing a lot of momentum. The offense frequently paid the price, starting with poor field position all too often. The Rams hope that their improved maturity will prevent a similar start going into the fall.
Kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein seems primed to tack on as many field goals and extra points as ever. Meanwhile, Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker will do his best to top last season’s net average of 44.2 yards – an NFL record. Fassel used the past month to identify possible backups to primary returner Austin, too, since St. Louis would like to add to his responsibilities at wideout.
With training camps opening around the country soon, the Rams have under 30 days until they start their quest for the ultimate goal – the Super Bowl.