New Rams coach Jeff Fisher, formerly with the Tennessee Titans, brings a legacy of winning to the Show-Me State. Both he and general manager Les Snead have set the organization up with multiple first-round picks in 2013 and 2014, having orchestrated a trade before the 2012 NFL draft with the Robert Griffin III-smitten Washington Redskins, who were willing to sacrifice a significant portion of their future in order to land the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
While St. Louis has made changes in several areas (personnel, marketing, sponsorship, coaching), the most critical difference entering the campaign ahead boils down to the roster. The Rams essentially underwent a total transformation, going from one of the oldest teams to the youngest in a matter of a few weeks. They enjoyed a lucrative free-agency period, acquiring players like cornerback Cortland Finnegan, and defensive tackle Kendall Langford, and drafted four players with huge upside in defensive tackle Michael Brockers, wide receiver Brian Quick, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson.
The expectations for this young team are extremely high, but when I break down the 90-man roster and envision the final 53 men heading to Detroit on opening day, there still are holes in the depth chart and camp battles that must take care of themselves, not to mention an approaching milestone.
While the Rams are off to a very good start in terms of building a championship foundation, you can’t fill all holes in one offseason. They put out hot spots through free agency and the draft, but depth remains a dilemma heading into 2012. The inexperience of the offensive line creates a lot of concern looking from the outside in, along with the defensive back position. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and offensive line coach Paul Boudreau will work in a popcorn rotation if one injury should happen to the offensive line. Swingman Quinn Ojinnaka will play a very important role, filling in at either guard or tackle position. Tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith are coming off injured reserve. Saffold’s past injury (pecs) is not a major concern. Smith, on the other hand, comes into camp with a flashing yellow; his concussion history is not a good sign for longevity when it comes to a 16-game schedule. Even if the Baylor product does a better job of playing with his hands and avoiding his previous penchant for using the head-butt technique on pass rushers, he sat out most of the OTAs and minicamps while recovering. History suggests the odds are stacked against him.
The Rams took a major hit at the cornerback position with a heavy rash of injuries in the 2011 season. They reloaded on defense on the edge, however, by securing the services of Finnegan and Jenkins. Where they are light in size and depth is at the safety position. With Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart in the Fisher/Gregg Williams defensive scheme, look for these two safeties to excel in production. They won’t be as exposed as they were in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. The only other safety with NFL experience is veteran Craig Dahl.
The wide receiver position has a combination of both veterans and youth. Surrounding Sam Bradford with talent outside the numbers was a top priority. Like a slide under a microscope, the competition at this position will be closely watched. Currently, St. Louis is limited with respect to stretch-the-field talent, and there are question marks on players with past injuries. Danny Amendola missed virtually all of 2011 with a triceps tear, and the newly acquired Steve Smith is returning from micro-fracture surgery. Time will tell if the ex-Giants contributor can take the pounding of training camp and the preseason season en route to giving this team a full 16 weeks. The same goes for Danario Alexander, who has a history of needing maintenance during the week in order to play big on Sundays. Rookies Quick and Chris Givens are very good additions. They are still raw, but will compete for playing time right away. Others in a battle to roster are Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas, Austin Pettis and a second-year player with size, Michael Campbell. Pettis will also serve a two-game suspension, which may influence Rams brass’ final analysis when cutting the team to 53 individuals.
The only position that was left open and had a rotation during the spring was left guard. Fifth-round pick Rokevious Watkins is a mountain of a man; he is as wide as he is tall. Nevertheless, the young player on whom the Rams are counting to help fill the void at left guard struggled during last week’s three-day practice sessions for rookies, and was limited to conditioning. Converted defensive lineman and second-year player Bryan Mattison played well last season. Tough and nasty, he is also in the hunt for the starting job at left guard and should improve his technique under Boudreau’s tutelage.
Steven Jackson, better known as SJ39, has a chance to reach 10,000 yards rushing and 60 touchdowns this season. One of the most versatile running backs from the line of scrimmage since 2006, Jackson is aiming to reach said milestone within nine seasons. Fisher has stated on several occasions that running the football will be a main focal point of the offense, and that Jackson will carry the load. The organization drafted Isaiah Pead as a change-of-pace back behind Jackson, but opposing defenses will assuredly get a heavy dose of Jackson each and every Sunday.
The line of scrimmage is an imaginary line, and is based on ball placement and identified by a yard stick held by an official. The game of football starts with the big boys up front on every snap of the ball. The Rams will have to secure both the offensive and defensive lines in order for the rest of the scheme on both sides of the ball to be successful. Protecting Bradford, while opening holes for Jackson and Pead, is the key on offense. It is extremely important that the defensive front gels quickly as a unit, too, as stopping the run and putting pressure on the opposing quarterback will prove key to the franchise’s success in 2012.