ST. LOUIS — Working with kids last year suited a refreshed Jeff Fisher, back from a one-year break from coaching with the youngest team in the NFL. One of the most improved, too.
Another influx of youth, fueled by the Robert Griffin III deal, could be what the St. Louis Rams need to post the franchise’s first winning record in a decade. Perhaps compete for a playoff spot, too.
“We’ve had a great offseason,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “I mean, just a great offseason.”
Ball-hawking cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Michael Brockers were impact rookie starters on last year’s 7-8-1 team that finished with 16 first-year players on the roster. Immediate contributions are expected from much of this year’s seven-player draft class led by wide receiver Tavon Austin and outside linebacker Alec Ogletree.
They’ll attempt to answer the biggest question replacing workhorse Steven Jackson, by turning to the unproven committee of Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy.
Fisher and general manager Les Snead will watch them grow together, helped along by veteran quarterback Sam Bradford, defensive end Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, as the Rams try to finally turn that corner.
Five things to know as the Rams prepare to open training camp:
1. FISHER RULES: Though it’s just his second season, the roster overhaul has been drastic – and not just rookies. There’s just over a dozen holdovers from the failed Steve Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan regimes. All the new blood no doubt aids the psyche makeover. In his first team meeting, Fisher tried to make a clean break and told players to expect to win immediately. Whatever happens, these are Fisher’s guys.
2. COMFORT ZONE: For the first time since getting picked first overall in 2010, Bradford hasn’t spent the offseason and spring learning a new scheme. Schottenheimer can expand the options for a player coming off his best statistical season. “We’re comfortable with the coaching staff, we know what to expect,” Bradford said. “When everyone’s comfortable, everyone’s confident.” Last year, they had to build from the ground floor. Not anymore. “I understand why Sam has a smile on his face for a lot of reasons,” Schottenheimer said.
3. STRETCH PLAY: The offense must replace two go-to guys, Jackson and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Neither of them were potential game-breakers like the group they have now. The Rams traded up to draft the speedy, elusive Austin with the eighth pick off a prolific career at West Virginia. They took college teammate Stedman Bailey, whose stats eclipsed Austin’s, in the third round. “We’re much faster,” Bradford said. “We’re all hoping that leads to more explosive plays.” Free agent pickup Jared Cook is expected to provide an inside threat as a tight end who can line up in the backfield. “He’s good. I don’t know if you guys notice that,” Bradford said after a June workout. “He’s a big body running down the middle of the field and it’s going to be hard for people to match up with him.”
4. LINE `EM UP: Signing offensive tackle Jake Long to a free agent deal gave the Rams a pair of former No. 1 overall picks, and another upgrade to the line protecting Bradford. Rodger Saffold, the starting left tackle most of three seasons, moves to the right side to make room for Long. Center Scott Wells was a top free agent pickup last year and gained his stride in midseason after recovering from injuries and guard Harvey Dahl is a durable, feisty presence.
5. RUNNING BACK COMMITTEE: The bruising Jackson is the most prominent player to part ways since the Fisher takeover. He’ll be going for a ninth straight 1,000-yard season in Atlanta. Pead was the heir apparent after getting drafted in the second round last year, but was beaten out for the backup job by Richardson, the last overall pick. Richardson had 475 yards and a 4.8-yard average while Pead got just 10 carries. The Rams traded their last two draft picks to get Stacy, a fifth-rounder who did more inside work starring at Vanderbilt. Pead is suspended for the opener against Arizona Sept. 8 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.