2014 preview: Rams' biggest obstacle is the NFC West itself
The Rams figure to be better this season as their young roster continues to mature. But a wicked schedule that includes the NFC East and AFC West as well as the other three teams in the NFC West could make it tough for the Rams' record to reflect that improvement.
Sam Bradford will have more to smile about this season if Jake Long and his linemates are healthy and productive.
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By Howard BalzerFOX Sports Midwest
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes . . . even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Surely, this is a question asked by almost every NFL team, but the Rams' hope to be productive against the tough defenses in the NFC West is inextricably tied to the line's performance. Consider that the franchise has had four winning seasons since 1999, and in those years the offensive line starters missed a total of seven games. It's no wonder those teams, blessed with the offensive talent on hand, won a total of 49 regular-season games in four seasons. In the 10 seasons since their last winning record, the Rams have won a total of 51 games.
Left tackle Jake Long must show he is back from a torn ACL and not be injured again, while right guard Rodger Saffold has consistently had issues staying on the field. Veteran center Scott Wells has also missed games during his two seasons with the Rams. The guard spots will be manned by a rookie, No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson, and Saffold, who is expected to be a full-time guard for the first time in his career. The least talked-about lineman, right tackle Joe Barksdale, has been the steadiest. He started 13 games last season, and has never had an issue with injuries. Avoidance of injuries will be critical to the health of quarterback Sam Bradford -- whose recovery from ACL surgery appears to be going well -- and the effectiveness of a running game that coach Jeff Fisher expects to be a force.
2. Will someone emerge as a bona fide No. 1 wideout? And is it absolutely necessary that happens?
Rams fans have clearly been spoiled by the years of the Greatest Show on Turf when Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt set the standard for NFL receivers. Both are eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2015, and while it might take some time for them to be enshrined, they are certainly Hall worthy. However, history has shown that it's not necessary to have elite receivers to win. Last season, five NFL receivers had at least 100 receptions and only one -- New England slot receiver Julian Edelman -- was on a playoff team. It has often been the case that a good group of receivers is more important than having an outstanding individual.
However, the receiver on the Rams' roster most capable of separating from the rest is Kenny Britt. Selected in the first round of the 2009 draft when Fisher was the Titans' coach, Britt is in career survival mode after signing a one-year contract. He had numerous off-field incidents while with the Titans and also suffered a torn ACL early in the 2011 season. Now he is healthy and appears to have matured, while showing passion on the field rarely seen in recent seasons by Rams pass-catchers. He is the veteran of the current unit, and also has been having a positive impact on the team's younger receivers, most notably Brian Quick. A productive Britt would be a bonus for the team's offense.
3. How many sacks is defensive end Robert Quinn capable of achieving?
Defensive end Robert Quinn had 19 sacks last season -- and could well surpass that total in 2014.
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Quinn's offseason efforts paid off last season, when he combined work ethic and preparation with amazing quickness and speed that resulted in 19 sacks -- and a lot of nightmares for opposing left tackles. The sky looks to be the limit for the immensely talented Quinn, whose production was all the more impressive given he played on a team that won just seven games. Usually, players who accumulate the most sacks are on winning teams that have frequent leads, which allows pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. It's scary to consider how many sacks Quinn would have had last season had he not been held as often as he was and the Rams not been behind so much.
With Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, the defense will be even more aggressive getting after the quarterback. What could also help is improvement from defensive tackle Michael Brockers and the addition of rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald. More pressure coming up the middle could result in more quarterbacks running into Quinn's waiting arms. The NFL record for sacks in a season is 22 1/2 by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. With Quinn getting to 19 seemingly so effortlessly, that record could be in danger.
OLB Alec Ogletree
Alec Ogletree led the Rams in tackles as a rookie last season.
Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports
Ever since he came to the Rams as a second-round pick in 2009, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has led the team in tackles. Until last season. It's revealing that in his rookie season, Ogletree surpassed Laurinaitis even though he was learning on the job. It seems odd to say a first-round pick who led the team in tackles is poised for a breakout year, but it definitely is the case. Ogletree had 124 solo tackles to Laurinaitis' 104 and led Laurinaitis 155-144 in total tackles. Moreover, Ogletree also had five quarterback pressures, three quarterback hits and six forced fumbles to go with a 98-yard touchdown return of an interception.
With Williams on board as defensive coordinator, Ogletree appears to be a lock to improve on the 1 1/2 sacks he had last season. Williams will be lining him up at different places, making it harder for the offense to figure out where he is on any given play. Outside linebackers in 4-3 defenses usually don't project strongly as first-round picks, but the Rams believe Ogletree is a special talent similar to former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck, who was drafted by Tennessee when Fisher was there along with Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. Bulluck was selected 30th overall, as was Ogletree, and the Rams are confident he can become as consistent a playmaker as Bulluck.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
When Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived on the scene after the Rams were 2-14 in 2011, they immediately began a roster overhaul. It wasn't long before the team had the youngest roster in the league, and that will likely be the case again in 2014 after the new group of rookies asserts itself. The trade out of the second choice in the 2012 draft with the Washington Redskins produced extra picks that are expected to be the foundation of the team. Thirteen drafted or undrafted free agents in 2012 played 171 games with 91 starts last season, while 11 rookies in 2013 played 145 games with 43 starts. At least eight of those 24 players are expected to start this season, and all but one (running back Daryl Richardson) was in training camp with the team this summer.
In addition to contributions from new players, the expectation is that the young players already in place will continue to improve and make bigger impacts. The Rams' plan is to have sustainable success with young players who eventually reach their fourth through seventh seasons, which is the experience level of most consistently successful teams in the NFL. The Rams are optimistic that this growth will begin to take hold this season.
If not panic, there is obvious concern that any improvement the Rams make could be mitigated by their schedule and presence in the difficult NFC West. The teams ahead of them last season -- Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona -- won 35 of 48 games, and the Cardinals watched the playoffs despite winning 10. Two seasons ago, the Rams were 4-1-1 in division games, but struggled with a 3-7 record outside the division. Last season, they were 6-4 in non-division games but managed just one victory (against Arizona) in the division. Winning 10 games would be impressive, especially considering the eight games they will play against the NFC East and AFC West.
Of course, each team in the division plays those same eight teams, so it wouldn't be shocking if the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals fell short of their win totals last season. But they are all formidable opponents with top-caliber defenses. The Rams must find a way to improve offensively in those head-to-head encounters. Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona ranked first, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the NFL in defense last season. The Rams also must navigate an eight-game stretch from Week 5 to Week 12 in which they play four division games (San Francisco twice) along with games against Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver and San Diego -- teams that all made the playoffs last season and had a combined record of 43-21.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
It’s time for Sam Bradford to show he can be a franchise quarterback entering his fifth NFL season. Should that happen, the Rams are in line to post their first winning record since 2003. The defensive front four could be the NFL’s best, and the offensive line should be better. The Rams, though, need a difference-maker to emerge from a young group of safeties. Prediction: 8-8.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.