The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it’s time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
ST LOUIS RAMS
2012 Record: 7-8-1. Missed the playoffs
Which player is under the most pressure?
Sam Bradford is under pressure internally and externally. Externally, Bradford is going to always be compared to Robert Griffin III as the Rams could have passed on the trade with the Redskins in which they elected to stay with the unproven and much more expensive Bradford. Bradford, in three NFL seasons has yet to post a winning record. RG3 led his team to the playoffs in his rookie season.
Internally, Bradford will be under pressure because the Rams will be without Steven Jackson for the first time in nine seasons. In the last eight he posted at least 1,000 rushing yards. Now the team only has two running backs on the roster that have even had a carry in the NFL and just three receivers that have recorded a reception as a professional. It will be up to Bradford to fill those gaps.
What is the position battle to watch?
As mentioned earlier, of the 10 receivers listed on the Rams depth chart, only three of them have ever caught a pass in the NFL. As far as receiving yards from last season, two of the top three receivers from last season and three of the top six aren’t even on the roster in 2013. The team’s leading receiver, Chris Givens, posted just 698 yards and only three touchdowns in 2012 and the Rams have yet to have a 1,000-yard receiver since Torry Holt in 2007.
This position battle isn’t so much about who will emerge as the two defined starters, but more about how this unit will mature as a whole. Barring injury, Givens and first-round draft pick (No. 8 overall) Tavon Austin will most assuredly be the two starting wideouts. What is unknown is just how effective they will be and who will step up to provide depth. By most accounts, Austin Pettis has had a solid preseason camp, but everyone looks good in shorts. On a team struggling for wide receiver talent, Pettis has only been able to crack the starting lineup five times in his first two seasons. The team tried to address this issue by taking Brian Quick with the 33rd overall pick in last year’s draft, but Quick caught just 11 passes for 156 yards last season.
Don’t be surprised if this year’s 92nd overall pick jumps ahead of both Pettis and Quick on the depth chart. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin were teammates at West Virginia and while Austin got more attention, it was Bailey that led the nation with 23 touchdown catches and was third in the country with an average of 120 yards per game. Bailey provides a level of reliability to Austin’s playmaking ability that will be a good contrast for the Rams’ passing game.
What is the team’s biggest asset?
This team can flat-out get after the opposing quarterback. In 2012, the Rams led the entire NFL with 52 sacks and the speed off the edge of Chris Long and Robert Quinn is unmatched in the entire league. With the development of Michael Brockers, who had four sacks last season as a rookie, this defensive line is only going to be better in 2013. St. Louis also drafted Alec Ogletree in the second round of this draft and he was easily the most athletic linebacker in the entire class. If they can keep his head on straight, he has the ability to become one of the better blitzing linebackers in all of football.
With the read-option and athletic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in their division, the speed of the Rams’ defense will be even more critical. If anyone can match up with those spread offenses, it is the Rams … let’s remember, they went 4-1-1 in the division last year.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
I have already touched on Tavon Austin, Alec Ogletree and Stedman Bailey, but T.J. McDonald may actually have the most immediate impact. McDonald, the first of the Rams’ two third-round picks, has the size and fluid movements to run with the more athletic tight ends in the NFL and always seems to put himself in the right place on the field. He has a high football IQ that was very often on display during his time at USC. In what was an abnormally deep safety class, McDonald was actually the sixth safety selected in the draft, but he could have easily been the second or third. Outside of Kenny Vaccaro, the safeties all received very similar draft grades and it was just a matter of personal preference from each of the teams where they were taken.
What is the team’s biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
It wasn’t like Jake Long had a perfect season last year but he is a huge upgrade for an offensive line that was very shaky on the left side in 2012. Long had a lackluster year in Miami, but I think given a new environment, he will easily get back to his All-Pro ways. With pass rushers like Aldon Smith, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin in the NFC West, it is even more important for Sam Bradford to have faith in his left tackle. The Rams now have a pretty solid line across the board with Rodgers Saffold kicking over to the right side and Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells anchoring the middle. Just like the defensive line, the offensive line could now become a strong point of the team rather than the liability that it became in the previous two seasons.