Several holes in the Rams’ offense need be filled if they hope to contend in 2014
ST. LOUIS — It wasn’t that long ago that the St. Louis Rams’ lengthy list of offseason needs resembled Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
For several of the Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo years, the Rams’ needed off-season upgrades at nearly every position other than running back. Now, the power couple of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have St. Louis positioned to contend next season.
During a radio appearance on Wednesday with 101.1 ESPN Radio in St. Louis, Snead was asked what the team’s biggest need was this offseason.
"I don’t think we have a glaring hole on the team," Snead said. "I think the biggest thing we need is we need experience. That’s the Robert Quinn class going from Year 3 to Year 4, that’s the (Michael) Brockers’ class going from Year 2 to 3, that’s the Tavon (Austin)-(Alec) Ogletree class going from Year 1 to 2 and adding more players."
There are needs, of course.
There are several areas the Rams can solidify and upgrade. There is plenty of optimism to go around, but the reality is that the team is 14-17-1 in Fisher’s first two seasons and hasn’t had a winning season since 2003 or made the playoffs since 2004.
We will take a quick two-part look at the Rams’ most pressing needs — examining the offense now and then the defense next week — in what figures to be an interesting off-season for Fisher and Snead.
The Rams are committed to Sam Bradford as their quarterback and the Heisman Trophy winner and 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick has two years remaining on his contract.
Yes, there are plenty of questions about whether he is the right guy for the job and season-ending injuries in 2011 and 2013 haven’t helped him answer those questions. He is 18-30-1 in 49 games as a starter in his four seasons, but he looks like he’s trending in the right direction.
After throwing 21 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions in 2012, Bradford tossed 14 touchdowns and four picks in seven games in 2013 before suffering his knee injury at Carolina.
Bradford is expected to recover in time to start the 2014 season but his injury could complicate the team’s plans for next season. Kellen Clemens and Brady Quinn — how will history remember the Brady Quinn era of Rams’ football? — are both unrestricted free agents and Austin Davis is an exclusive rights free agent.
Clemens performed better than expected in his nine starts, leading the Rams to a 4-6 record. Bradford’s injury probably increasing the chances that St. Louis resigns Clemens, depending on the cost. Quinn and Davis, both signed after Bradford got hurt, aren’t the answer.
It would make sense for the Rams to draft a quarterback to develop and there is value to be found after the first round. The Rams’ NFL West rivals have proven that in recent years. San Francisco plucked Colin Kaepernick in the second round in 2011 and Seattle selected Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012.
Some quarterbacks who could be available after the first round are Zach Mettenberger (LSU), Aaron Murray (Georgia), Jimmy Garappolo (Eastern Illinois), Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and A.J. McCarron (Alabama).
St. Louis used four different running backs in 2013 — Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead — and all four are under contract for next season.
The Rams found a gem in Stacy, a fifth-round pick who rushed for 969 yards and scored a team-high eight touchdowns in 12 starts.
This is a position the team can upgrade in the draft, if the right player is available, but it’s not likely to be one of the Rams’ priorities. Unless they think Stacy’s debut season was a fluke, of course.
Richardson showed promise in 2012 as Steven Jackson’s backup but couldn’t seize the starting job early in 2013 and then was hobbled by injuries. He could be the answer as a speedy complement to Stacy.
Cunningham averaged 5.55 yards per carry in his rookie campaign, but that number is pumped up with a 56-yard run vs. the Colts. Take that one run away and he still averaged a solid 4.46 yards per attempt.
Pead, who has two years remaining on his contract, carried the ball just seven times this season. The second-round pick in 2012 has just 17 carries for 75 yards in his first two years. Do the Rams bring him back next season to see if the light bulb finally comes on or do they cut their losses and release him?
This is always a hot topic in St. Louis.
Snead was asked about this during his radio appearance and had plenty to say. He praised rookies Tavon Austin (40 catches, 418 yards, six total TDs) and Stedman Bailey (17 catches, 226 yards, one rushing TD), cited Chris Givens’ yards-per-catch average in his first two seasons (16.7), Austin Pettis’s ability to move the chains and said the organization likes the progress of big Brian Quick (18 catches, 302 yards, two TDs) out of tiny Appalachian State.
"Between those five guys, we’re gonna want to play them, keep them fresh, keep defenses off-balance," Snead said. "Maybe one of them doesn’t lead the league in receptions or yardage, but between the group I think it’s going to make the offense better."
The Rams obviously didn’t get the kind of production they wanted out of their wide receivers this season. All five players are under contract for next year, but this is a group that will likely see some changes and could definitely use an upgrade or two.
Austin didn’t have the impact some had hoped for in his rookie season, which ended after 13 games because of an ankle injury. But he showed promise and the kind of explosiveness the Rams lacked. Still, his six total touchdowns were more than any St. Louis player scored in 2012 and more than any Rams receiver since Torry Holt scored seven in 2007.
Each of the other four players has showed flashes but not the consistency Fisher’s squad needs. Who is going to break out in 2014 or who is going to be out of the mix?
The Rams could address the area again in the draft. I know, you’ve heard that before. The 2014 Draft is deeeeeeeep with wide receivers and St. Louis could select one with one of its two first-round picks.
Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Marqise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State) are all attractive options.
Jared Cook’s first season with the Rams was viewed as a disappointment by many, even though he led the team with 51 catches for 671 yards and five touchdowns and played more than half the season without Bradford as his quarterback. He has four years left on his $35.11 million contract, which included $19 million guaranteed.
Lance Kendricks and tight end-fullback hybrid Cory Harkey both contributed to the offense while Mike McNeill, the pride of Kirkwood High School, was a valuable player on special teams.
This is a solid group that, if it returns intact in 2014, should be able to contribute to the offense in the running and passing attacks.
The Rams’ offensive line was a game of musical chairs in 2013. While they were able to be successful for much of the season, this will be a key area to address in the off-season with some difficult decisions ahead.
Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold all suffered injuries that kept them out of action at times but the Rams kept filling in with guys like right tackle Joe Barksdale and center Tim Barnes and were able to create an identity as a power-running team.
Long, who should be recovered from his knee injury by early next season, has four years remaining on the $60 million deal he signed as a free agent last offseason. Youngsters Barnes and Barksdale look like capable starters who can develop. Barrett Jones, a center picked in the fourth round in 2013, has potential as well.
Saffold and starting left guard Chris Williams are both unrestricted free agents. Guard Shelley Smith is a restricted free agent.
Wells and Dahl are both candidates to be released. Wells is scheduled to make $5.5 million in 2014 while Dahl is set to earn $2 million.
The Rams would be wise to resign Saffold because of his versatility and potential as a guard, but the money has to be right and it’s possible someone else could offer him considerably more. Since starting 16 games as a rookie in 2010, Saffold started nine games in 2011, eight in 2012 and nine in 2013. His injury history is a concern.
There are always free agent offensive linemen available but the Rams will have to pay up and recent history has shown that it is difficult to evaluate those players.
Fisher’s history tells us that he doesn’t select offensive linemen in the first round of the draft. Could that change this spring? Depending on whether or not the Rams resign Saffold and how the team views Barksdale, it would make sense to draft some linemen and there should be some good ones available in the first round.
Offensive tackles Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), Greg Robinson (Auburn), Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama), Taylor Lewan (Michigan) and Zack Martin (Notre Dame) are considered potential first-rounders. Cyril Richardson, a 6-foot-5, 340-pounder from Baylor, is regarded as the best guard prospect in the draft.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.