Schrager's 2-a-days: Browns and Rams
To get you fully prepared for the unofficial start of the 2012 NFL season, we're ranking every team from worst to first in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps.
Every day, we'll be previewing two teams, one from each conference, analyzing them from top to bottom and giving you all you need to know to be an informed fan. What's the major storyline heading into camp? What's the key training camp battle to watch? Who's the young guy to watch? Is there any hope?
Today's two teams: the Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Rams.
Training camp site: Berea, Ohio
Camp start: July 28
BetOnline preseason Super Bowl odds: 150-1
What I like about you: A cast of young, able defenders that added several veteran contributors over the off-season. Also, a strong left side of the offensive line with Joe Thomas, Jason Pinkston and Alex Mack blocking for rookie running back Trent Richardson.
What I don’t like about you: Oh, how can I count the ways? In addition to what appears to be the 11th opening day starting quarterback in 14 years, there’s still no clearly defined No. 1 wide receiver and no real reason to believe the passing offense will be all that much improved from last season’s dud of a campaign. Oh, and yeah, playing in the loaded AFC North doesn’t help one bit.
Burning question: Is Brandon Weeden going to be the guy to finally make the Browns relevant again? Mr. Holmgren, Mr. Heckert and Mr. Shurmur certainly hope so. The Cleveland front office offered a nice platter of picks to the Rams for the second overall selection in March, but the Redskins’ offer (and connections to St. Louis front office and coaching personnel) was just too sweet in the end. So, instead of RG3 in Cleveland, it became Weeden, the 28-year-old rookie and former New York Yankees farmhand. He’s certainly mature for a rookie, but was he worthy of the 22nd overall selection in the NFL Draft? We’ll find out early on. Cleveland starts the season against Philadelphia (Jason Babin and Trent Cole), Cincinnati (Carlos Dunlap), Buffalo (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Mark Anderson and Marcel Dareus) and Baltimore. Welcome to the NFL, rookie.
Key training camp battle: Free safety — Eric Hagg vs. Usama Young: For as bad as the Browns were last season, the pass defense was shockingly very good. This is a unit that finished second in the league in total pass defense. However, Mike Adams — one of the veteran leaders of the unit — signed with Denver over the off-season. His spot will come down to Hagg, a former seventh-round pick who played well in spot duty last season, or Usama Young, a sixth-year veteran out of local Kent State.
New veteran in town: Frostee Rucker, defensive end: The Browns defense already has some nice young defensive line talent in Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard. Rucker joins the mix after a career year in Cincinnati in which he registered personal highs in games played (16), starts (11), tackles (44) and sacks (four), while tying a career high with two passes defended. Rucker will start at defensive end and serve as the primary pass rusher in Cleveland’s 4-3 scheme.
Young gun: Jabaal Sheard, defensive end: Sheard had a big rookie year, notching 8.5 sacks and forcing five fumbles from the defensive end spot. Four of his sacks came in December. He’ll only be more dangerous in 2012 with a full training camp and off-season to learn and a season under his belt. Working at one defensive end spot, as Rucker mans the other, Sheard looks to be the breakout star of the Cleveland defense in 2012.
Schrager prediction: The offense, even with Trent Richardson running behind a solid line, is going to have to endure some real growing pains this season. A rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and a fairly complex offensive system could make for some real miscues early on. The AFC North is too loaded for the Browns to really be competitive in 2012, but they’ll be more entertaining than they were a season ago. And there are some nice pieces, here. Now, if only they had an NFL receiver on the roster.
Final prediction: Fourth Place, AFC North
Training camp site: Russell Training Center, Earth City, Mo.
Camp start: July 29
BetOnline preseason Super Bowl odds: 95-1
What I like about you: There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Jeff Fisher. Fisher brings with him a highly decorated resume, respect around the league, and a reputation as one of the best "player's" coaches in the biz. After nearly a decade of coaching changes, front-office changes and overall ineptitude, there seems be some stability at the top.
What I don’t like about you: The Rams have stunk for a very long time. Steven Jackson has rushed for 1,000 yards or more in each of the past seven seasons. In that time span, the Rams have gone 29-83. Few of the players in that locker room have ever tasted success. Losing breeds losing. Can a new coach and GM change that dark cloud of negativity?
Burning question: Can Sam Bradford shake off his forgettable sophomore season? After a promising rookie year in which he was the league’s most outstanding first-year player, Bradford took a giant step backward in 2011. Part of that was because of a high ankle sprain early on in the season, part of that was because the wide receivers were about as good as a bad high school squad’s and part of that was because the offensive line was abysmal. But part of that is on Bradford, too. He really stunk. I rewatched some of his film from last season, and he was antsy in the pocket, had poor accuracy and seemed easily frustrated when things didn’t go his way. Everyone is still high on Bradford in St. Louis, but with four first-round picks in the next two years, he better perform in 2012.
Key training camp battle — Left guard: Bryan Mattison vs. Quinn Ojinnaka vs. Rokevious Watkins vs. Barry Richardson: The Rams opted to trade back in the first round in April to take a defensive talent in Michael Brockers at 14th overall instead of going with an offensive lineman. The line appears to be set at four of the five positions, but there’s still a giant hole at left guard. Mattison saw some action last season, and though he didn’t wow, is a serviceable pro. Ojinnaka comes from the Colts, where he was a reserve, and Barry Richardson is a vet who’s better suited at tackle. The wild card is Rokevious Watkins, a fifth-round pick in April who’s a hulk of a man. He’s 6 feet 4 and easily 350 pounds and played both guard and tackle at South Carolina. The Cardinals and Rams feature two of the best front sevens and pass rushes in the sport. They’ll be up against each other twice in 2012. Left guard’s already a trouble spot for St. Louis. We’ll see who wins the job in August.
New veteran in town: Scott Wells, center: In addition to bringing in former Super Bowl champions Steve Smith and Joe-Lon Dunbar this off-season, the Rams signed a four-year deal with former Packers starting center Scott Wells, 31. Around the league, Wells is regarded as a grinder and was always a great locker room presence in Green Bay. Ted Thompson opted to let him walk and brought in Jeff Saturday as a replacement, but Wells, 6-2, 300 pounds, will be snapping the ball to Bradford this season. The offensive line was woeful in 2011; the addition of Wells is expected to bring great improvement.
Young gun: Robert Quinn, defensive end: Quinn didn’t have the type of rookie season some NFL experts expected he would in 2011. After slipping to the Rams in the middle of the first round, he was immediately gold-starred as a steal. But the former UNC star didn’t have quite the same pass rushing success as fellow first-round sack masters Aldon Smith and Von Miller. In 15 games, Quinn recorded just five sacks and made 23 tackles. He didn’t record a sack in his final five contests, suggesting there was a rookie wall at play, as well. Quinn has the body. He has the talent. He’s expected to have a big sophomore season, coming off a full offseason to prepare and learn a new defensive system. He may not put up Aldon Smith or Von Miller sack numbers, but he’ll be much improved in Year 2.
Schrager prediction: The Rams are building for the long term, as seen in some of their 2012 NFL Draft dealings. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead aren’t expected to win the Super Bowl right away, but with four first-round picks over the next two years and some talented young pieces all over the field, there’s no reason to be discouraged. The NFC West is a bit tougher than it’s been in recent years, but I like the Rams for two to three more wins than they notched in 2011.
Final prediction: fourth place, NFC West