PFF Preview 2011 – St Louis Rams

| September 2, 2011

From 1-15 to 7-9, the Rams couldn’t have been more of a surprise in 2010.

Rookie of the year Sam Bradford played above and beyond expectations, while the defense found a nice groove to keep things competitive. There’s no doubt they took advantage of one of the easiest schedules the NFL had to offer and 2011 will not be so kind. St. Louis is now on everyone’s radar and will not be taken lightly. Playing the Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Redskins, Packers, Cowboys and Saints all in the first half of the season will be a true test to see if they are contenders or pretenders.

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Five Reasons to be Confident

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1) A Pleasant Surprise

James Hall, Chris Long and Fred Robbins absolutely tormented opposing offenses last season. The three of them combined for over half of St. Louis’ sacks and quarterback pressures. Long finished as a top-five pass rusher with a +28.0 rating – It truly was a breakout season for him after having pedestrian 2008 and 2009 campaigns. The hype of being a No. 2 overall pick and the son to a Hall-of-Famer creates lofty expectations that may never be reached, but Long is only 26 with the arrow on his career pointing up. Both Hall and Robbins have two years left on their existing deals, so it will be interesting to see if their level of productivity drops off or stays true to their numbers in 2010.

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2) Best of the Best

The Rams went out and acquired the best safety in the NFL. Quintin Mikell has been the best player at his position the last two out of three years and no one even knew it. As said best by our very own Khaled Elsayed, “(He) makes plays on the ball in coverage and makes plenty of defensive stops, but it gets lost because Mikell just isn’t a highlight reel type of player.” It’s rare to see a player like him because he plays the pass equally as well as he does the run. Mikell played for Spagnuolo and fits his system much better than O.J. Atogwe ever did.

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3) Shiny New Toys

It’s no secret that Bradford was the dink and dunk champion in 2010. The Rams threw 293 passes that traveled less than 10 yards; Bradford had very few weapons to work with. His favorite target was lost to a season ending knee injury after Week 5 and their only real legitimate downfield threat tore his ACL in preseason. Without hesitation the Rams made sure Sam would have an arsenal full of weapons for 2011. St. Louis drafted three receiving options and added one more via free agency, not to mention the returns of Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery. Bradford helped return the Rams to competency, but will his newest additions allow this team to take the next step. I believe so.

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4) Just Plain Nasty

The worst player on the entire Rams roster last year was starting RG Adam Goldberg. Luckily, fans can be optimistic that the right side of the offensive line is no longer a liability. Harvey Dahl was brought in from Atlanta to bolster a young, athletic line that needed a little bit of nastiness. In the three years we have been grading, Dahl has never had a negative overall grade and was the sixth best guard in football last season. Some feel that he was a product of his environment in Atlanta, but I don’t believe that is the case at all. When watching him on tape it’s easy to see that he can hold his own one on one with anyone.

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5) Legion of Doom

Second round draft selections in the Billy Devaney era have been awfully kind to him. It all started with a player who scouts said could never be a three down middle linebacker in the NFL. James Laurinaitis has compiled 193 solo tackles through his first two seasons and has been an absolute stud against the run. A +14.3 puts him in the top half of the league and the ever-improving defensive line will allow him to become that much better of a player.

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Five Reasons to be Concerned

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1) Wear and Tear

Even with Steven Jackson going for his seventh straight 1,000-yard season there is room for concern. Jackson is 28 years old and the Rams have been riding him for years. He has 2,205 touches for his career, which averages out to about 315 a season. Also, Steven averaged a career low 3.8 yards a carry last season with only 23 missed tackles. A very low number compared to a player like LeGarrette Blount who forced 50 missed tackles last season. The addition of Josh McDaniels’ more pass heavy system may help keep him fresh.

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2) The Forgotten Bunch

Outside linebacker seems to be a position that keeps getting ignored. Year after year it seems like St. Louis tries to mask the problem with an over the hill re-tread or some no-name late round draft pick. This year the Rams are writing the same story, but just taking a different approach. Bringing in Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga and Zac Diles is like saying we are going to throw a bunch of darts at a dartboard and see which one sticks. Leber is a fine player who can rush the passer and hold his own in coverage. Diles fell off a cliff last year and could really use a bounce back year while Poppinga doesn’t seam to add much value at all.

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3) Wide Receiver Uncertainty

Even though the Rams have added more weapons on offense it could be of concern that none of the additions have much of a track record. Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are all rookies. Mike Sims-Walker has been slightly above average so far in his young NFL career, but injuries have hampered him from reaching his full potential. Only two wide receivers on the roster have three years of experience or more and not one has had a 1,000-yard season. With Avery and Clayton returning from injury, it will be intriguing to see how they fit into the Rams plans.

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4) Open Up the Lanes

The addition of Dahl is a welcomed one, but if St. Louis wants to truly become a dominant offense their offensive line play, as a whole, needs to improve. Four out of the five worst players on the Rams offense were starting offensive lineman. The group is young and shows promises at times, but their needs to be more continuity and a level of accountability. Run blocking killed this unit last year. When adding up the run blocking grades from the starting five offensive lineman it equates out to -53.8 – with none of the starting offensive lineman finished the season with a positive run block grade.

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5) Nickels and Dimes

It’s safe to say there might be a problem when the second highest coverage grade goes to defensive tackle Fred Robbins. Only one defensive starter in the secondary had a positive year against the pass. Bartell has been a mainstay as their No. 1 cornerback with Bradley Fletcher as the new up and comer, but who now fills that Nickel role? Jerome Murphy looked to be that guy, but a broken foot in the preseason opener has set him back 6-8 weeks. All eyes then turn to Justin King, a guy who has battled injuries the past three seasons. After a dismal year in 2009 King bounced back to show much improvement in 2010. If King can’t prove to be the guy they will then give the crafty old veteran Al Harris a look. Don’t look for the Rams coverage grades to go up any if they can’t solidify the third and fourth cornerback spots.

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Will the plethora of new veteran talent pay off or will it be a wasted attempt at speeding up the winning process? The St. Louis Rams went from one of the youngest teams in 2010 to now one of the older teams at the start of 2011. Josh McDaniels was brought in to help this offense score more points and be more efficient on third down and in the red zone, an area where they struggled last year. We will see if all this change allows the Rams to take the next step forward to a playoff appearance; something that have not had since 2004.

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