After a promising 2010 campaign, many felt that the Rams were on the up and up. Their franchise quarterback seemed to be just that, the savior and answer to all their problems. He just needed a few more pieces around him and an offensive coordinator that would open up the playbook. Everything seemed to be falling into place quite nicely. That is until a drastic scheme change with no offseason to properly install it was shredded by injuries and more injuries which quickly turned hope into despair.
How will management and the new coaching staff truly change the losing culture at Rams Park? Only time will tell, but in the meantime lets take a look at three areas of concern as free agency quickly approaches.
Primary Need: Cornerback
Six. That’s the number of cornerbacks the Rams put on injured reserve last season. Quite the number considering they put both of their starting corners on IR less than a month into the season. 2011 third round draft choice Jerome Murphy, who was expected to give a serious battle for the nickel role, didn’t even make it out of training camp. Thats’s not to mention the two other replacements that landed there half way through the month of November. With the bad comes the good and the good news is that both Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are expected make full recoveries and return to the team next season. Bartell’s play is sporadic and inconsistent, but has been a staple for the Rams’ secondary for some time now. Fletcher is coming off his second ACL surgery in three years, but when on the field he is one of the best tackling cornerbacks around. In 2010 he only had three missed tackles.
As I mentioned above, both players are expected to be back in 2012, but does the Rams new brass want to put its faith in two players that are coming off serious injuries? Probably not, so expect them to bring in a couple fresh faces at the cornerback position. A player who immediately stands out is Cortland Finnegan (+15.8) and he would be a tremendous upgrade for a defense that needs more playmakers. Finnegan was our third overall rated cornerback in 2011 as he gave up 456 yards receiving on 52 receptions. Needless to say, this was a huge improvement over the Titans tumultuous 2010 campaign when he finished with a -14.5 rating. Also, a reunion with Jeff Fisher and defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil would only make sense given the long history between the three.
Secondary Need: Offensive Tackle
In recent drafts, the Rams have spent a couple of high picks on who they thought would be their right and left tackles for the next 10 years. Yet, as we’ve seen time and again, the draft really is a crapshoot. There are no guarantees and all you can hope for is that your picks develop into quality players. Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold are supposed to be the ones anchoring the offensive line, but instead they’ve been the ones sinking it. Over the past two seasons, Smith and Saffold have a combined grade of -50.0 and have given up 21 sacks and 86 quarterback pressures. Those numbers don’t include a full season for either of them in 2011, as they only managed 15 games total between them.
Surely St. Louis wouldn’t be too keen on spending another high draft pick on an offensive tackle, especially with both Saffold and Smith under contract. The Rams do own the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft … unless they trade it for a bevy of draft choices. If not, there are some highly-touted tackle prospects out there if they wanted one, but a Jeff Fisher-coached team has never selected an offensive tackle in the first round. Even though the class of free agent offensive tackles seems particularly thin, there is some value to be had. Demetrius Bell (+6.8) is a player they should take a long hard look at. He is the top-rated free agent run blocker in this year’s offensive tackle market. Run and pass blocking were both culprits for St. Louis in 2011, but the run blocking was the worst of the two. In the 401 snaps that Bell played, he only gave up seven pressures, a hit, and a sack; a very impressive stat line, to say the least.
Tertiary Need: Wide Receiver
Outside of Brandon Lloyd, I would be surprised if someone could name a wide receiver on the Rams’ roster that has consistently shown he has game-changing talent. Some would possibly mention Danario Alexander (+3.3) and it would be easy to agree–to an extent. While he has flashed, its offset by the times when he disappears, completely. The return of Danny Amendola (85 catches in 2010) will be a big help to Sam Bradford as there is a sense of security between the two, but even then, the receiving core still lacks a punch. It’s time to stop trying to get by with a bunch of No. 2’s and No. 3’s and get a true No. 1.
Two things need to happen this offseason. First, St. Louis needs to do everything in their power to keep Brandon Lloyd (+5.8). Second, they need to be committed to getting another threat to put opposite him. He is that top receiver they’ve been searching for and he proved that last year. Imagine the ever so interesting Robert Meachem opposite of Lloyd. Meachem isn’t as big-bodied as fellow free agent Marques Colston, but he sure has big play ability and he always made the most of his opportunities in New Orleans. Obviously, the market value for both players will depend on who gets tagged and who hits the open market, but if the price is right, look for the Rams to make a big splash in trying to acquire two top-flight receivers.