It’s been tough in the National Football League in recent years for the St. Louis Rams. Despite playing in what is widely considered one of the least-competitive divisions in football, the NFC West, they have been a doormat for the rest of the league.
As a result, Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo was shown the door and former Tennesse Titans’ coach Jeff Fisher was been brought in after a year off. Fisher has already made some moves to improve their under-achieving defense, but the biggest question is whether he can help justify the franchises’ decision to draft Sam Bradford with the first overall pick a few years ago.
Will Fisher return the franchise to prominence? Let’s take a look at some factors that will determine the answer to that question.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1) Young Pass Rushers
One positive about this defense last year was that they appeared to have what so many teams covet: a pair of fierce pass rushers coming off the edges. The second-overall pick in 2008, Chris Long, has only graded positively against the run in one season (2009), but he has compensated for that by terrorizing opposing Tackles and QBs, which is what he was drafted to do. Long has a combined +62.4 pass rushing grade in his four-year career, making a huge leap in 2010 that is expected of players drafted with the price tag he came with. Opposite him is 2011 first round pick Robert Quinn. Quinn only played 584 snaps (in contrast to Long’s 947) and collected six sacks, nine QB knockdowns, and 21 hurries. The former North Carolina Tar Heel should only get better in his second year, making this pair of defensive ends a problem for the rest of the league.
2) Improved Secondary
The Rams’ cornerback stable was decimated by injury last year and was one of the biggest reasons this squad was one of the worst defensive units in the league. The new regime obviously noticed this because they have upgraded heavily in an area that is of more importance in this pass-happy era of football. One of the additions is former Titans Pro Bowler Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan may unfortunately be remembered by many as the guy Houston Texans’ Andre Johnson put a beat down on in a 2010 game, but he has been a consistently solid DB over the four years we’ve been watching every play from every game. In that span, Finnegan has only given up nine TDs and has only graded negatively in run defense once, though that was essentially a league average showing (-0.1 in 2008). On the other side is Janoris Jenkins, a second round prospect that many will tell you has first round talent, but dropped in the draft due to some drug violations. Jenkins has impressed in the preseason and should provide the Rams with above-average play in the years to come, assuming his problems from college don’t return.
3) Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead
Steven Jackson has been a workhorse through a dark era for the Rams; he’s been consistent despite continually playing behind subpar run blocking and an anemic passing attack, rushing for over a 1,000 yards in each of the last four seasons anyway. His running mates in that span, including Antonio Pittman, Kenneth Darby, and Cadillac Williams have never been productive enough to make an impact. The Rams finally addressed this problem by drafting Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead. Pead, more a speedy and elusive runner, seems to be a nice compliment to Jackson’s bruising style. While we can’t know yet if Pead will contribute this year as much as the Rams hope, the fact that they moved up in the draft to get him with the 50th overall pick show that the front office is aware they need to give Jackson fresh young talent to share the backfield with.
4) James Laurinaitis
Another young gem in this defense is former Ohio State Buckeye James Laurinaitis. A second round pick in 2009, Laurinaitis is reportedly about to get a contract extension, which is a no-brainer; despite the sub-par play from some of his teammates, he has always graded positively overall. While he has never been the most consistent overall player in all three phases of the game (run defense, pass rush, pass coverage), he makes up for that by dominating in a particular area in the past two years. In 2010, he was a force against the run, grading out as our 12th-best LB in this area. Last year he qualified as our seventh-best LB in pass coverage despite giving up a career-high four TD passes. Even if Laurinaitis continues to be inconsistent in all areas, his track record indicates he will make up for his flaws by excelling in another phase of the game.
3) A New Direction
Here at PFF we don’t grade coaches, but ex-Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo won only 10 games in his three years behind the wheel. I can’t tell you whether that horrific record is because of bad drafting, injuries, bad coaching or other factors, but it obviously was far from good enough, leading to Jeff Fisher’s arrival. Fisher has been one of the most respected coaches in the league (remember when he left the Tennesse Titans in early 2011 and the media predicted he’d have a coaching job whenever he wanted one?) and his presence should give the Rams a boost of confidence. The Rams front office was tired of being one of the least-threatening teams in the league, and while it remains to be seen if Fisher can return the franchises’ respectability, there is reason to be hopeful.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1) Sam Bradford’s Health
Former first-overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford carries the weight of this franchise on his shoulders, and there have been signs to indicate he can at least come close to living up to that lofty status. Through the first five games of last season he accumulated a +8.3 passing grade despite being repeatedly betrayed by his wide receivers (23 drops) and offensive line (16 sacks, seven QB hits and 39 hurries). With Bradford getting the David Carr treatment, it was only a matter of time before he was injured; in that Week 6 game against the Green Bay Packers he suffered an ankle injury that would lead to five missed games. He would finish his remaining five games with a -9.3 passing grade. While his talent is not questioned, his pass protection and, more importantly, his still-not-100% ankle are.
2) Rodger Saffold
With a young QB, it’s especially important to protect his blindside, which is why the Rams selected left tackle Rodger Saffold in the second round of the 2010 draft. Saffold struggled in his rookie season, giving up only three sacks but a combined 37 other pressures. Instead of improving in his sophomore campaign however, he was noticeably much worse before being sidelined for the rest of the year during Week 10 with an injury. For example, in the week four home game vs. the Washington Redskins, he gave up more sacks than he had allowed in all of 2010, which can be viewed as a microcosm of his shortened year. If Fisher and company want Bradford to develop into an elite signal-caller, they will have to get their highly-drafted LT to play better, or find a better option.
3) Jason Smith or Barry Richardson?
While the concerns at left tackle have been addressed above, the Rams are still worrying about the right tackle position too. Despite being drafted second overall in the 2009 draft, Jason Smith has only played one full season (earning a -16.7 during that 2010 campaign) and has continued to be a liability even when healthy. Before being put on injured reserve last year, Smith had continued to struggle and was even benched in the week three blowout at home to the Baltimore Ravens. When the General Manager is publically doubting your ability to be “the answer” at a position, your spot on the roster is in jeopardy. The Rams currently have former Kansas City Chief Barry Richardson getting reps ahead of Smith, but this is hardly a credible solution; in his two years as a starter for the Chiefs, Richardson has a combined -51.1 overall grade. Whoever earns the starting job, there will be plenty of concern.
4) Quintin Mikell
Quintin Mikell, in his last three seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting strong safety, graded out as our best overall safety twice. Thus, there was plenty of excitement for the Rams when he joined through free agency last year. Those hopes were dashed right from the beginning as Mikell struggled in Week 1 against his former team, giving up a TD pass and failing in run defense. He would end the season with a -2.8 overall grade. Mikell will have to play better to help the perennially-struggling Rams defense.
5) Who are the Wide Receivers?
With Brandon Lloyd leaving (and taking his +8.9 receiving grade with him), the Rams once again have few proven weapons for Bradford. As the slot man, Danny Amendola has showed improvement after his first two seasons seeing the field, going from a -3.6 receiving grade in 2009 to a +1.8 in 2010 (a year in which he led the team in receptions), but was injured 40 snaps into last year. He appears to be healthy now and he needs to stay that way. Otherwise they have draft picks Brian Quick and Chris Givens, along with the other Steve Smith (also a slot WR), Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas and Danario Alexander.
Smith was a part of the Eagles disappointing “Dream Team” in 2011, only seeing 135 snaps due to injury and dropping more passes (three) and having more picks thrown on his targets (two) than times he found the end zone (once). His one-year “prove it” deal shows the Rams are not sold on him lasting a full season. Meanwhile, Alexander proved to be a willing run blocker (+4.1 last season), but also proved to be an unreliable receiver (six drops) and also injury-prone; he’s barely been able to participate in training camp with a hamstring problem. Gibson has the same issues catching the ball (eight drops last year) and staying healthy, while Salas, a fourth round pick last year, dropped four passes in just six games. Pettis too performed below-average and is facing a suspension from the league.
In order for Bradford to become the elite QB he was drafted to be, he will need these guys to step up their game significantly.
What To Expect
With Fisher’s new leadership and the improved secondary he’s brought in, the St. Louis Rams should win more than the two games they won last year. With the San Francisco 49ers owning a clear advantage in the NFC West and the Seattle Seahawks seemingly only getting better as well, it’s hard to think this squad can win their division this season. Still, plenty reasons to expect them to show significant improvement.