NFL New Year Resolutions: What the St. Louis Rams Need to Do in 2012

Shane GraySenior Analyst IDecember 31, 2011

NFL New Year Resolutions: What the St. Louis Rams Need to Do in 2012

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    New year resolutions are a big deal in the United States, as most if not all of you know.  Maybe not as big a deal to NFL fans as analyzing the NFL week 17 picks, the NFL playoff scenarios, the 2012 NFL mock drafts, or even the 2012 NFL draft order, but a pretty noteworthy topic nonetheless and one that is appealing to St. Louis Rams fans, certainly, after an extremely rough season.

    When looking at the St. Louis Rams, a 2-13 team, it goes without saying that their new year resolution list is quite lengthy. 

    There have not been many positives for the Rams in 2011, although Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, and Steven Jackson played well enough to land as Pro Bowl alternates after being snubbed for the NFC Pro Bowl squad.

    There have been other brights spots in St. Louis:

    Free agent additions Quintin Mikell and Harvey Dahl have played well.

    The Rams scored a big win over New Orleans at the Edward Jones Dome.

    Young players like Darian Stewart, Greg Salas, Robert Quinn, and Josh Gordy have shown progression and solid play.

    Overall, though, the season has been a major disappointment.  After-all, many prognosticators pegged the Rams as NFC West favorites. Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network asserted that St. Louis would be the league's breakout team.

    In the end, they were awful and better labeled the "break it" team (due to a rash of injuries) rather than a breakout squad. 

    As the season concludes, thankfully, it is time to look forward and beyond 2011 and analyze what the Rams need to do make 2012 a successful season.

    With that, let's delve into the St. Louis Rams 2012 new year resolutions. 

Clear-Up Coaching Chaos

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    Most head coach firings occur on "bloody Monday," the first day after the culmination of the NFL regular season.

    St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke, however, is tough to gauge.

    Considering Kroenke's individualistic ways, it is not a given that clarity will come on Monday. However, I certainly expect clarity on the coaching situation (as well as general manager) in the coming days. 

    At 10-37, Spagnuolo has rightfully landed on the hot seat. 

    Opinions vary widely on what should be done in St. Louis regarding Steve Spagnuolo.

    Some, like Brian Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, insist that he should remain in place for what would be the final year of his contract.

    Others, like Bernie Miklasz of the same news outlet, point out the flaws of Spagnuolo's regime and shares reasoning behind a potential ouster. Miklasz also looks at the situation here.

    Of those reasons, being a lame-duck coach was one of many important considerations analyzed.

    If Spagnuolo were to stay without first receiving a contract extension, he would be a lame duck coach. 

    Lame duck coaches are always in an unenviable position.

    However, it would be extremely tough to justify bringing him back at all and next to impossible to persuade the public to accept an extended contract.

    To make the situation even more complex, assistants like offensive line coach Steve Loney, whose units seem to struggle and underachieve annually, would almost certainly be relieved of their duties.

    However, top flight assistants aren't going to come to St. Louis under a lame duck coach.  They would essentially be coaching under the same contract as their head coach: a one year deal.  When the head coach goes, the assistants are usually goners.

    So with that, how do the Rams legitimize bringing Spagnuolo back?  I don't see how they can—and I don't think they will. 

    Look for the Rams to add a new head coach in 2012, most likely a proven commodity such as Jeff Fisher, and "clear up (the) coaching chaos."

Say That It's St. Louis

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    New Year's resolution two is simple: the St. Louis Rams need to clear away the clouds surrounding their lease situation, for both the stability of the franchise and for the sanity of the fanbase.

    As detailed here, the Rams' lease comes to the forefront on February 1, 2012.

    By all indications, the Rams and St. Louis will work this out.

    Still, there needs to be clarity so that the organization can move forward and the fans can lock in and be reassured that the Rams are St. Louis' team permanently. 

    "Silent" Stan hasn't said much this year.  St. Louis Rams Chief Operation Officer and Vice President of Operations has said much more, however, all being very positive towards St. Louis. 

    By locking down the lease issue, both the franchise and the fans can progress onward with clarity, unity and confidence.

    By doing so, the Rams will "say it is St. Louis" to their devoted fans.  It will then be easier for the Rams to sell tickets, market the team to the corporate world and hold the trust of their fans throughout the region, the state and the Midwest.

Flourish with Free Agents

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    Simply put, the Rams have swung and missed more than former Cardinals Mark McGwire and Ray Lankford combined in free agency in recent years.

    And, like Lankford in his later years, the Rams hit on occasion.  However, like McGwire and Lankford, they swing and miss too often.

    Free agent signings with Billy Devaney in the organization have included Kyle Boller, Zac Diles, Mike Sims-Walker, Ben Leber and Daniel Muir, amongst many others.  These are but a few examples of free agent acquisitions who are no longer on the team, some of whom never made it through training camp after looking like potential starters when signed.

    Other free agent additions have included Jason Brown, Jacob Bell, Laurent Robinson and Mark Clayton.

    All have either played better before and/or after coming to St. Louis as in the cases of Brown, Bell and Robinson, or been plagued by injuries (Clayton) while with the Rams.

    Although some free agent acquisitions have panned out (James Hall, Quintin Mikell and Harvey Dahl), there have been too many strikeouts on a team with too many holes.

    In 2012, St. Louis needs to hit for a higher average in free agency to help solidify and bolster the roster.

    Excluding what the Rams eventually do in the draft, as it stands now St. Louis would need to target players at halfback, wide receiver, guard, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and potentially right tackle (depending on both the health and player evaluation of Jason Smith).

    If the Rams can "flourish with free agents," 2012 will almost certainly be more successful than 2011 was.

Dominate the Draft

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    If St. Louis secures the number one overall selection (with a loss to San Francisco and a win by Indianapolis), the Rams will be in the driver's seat for the 2012 NFL draft. 

    Many NFL experts like Adam Schefter insist that this year's number one pick could garner up to four first round picks if traded along with additional draft pick compensation.

    This would occur for at least two reasons: the high projected value of quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, and the new collective bargaining agreement and its new team-friendly rookie wage scale.

    Speculation has abounded that the Rams could trade Sam Bradford and draft Andrew Luck, but that isn't likely due to Sam Bradford's huge contract under the old CBA, among other things.

    With the number one (or number two) overall pick, look for St. Louis to parlay that pick in exchange for several premium selections that would give the organization the opportunity to add elite quality to the roster in many areas.

    Look for the Rams to target a play making wide receiver like Justin Blackmon, as well as help at running back, outside linebacker, multiple spots on the offensive line and possibly help in the secondary (depending largely on the evaluation of the progression of several players coming off of injured reserve).

Support Sam's Success

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    Sam Bradford earned the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010.

    In 2011, however, Bradford and the Rams regressed.  

    Bradford's Rams offense has scored fewer points and fewer touchdowns. His own numbers have fallen off in almost all areas. Much of that has to do with issues beyond Sam's control.

    However, Bradford isn't without blame. 

    This season, Sam has struggled to progress through reads, often locking onto his first receiving option.  That must be corrected if he is to ever become a franchise quarterback. 

    Secondly, his pocket presence seems to be lacking. Bradford has not shown much awareness when pass rushers surround him. That aspect of Bradford's game needs to improve next season, also.

    On the other hand, Sam has had three major things working against him this year.

    He was placed in a new offense with a new coordinator in an abbreviated offseason.  Secondly, his offensive line has struggled in pass protection. Finally, his wide receiving corps has been sub par.

    As for the offense, coordinator Josh McDaniels' future is up in the air even if Spagnuolo is retained.  It is possible—if not likely—that Bradford will be in his third offense in as many seasons.  Bradford has had to deal with another new offensive system.  It is very difficult for any quarterback, let alone a young one, to continually switch systems.

    If the Rams do bring in a new offensive coordinator, one who runs a hybrid west coast offense mixed with similarities to Bradford's Oklahoma offense may be preferred. 

    As for the offensive line, it must be upgraded.

    Although it has been decimated with injuries, it struggled as a unit even before 60 percent of his starting offensive line landed on injured reserve (Rodger Saffold, Jacob Bell and Jason Smith). Throughout the year, Bradford's offensive line struggled with pass protection. 

    Regardless of who the Rams line up on the line next year, those five men must do a much better job of protecting their quarterback and giving him time.

    Finally, the Rams must give Sam more weapons, as we will detail on the next slide.

    For St. Louis to succeed in 2012, the Rams must better "support Sam's success."

Nab a Number 1

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    Look for the Rams to draft a first rounder in the 2012 NFL draft and add a productive free agent wide receiver, whether that individual is current Ram and free agent-to-be Brandon Lloyd (who will likely stay only if McDaniels does) or someone else like DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City or Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints.

    The Rams have fielded a below average wide receiving corps since the days of future Hall of Fame candidates Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt came to a close.

    It is time for that to change.

    Top rated draft prospects may include top ranked Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, the gigantic Alshon Jeffrey of South Carolina, big target Michael Floyd of Notre Dame and burner Kendall Wright of Baylor.

    Whoever the Rams add at wide receiver, the bottom line is they must add one—if not two—elite level players via the draft and/or free agency.

    If two strong receivers are added (preferably one veteran and one rookie), look for the Rams to field a formidable wide receiving corps when added to the current group of Danny Amendola, Greg Salas and, potentially, the ultra-talented yet often-injured Danario Alexander.

    The Rams can make great strides in 2012 if they will "nab a number one."

Jump-Start Steven Jackson

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    Steven Jackson has played well in 2011 and hardly needs a jump-start as far as getting it going.

    He ran for 1,000 yards for the seventh straight season and has still averaged 4.4 yards per carry, running much of the year behind a patchwork offensive line.

    So, how can the Rams jump-start Steven Jackson?

    They can give him a boost by getting him a complimentary back (that can stay healthy) and keep him fresh.

    Earlier in the year, Cadillac Williams looked like that guy.  However, as has been the case previously in his career, he has struggled to stay healthy.

    Williams will be 30 in the offseason and after signing a one-year deal, is unlikely to be retained in St. Louis.

    That leaves the Rams again looking for a bona-fide backup for Jackson and perhaps his eventual successor.

    This could be the year the Rams look to the early rounds of the draft for a running back, particularly with the probability of having additional draft picks in the earlier rounds.

    Potential draft targets could include Trent Richardson of Alabama, Lamar Miller of Miami, Montee Ball of Wisconsin, Chris Polk of Washington or LaMichael James of Oregon.

    Look for St. Louis to "jump-start Steven Jackson" in 2012 by keeping him fresh with a young, complimentary back. 

Optimize Offensive Output

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    The Rams have been abysmal offensively this season. 

    This tells the story quite well: Chris Long has as many sacks (13) as the Rams do touchdowns.

    In looking at this offensive offense:

    -St. Louis is last in the league with 11.1 points per game.

    -The Rams are last in third down conversion percentage.

    -The Rams rank 31st in yards per game.

    -St. Louis is number 31 in yards per play.

    However, the Rams didn't rank at the bottom everywhere:

    -The Rams rank fourth in most fumbles with 26.

    -The Rams also crack the top 10 with the eighth most penalties in the NFL.

    To remedy this catastrophe in 2012, the biggest key will be to improve in the red zone (or what has become known as the "dead zone" in St. Louis).

    Through 15 games, the Rams rank 31st in red zone touchdown percentage scoring only 34 percent of the time.  By contrast, the second-ranked Packers punch it in over 65 percent of the time.

    Strangely, the Rams have utilized three-time Pro Bowl back Steven Jackson sparingly in the red zone.  That should change next year.

    Additionally, better play by Bradford with better weapons at wide out should aid in improving the red zone numbers next season.

    If so, this more than anything will help the Rams "optimize (their) offensive output" in 2012. 

Tighten Up at Tackle

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    The Rams need to tighten up at offensive and defensive tackle in 2012.

    Former number two pick Jason Smith has been a disappointment for the Rams, particularly in pass protection.

    He has also struggled with concussion related health and injury concerns multiple times, and his future both in St. Louis and the NFL is potentially in jeopardy.

    As it stands, Smith is more likely to end up with more serious concussions (at least two) than career Pro Bowl berths.

    A move to guard could aid Smith as he seems to struggle in open space.  If able to return from injury (and the Rams bring him back), this could theoretically knock out the Rams need at guard.

    If he is brought back at tackle he would certainly have to battle for a starting position, based upon his past play.

    With both his play and long-term health in question, the situation must be addressed.

    Yet another option would involve moving Rodger Saffold (who played terrific when healthy in 2010) to right tackle.

    There are many undetermined solutions on the table, but all possible solutions include adding an offensive tackle via the draft or free agency.

    Early round offensive tackle targets could include Matt Kalil of USC, Jonathon Martin of Stanford, Riley Reiff of Iowa and Barrett Jones of Alabama.

    Free agent possibilities could include Demetrius Bell of Pittsburgh or D'Anthony Batiste of Arizona.

    As for defense, the Rams run D has struggled mightily once again. One position that needs to be shored up is defensive tackle. 

    Fred Robbins played outstanding in 2010 but dropped off significantly this year. At 34, he appears to be declining. If retained, expect his snap totals to decline.

    The other defensive tackles include Justin Bannon (who is over 30 himself).  They have been decent, perhaps, but the position certainly needs an upgrade.

    Early round defensive tackle targets could include Devon Still of Penn State, Brandon Thompson of Clemson and Alameda Ta 'amu of Washington.

    Possible free agent options might include Antonio Garey of San Diego, Jason Jones of Tennessee and Aubrayo Franklin of New Orleans.

    For the Rams to rise up in 2012, they need to "tighten up at tackle."

Get a Great Guard

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    In 2011, the Rams solidified one guard position with the acquisition of Harvey Dahl from the Atlanta Falcons. In 2012, they need to add another.

    One option, as looked at within the preceding slide, is to move Jason Smith to guard.  It is possible that he could excel there, if healthy.  He would seem a natural fit in a tighter space. He is a mauling run blocker and might find more success in pass protection in the tighter confinement that the guard position brings.

    Other than that outside shot, look for St. Louis to rightfully look at upgrading at guard.

    Jacob Bell has been a disappointment and won't be back.

    With that said, look for the troops to be solidified via free agency or the draft.

    Notable free agents include Carl Nicks of New Orleans, Ben Grubbs of Baltimore and Deuce Lutui of Arizona.

    Draft targets at guard could include David DeCastro of Stanford, Cordy Glenn of Georgia and Kevin Zeitler of Georgia. 

    By "adding a great guard." the Rams can shore up pass protection and enhance the running game next season.

Raise the Run D

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    The St. Louis run defense has been awful in 2011.

    The Rams have given up the most rushing yards in the NFL and are second worst in giving up 4.9 yards per attempt.  They have also given up the sixth most touchdown runs.

    One area that must be upgraded, as touched on earlier, is at defensive tackle.  The interior line must be stouter at the point of attack. A big nose tackle would be a welcome addition.

    Another area that must be addressed, as will be detailed in a later slide, is outside linebacker. This position must play better versus the run.

    Look for St. Louis to do all they can to "raise the run D" in 2012.

Land Legit Linebackers

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    Another position like wide receiver that has been sub par for the Rams in recent seasons is outside linebacker.

    The Rams have struggled at outside linebacker in 2011 in both pass coverage and, in particular, against the run.

    Brady Poppinga and Chris Chamberlain have held up okay, but okay isn't the desired goal.  Poppinga is nearing the end of the line and Chamberlain is a borderline NFL starter by most assessments.

    Both lack elite speed and neither are overwhelmingly strong at the point of attack.

    This position must be upgraded if the run defense it to dramatically improve.  Look for the Rams to look at draft and/or free agency options for outside linebacker enhancements.

    Draft options might include Zach Brown of North Carolina, Ronnell Lewis of Oklahoma or Lavonte Davis of Nebraska.

    Free agents names include Anthony Spencer of Dallas and Manny Lawson of Cincinnati

    For the Rams to improve their run defense and overall defensive performance in 2012, they need to "land legit linebackers" in the offseason.

Keep the Corners Clean

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    By the end of Week 4, St. Louis had lost each of their three top corners.

    During preseason, Jerome Murphy went down for the year.  In Week 1 of the regular season, Ron Bartell joined him on IR. After Week 4, Bradley Fletcher went down, also for the year.

    Unfortunately for the Rams, that was only the beginning of the injury issues in the secondary.

    As the year progressed, other corners like Al Harris (who is retiring) and Marquis Johnson were lost for the year.

    And many of those who made it through, like Justin King, have had the injury bug hit them at times, too.

    For the Rams to show improvement in the win-loss column and in overall defense, St. Louis must "keep the corners clean" next year. 

    Ron Bartell is healing nicely and is expected to return.  Jerome Murphy should be good-to-go as well.

    Fletcher, with a second major knee injury, is questionable.

    With better luck in regard to injuries, the Rams should improve in 2012 by being able to field better talent in the defensive backfield.

Finish at .500 (or Better)

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    If the Rams are successful in doing the preceding as detailed in the article and the previous slides, this resolution has a legitimate shot at being fulfilled.

    The Rams came close in 2010 at 7-9 before regressing dramatically in 2011.

    It is quite possible that the Rams bounce back in 2012 and stay in the hunt for a playoff berth as they enter the final few weeks of next season.

    By solidifying the coaching (and GM) situation, stabilizing the franchise via the lease and adding talent to the roster, St. Louis could "finish .500 or better" in the coming year.

    Shane Gray covers the St. Louis Rams year round. To check out the rest of his work, go here. You are also encouraged to follow him here on Twitter.