2012 is a make or break year for the St. Louis Rams. They will either show progress from a year ago and prove last season’s mishaps were caused by injury or they will blow free agency and the draft and plunge back into NFL purgatory.
The hiring of highly respected head coach Jeff Fisher means the team will have both a tough and smart demeanor for the first time since Dick Vermeil left after the 1999 season.
The Rams also have a few key building blocks in place as Fisher will have a roster that includes his best quarterback to date in Sam Bradford, a top 10 middle linebacker in James Laurinaitus, and the kind of high caliber running back he’s come accustomed to working with in Steven Jackson.
Fisher has always put solid defenses on the field, so it’s not crazy to think he’ll focus on defense early. It would however be crazy to think that he would totally ignore offense or do anything to hinder Bradford’s chance at being successful. And keep in mind, Fisher has never had the luxury of having a top flight quarterback prospect, so he’s going to be anxious to prove what he can do now that he finally has one.
I see an opportunity for the Rams to take a big jump in 2012 due to the return of key playmakers from injury and the addition of a much more competent coaching staff.
However, this is still the NFL, and a couple of healthy players and new coaches aren’t going to rocket any team to the top of its division in one year. If the Rams are smart though, and make quality moves in free agency and the draft, they could have themselves in position to compete for a playoff spot for years to come.
Here’s how I think they should do it…
Can the Rams Hang Onto LLoyd in 2012?
Unfortunately the honest truth is that the Rams only have about $3.5 million in salary cap space going into 2012. The upside to that is that they’ll have close to $30 million in space come 2013.
For the time being, however, they’ll have to make some space in order to be able to field any kind of a competitive roster, and I would do this by forcing Jason smith to restructure his current deal which will account for about $13.3 million against the salary cap. I’d cut his guaranteed money in half over the remaining three years of his contract and bump him inside to guard where he belongs.
I would then allow last years’ starting left guard Jacob Bell to find a new home in free agency. Wide receivers Mark Clayton and Brandon Lloyd, tight ends Billy Bajema and Stephen Spach, quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and AJ Feely, running backs Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood, and cornerback Al Harris all walk away in free agency, too. The Rams might want to keep some of these players, but they do not need them in my scenario as big changes are necessary in St. Louis and signing too many of these guys could muck up the mountain of cap room The Rams will have in 2013.
Amendola Would do Backflips to Return to St. Louis
As with any team during the offseason, the Rams have a few players who offer enough to be brought back.
The top player who comes to mind for me would be wide receiver Danny Amendola. While he may not have straight line speed like Lloyd or Clayton he has another thing both of them don’t—Heart.
Pairing Amendola’s quicks and smarts in the slot with Austin Pettis’ and Danario Alexander’s Size makes a decent start at a receiving corps in St. Louis that could also have some value in second year player Greg Salas.
The next player I would bring back is outside linebacker Brady Poppinga. He isn’t the kind of player you hope will still be starting a few years down the road, but for now, he’s good enough and at the very least would provide depth and special-teams value if an upgrade is available in the draft.
Finally, I would re-sign Punter Donnie Jones. At 31, he’s a little older, but still has talent, netting a 44-yard average in 2011 on a total of 105 punts.
This is where I go big folks. Not in volume but in value. I only want two free agents here, and I’m going for one big ticket player and another solid player who I think could come at a fair price.
The first player I want is former Vikings linebacker EJ Henderson. He would be great paired with James Laurinaitis and isn’t a big enough name to break the bank. This addition helps shore up the pathetic drop off in talent from inside to outside linebacker in 2011.
The big ticket player I want… the guy I can’t believe doesn’t get mentioned with St. Louis… is San Diego Chargers cast-off Vincent Jackson. Forget about wasting the second overall pick on a college receiver. Do whatever it takes to free up the cap space and invest in a player who has proven he can play in the NFL.
Giving Jackson a four or five year deal would give Bradford a true No. 1 talent to throw to over the next few years and still allow the Rams to make a big impact sooner rather than later by using their first round pick in 2012 elsewhere.
Kalil is No Stranger to the Spotlight He'd Face in St. Louis
There are two scenarios I would look for if the Rams sign a wide receiver in free agency (be it Jackson, or Lloyd).
The first would be the one that would be most beneficial to the Rams which is the Redskins or the Browns trading up to grab Robert Griffin III. For this to happen, though, the Redskins would have to part with a first and third round pick this year and a first round pick next year or the Browns would give both of their first round picks this year. Both of which aren’t extremely likely. If they did, I would assume the Vikings would take Either Kalil or cornerback Morris Claiborne out of LSU, in which case I would grab whichever of the two they passed on and take OT/OG Cordy Glenn from Georgia at pick 22.
The other, more likely scenario is that the Rams keep their pick and select the best player for their team, Matt Kalil out of USC. Kalil has NFL lineage and has been touted as the best tackle prospect since Joe Thomas. In other words, Kalil is the Andrew Luck of left tackle prospects.
The NFC West isn’t what it used to be with the Cardinals and Seahawks stumbling toward respectability and the 49ers looking like a top NFL contender. The Rams will have to protect their passer and be effective in the trenches for the run game to compete in the foreseeable future and adding Kalil is the best way to do that.
In Round One, I believe I shored up the offensive line by adding a solid left tackle in Matt Kalil. In Round Two, I continue to compliment positions I changed or added to in Free Agency by selecting outside linebacker Sean Spence from the University of Miami.
Spence will be outstanding in the NFL despite his lack of “elite size” and would pair nicely with Henderson and Laurinaitus to give the Rams one of the more respectable linebacker corps in the NFL.
Jeff Fisher knows how to coach up defensive players and could use Spence to make running and throwing the football a little tougher in St. Louis.
I would normally shy away from any player who comes out of Boise State because they are typically overrated due to a lack of talent in their competition and solid talent on their own team.
Winn, however, looks different. He fared well against a solid Georgia offensive line lining up at both end and tackle, but will need to improve his first step to be effective in the NFL.
I see this as a pretty safe pick, too, because a good defensive line absolutely needs a rotational player that can keep other guys fresh and still be effective. I’m willing to bet Winn paired with Fred Robbins on the inside will be effective, but if he isn’t up for it he would still have value spelling Robert Quinn and Chris Long at the end position and could become a “fifth starter” for the Rams defensive line down the road.
The first thought about this pick might be that with Steven Jackson, the Rams don’t need another running back. The second thought might be that if Gray has a strong combine performance this week he may not last until the fourth round come April.
All of that aside Gray could have a huge impact on the Rams offense because of his versatility. He could also help keep Jackson healthy by taking on some of the load in the running game. Great as a receiver out of the backfield and even has some experience as a slot receiver in the SEC.
The place where he could become most valuable, though, is as a pass protector on third downs for Sam Bradford. He’s not a big blocker but he reminds me of Kendall Hunter in terms of tenacity and might have similar upside too.
In the NFL you need two types of players; playmakers and role players. Chapman is the latter, but anytime I can grab a starter off a defense that was as formidable as 2011’s Crimson Tide in the fifth round I’ll take it.
Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan are both aging and aren’t exactly impact players at the position. Chapman is young and used to playing nose guard against elite talent in the SEC, often occupying multiple blockers.
The line might still be a first round tackle away from being a finished project after the additions of Winn and Chapman, but depth would no longer be in question and both players could potentially have long successful careers in the NFL.
It’s back to Arkansas and the SEC again, but this time for a defensive back. Thomas doesn’t possess elite size or athleticism, but is good enough in both areas to let his instincts and numbers speak for him.
Thomas is a decisive player in the secondary with a history of creating turnovers with 12 interceptions and six forced fumbles over 31 career starts for the Razorbacks. He’s also a fearless and willing tackler in the run game.
Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl aren’t the worst safety combo in the NFL, but they weren’t exactly effective. Adding some depth in the secondary with a player who could positively impact the turnover ratio is a decent option.
Carder was the MVP of the 2011 Rose Bowl, showing his ability to play a big game under big lights. He also has good size, speed and instincts but will have health questions due to serious injuries suffered in a car accident while he was in the seventh grade.
The man nicknamed “Tank” is solid in all areas of the game and would provide valuable depth at linebacker and could be a standout on special teams for St. Louis. Teams need blue-collar players like Carder, and getting one for a seventh round draft pick is always a fair trade.
Your Move, Jeff.
If free agency and the draft were to play out this way for the Rams, they would have a very different team from the injury-riddled squad that took the field in 2011.
Adding Vincent Jackson, Matt Kalil and Cyrus Gray would give Bradford a true No. 1 talent to throw to, a true franchise left tackle to keep him upright and an interesting change of pace back and option at slot receiver, which would give them all of the tools a young offense needs to become successful.
Defensively, the Rams would finally boast legitimate talent alongside current linebacker standout James Laurinaitus with the additions of EJ Henderson and Sean Spence and some decent depth from Retaining Brady Poppinga and drafting Ricky Carder.
Finally, the additions of Billy Winn and Josh Chapman should help give St. Louis’s defensive line a solid presence on the inside to build on in the future and help take pressure off their two talented defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn.