Rams fans, if you are like me, you woke up this morning with some hope. The 2012 NFL draft brought some serious talent to St. Louis. While we are still a long way from that Week 1 game in Detroit, it's never too early to start thinking about what this team is going to look like.
Today, let's take a look at the defense.
The Rams have really improved on the weakest part of their football team. Last season, the Rams were terrible against the run. The addition of Michael Brockers (No. 14 pick in the draft) and Kendal Langford (free agency) gives the team two starters, and Darell Scott provides another promising young player to put into that rotation.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn are the headliners here. These two young players give the Rams the ability to get to the quarterback while still dropping seven defenders into coverage. With the improvements in the Rams' secondary, this could turn into one of the most fearsome pass-rush combinations in the NFL. Eugene Sims is another young, talented player that will contribute in the DE rotation.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar was brought in via free agency, and he is a starting-caliber player. Aaron Brown was drafted in the seventh round and looks like a boom or bust pickup. Josh Hull, who played mainly on special teams last year, looks to get more playing time this season. Overall, this is a position that still needs to be upgraded.
Which newcomer will have the biggest impact on the Rams' D in 2012?
James Laurinaitis is one of the best young linebackers in the NFL. In addition, he finally has some big bodies in front of him (Brockers and Langford) to "keep him clean." Ask Ray Lewis how much easier his life got when the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata. Those defensive tackles are going to help elevate Laurinaitis to an All-Pro level this season.
First, the Rams signed Cortland Finnegan, a top notch corner who will bring a physical nature to the position. Then they drafted Janoris Jenkins (No. 39 overall) and Trumaine Johnson (No. 65 overall). In addition, Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy return from the Injured Reserve list, where they spent all of last season. Finnegan and Jenkins will be perhaps the best pair of corners in the NFC West. If Johnson can contribute right away, he would be a luxury at the nickleback position. If Murphy and Fletcher return to their pre-injury form, this might be the most talented group of corners in the NFC. What was the weakest position group for the Rams last season (because of injuries) could be its biggest strength.
Quintin Mickell is a borderline All-Pro player, and Darian Stewart was one of the lone bright spots in the Rams' secondary last season. If Stewart takes another step forward this season, the Rams are going to have a dangerous secondary. Craig Dahl has been a part-time starter, and he adds depth to this position.
With an improved defense, will the Rams have enough offense to make the playoffs in 2012?
My early projection for a starting lineup would be Chris Long (LDE), Michael Brockers (LDT), Kendal Langford (RDT), Robert Quinn (RDE), Josh Hull (SOLB), James Laurinaitis (MLB), Jo-Lonn Dunbar (WOLB), Cortland Finnegan (LCB), Janoris Jenkins (RCB), Quintin Mickell (SS) and Darian Stewart (FS).
This group is going to be able to shut the passing game down with, not one but two, shutdown corners and a ferocious pass-rush. The run defense should be better, with better interior lineman and a great middle linebacker, but the team still needs to add more depth and talent to the outside linebacker position.
Overall, the Rams have really improved their defense from a year ago. With the offense still relying on several young play makers and a suspect offensive line, the defense will have to step up and carry this team in 2012.