St. Louis Rams: Which Position Group Will Step Up the Most in 2012?
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Which position group needs to step up the most in 2012?
Today I'm going to take a look at some of the position groups for the Rams, and I'm going to try to figure out which position group is ready to make the biggest leap forward in 2012.
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The Rams' linebackers were generally awful in 2011. Brady Poppinga and Ben Leber were brought in via free agency, and they were both major disappointments. James Laurinaits remains one of the best young middle linebackers in the NFL, but outside of him, there was just a major lack of talent in this group.
The Rams have brought in several players to try to fill that void. Jo-Lonn Dunbar was signed via free agency to play the Will linebacker spot. Dunbar started for the Saints last season, where he racked up 79 tackles and forced two fumbles. Dunbar isn't a superstar, but he is a starting-caliber player. At age 27, Dunbar should be entering the prime of his career, and he will get every opportunity to make his mark for the Rams this season.
The Sam linebacker is an open competition right now in Ram's camp. Josh Hull returns from last year's roster and has some experience. The Rams drafted Aaron Brown in the seventh round, and he is a talented player that slid down several draft boards due to off-the-field concerns.
Then there are the undrafted free-agent linebackers that the Rams brought in.
Out of that crop, Sammy Brown (Houston) and Alex Hoffman-Ellis both look like players that could make an impact. Brown had 28 tackles for loss last season, which led the nation in college football. His 12.5 sacks suggest he has the talent to really help the Rams, if he would only learn to give maximum effort on every snap.
Hoffman-Ellis led the Washington State Cougars with 88 tackles (good for eighth in the Pac-12 conference), and was named second-team all-conference. He made 33 starts during his career at Washington State, so he is also an experienced player. At 6'1", 232 pounds, he runs a 4.55 in the 40.
Finally, the Rams brought in Mario Haggan via free agency. Haggan is 6'3", 274 pounds, easily making him the biggest linebacker on the roster. He made 32 consecutive starts for Denver in 2009 and 2010 but lost his job when Denver drafted Von Miller. Haggan is also a great special teams player and was actually the special teams captain in Denver.
Add it all up, and the Rams have Dunbar and Haggan, two starting-caliber players to line up next to Laurinaitis. Throw in Hull, who brings special teams value as well as some valuable experience at linebacker, and what Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown and Hoffman-Ellis bring to the table, and there is no denying the Rams have more talent at linebacker than they had a year ago.
I expect this group to have a very productive year.
4. Wide Receivers
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The wide receiver group has received a lot of attention in the last couple of years, both from the fans and the Ram's front office.
They spent a second-round pick on Donnie Avery, a fourth-round pick on Mardy Gilyard, a fourth-round pick on Keenan Burton, they traded for Mark Clayton, they brought in Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola via undrafted free agency, they signed Mike Sims-Walker via free agency, they drafted Austin Pettis in the third round, they drafted Greg Salas in the fourth round, they brought in Danario Alexander via undrafted free agency, and then they traded for Brandon Lloyd.
As the great John Wooden said, "Don't mistake activity for achievement."
In the Rams' hunt for help at wide receiver, there is plenty of activity, just not a lot of achievement to show for it.
So the Rams are at it again, looking for help at wide receiver. Amendola is coming back from a season-ending surgery, and he should be a solid contributor. Greg Salas showed some promise as a rookie, but he is also coming back from a season-ending surgery. Austin Pettis, who will start the season on a four-game suspension, looks like he will be fighting just to keep a spot on the roster after a very disappointing rookie season.
The Rams signed Steve Smith, who is also coming off an injury, but is an All-Pro receiver if he is fully healthy. They also drafted Brian Quick in the second round and Chris Givens in the fourth round. Quick has really impressed with his performance in camp so far, and Givens is the fastest receiver on the Rams' roster, giving them a true deep threat.
I think the trio of Smith and Amendola could give the Rams two reliable receivers, easily the best pair QB Sam Bradford has had to throw to since he was drafted by the Rams. Smith was good enough to be Eli Manning's No. 1 target when the Giants won the Super Bowl, as he led the NFL and set a Giants' franchise record that season with 107 catches. Amendola caught 85 passes in 2010, albeit for only 689 yards and three touchdowns. He provides the Rams with a possession receiver.
Then there is Quick, whom I think could be a stud. At 6'4", 220 pounds, he will probably see a lot of time as a starting receiver on the outside, with Amendola working the slot receiver position. I think Quick will eventually be a star, but during his rookie season, he is going to have some growing pains. I think if you add up the production of the Quick-Smith-Amendola trio, the Rams are finally going to be able to generate some consistent offense in the passing game.
Throw in the contributions of Givens and Salas, the other two receivers I expect to make the roster, and the Rams are going to be much, much more talented at this position in 2012.
So long, Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis and fan favorite Danario Alexander. We hardly knew ya!
3. Defensive Line
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The Rams have invested heavily in their defensive line. There are three first-round draft picks in this group. Defensive end Chris Long was the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, defensive end Robert Quinn was the No. 14 overall pick in 2011, and defensive tackle Michael Brockers was the No. 14 overall pick in 2012.
Kendall Langford was brought in to play the other defensive tackle spot via free agency. Langford is a former third-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins, and the Rams thought enough of him to give him a four-year, $24 million contract.
The Rams were terrible against the Run last season. Chris Long did have a breakout season with 13 sacks, and Robert Quinn chipped in with five as a rookie in limited playing time, but the defensive tackles were so terrible in 2011 that none of the major contributors (Fred Robbins, Justin Bannan) are on the roster anymore.
I expect Long to take another step forward as he asserts himself as one of the best in the NFL at his position. Coming from the blind side, I think Quinn can have a similar type of season as he teams up with Long to form one of the best young pass-rush duos in the NFL.
Langford and Brockers are young, talented and I have no doubt the Rams are going to be a better run defense, and James Laurinaitis will also enjoy his best season as a pro because of their presence in the middle. Brockers is a mountain of a man at 6'6," 306 pounds, and as a guy that declared for the draft as a redshirt sophomore, he is still just a young pup.
There isn't a ton of depth with this group. Eugene Sims has got a lot of reps as a defensive end during the last two seasons. He is another young, talented player, but the Rams can't afford any injuries to this group. The front line talent is impressive, but there is very little depth.
If they stay healthy, I think this defensive line can really improve this football team.
2. Offensive Line
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Did you know Steve Loney had been the Rams' offensive line coach for the past four seasons? I didn't know that, but it's fascinating when you think about it. That means Loney was the coach for the end of the Scott Linehan era, when we watched poor Marc Bulger get beat to a pulp behind a terrible offensive line. That means he survived the entire Steve Spagnulo era, as we watched the Rams try to turn Sam Bradford into David Carr by allowing him to get sacked 70 times in his first 26 games.
Loney oversaw Jason Smith's first three seasons in St. Louis, where the former No. 2 overall pick was headed toward being a huge bust. He also oversaw former first-round pick Alex Barron's time in St. Louis, where he was also a major disappointment. He was also the position coach for Richie Incognito, a talented but combustible player who killed the Rams with stupid penalties.
How did this man keep his job for so long?
Paul Boudreau was hired this offseason to coach the Rams offensive line. Boudreau has an outstanding resume that covers 25 years of coaching in the NFL. Boudreau was actually the Rams' O-line coach in 2006, and it is no coincidence Steven Jackson ran for a career-high 1,528 yards that season.
That is a pattern with Boudreau. Wherever he goes, running backs have monster seasons.
The group Boudreau is inheriting is loaded with talent. Smith is still on the roster, and with a restructured contract, Smith knows this is his "crap or get off the pot" season in St. Louis. Smith is a road-grading run-blocker when he's healthy, so he should fit perfectly into Boudreau and head coach Jeff Fisher's game plan. I expect Smith to finally play up to his talent level this season.
Rodger Saffold is the starting left tackle, and the former second-round pick (No. 33 overall) should also have an outstanding season. He played well as a rookie in 2010 but struggled last year in a different offense. I love Saffold's work ethic and football intelligence. He will be the starting left tackle for the next decade in St. Louis.
Harvey Dahl returns as the right guard, and he is a very good player. Ironically, Dahl came to the Rams from Atlanta, where he made his mark as an NFL player under Boudreau. You know he has to be licking his chops to play for his old coach.
Scott Wells was brought in via free agency from the Packers to play center. Wells is one of the best in the business, and was an All-Pro player in 2011. Wells will anchor this line and make everyone around him better, as any good center will do. Just ask Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, the last guy Wells hiked the ball to, how important a good center is.
The left guard spot is wide open, but there are several good candidates in camp. Bryan Mattison (started four games for the Rams in 2011), "Rok" Watkins (2012 fifth-round draft pick), Robert Turner (free agent, Jets) and Tim Barnes (2011 Rams' practice squad) are all fighting for time at the position.
I think the Rams' offensive line will be among the most improved position groups in the entire league this season. A healthy Smith and Saffold, plus the addition of Wells, and a little coaching from Paul Boudreau is going to take this group to a whole different level.
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The Rams lost their top three corners—Ron Bartell, Jerome Murphy, Bradley Fletcher—before halftime of Week 1 last season.
After that, the hits just kept coming.
I don't think any position group was decimated by injuries more so than the Rams' secondary last season. As they enter 2012, Murphy and Fletcher are back, but the Rams have added several other talented players to challenge for playing time.
Cortland Finnegan was brought in via free agency, and he is one of the best in the NFL at his position. Finnegan is physical, he is tough, and I'm sure he can't wait to line up across from some of the elite receivers in the NFC West (Larry Fitzgerald from Arizona, Randy Moss from San Francisco, Sidney Rice from Seattle).
Janoris Jenkins was drafted in the second round (No. 39 overall) of the 2012 draft, and he has the ability to be another shutdown corner. So far in camp, he has really impressed the Rams coaches with his talent and his attention to detail.
Trumaine Johnson was also drafted in the third round (No. 65 overall), and he is a big-time talent. Johnson is big (6'2", 205), fast (4.5 in the 40), and he has a nose for the football. Expect Johnson to challenge Jenkins for the other starting corner spot, and if he doesn't win it, I expect to see him cover a lot of the hybrid tight ends as a kind of "secret weapon" for the Rams' coaching staff.
Another corner to keep an eye on is Josh Gordy, who led the Rams with three interceptions last season. Gordy was forced into action after the rash of injuries the Rams saw, but he played really well under tough circumstances. If either Murphy or Fletcher are not 100 percent, Gordy will no doubt send them packing.
The Rams' safeties, Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart, managed to stay relatively healthy last season, and they played fairly well. Both players show a lot of promise and look to be the starters in 2012. Craig Dahl provides depth, as he has some starting experience. Undrafted rookie Matt Daniels is an intriguing player who looks like a keeper.
The Rams' pass rush is going to really help this secondary because they won't have to cover for very long. The Rams' secondary is going to really help that pass rush because opposing QB's are going to be holding the ball longer due to no receivers being open.
So is it the secondary or the pass rush that's more important? What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
I've gone on the record to say the Rams' secondary is going to go from worst to first this season in the NFL. I think this position group is going to make a tremendous impact on the Rams' win column this season.