The St. Louis Rams have been bad. They've been really, really bad. The Rams have been historically bad. Most of the time when I write something like that, I'm guilty of hyperbole. This time, the facts back up my point.
The Rams are coming off the worst five-year stretch in NFL history.
So with OTAs over, and training camp not here yet, I tried to come up with something for Rams fans to read in the "dog days" of June. I thought to myself, "On a scale of 1-10, how much does each position group need to improve for the Rams to make the playoffs?"
It's a good question.
Keep reading, and I'll tell you how much each position group needs to improve this year, on a scale of 1-10, if the Rams are going to make the playoffs.
The Rams cleaned house, bringing in a rookie punter and kicker. So never mind the fact that the Rams kicked a couple of touchdown punts to Patrick Peterson, because the Rams' kickers are brand new. Because both players are young, I think it makes sense they really, really need to improve to make an impact as rookies.
I especially think rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein could make a big impact. He could prove to be a gem of a late-round pick.
The Rams had like 47 corners get injured last year. Things got so bad that they called and asked if I was busy one weekend. Of course, I'm only kidding. It didn't get that bad, but it got really bad.
Turn the page, and the Rams have injured corners Jerome Murphy and Bradley Fletcher back. Josh Gordy proved to be a nice free-agent pickup last season, and he could have a role on the team in 2012. Cortland Finnegan was brought in via free agency, and he is an elite corner. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson were drafted, and both look like high impact players.
So while I'm giving them a "9" for how much they need to improve, I think the secondary will actually be the most improved position group in the entire NFL in 2012. If they do, the Rams have an excellent chance to steal a Wild Card playoff spot.
James Laurinaitis was the only impact linebacker the Rams had last season. The position wasn't heavily addressed in the offseason, with the Rams signing second tier free agents and spending very little draft capital on the position.
This will be a boom or bust year for many of these young players like Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown and Alex Hoffman-Ellis. It could be a last shot at playing time for Mario Haggan. If Jeff Fisher can coach these guys up, and they can make the most of their opportunity, maybe the Rams will strike gold.
I'm not banking on it. I think Jo-Lonn Dunbar was a nice pickup, but all in all, the Rams talent at linebacker is still slightly below average. The depth is better, but this group is unproven.
The Rams were so bad against the run last year that I almost gave them a 12. Since they got rid of both starting defensive tackles, that didn't seem fair. Also, the defensive end tandem of Chris Long and Robert Quinn was a bright spot for the defense.
I think Long will continue to improve, and that is scary since he is already one of the best in the NFL at his position. Robert Quinn is going to be a monster, and I expect him to really break out in his sophomore year. The defensive tackle combo of Kendall Langford and rookie Michael Brockers gives the Rams a tremendous talent upgrade at the position.
I think the Rams have a very promising young line, and they will need to play up to that potential if the Rams are going to sneak into the playoffs.
I don't know if any group needs to improve more than the Rams receivers. The Rams young QB, Sam Bradford, has had far less talented receivers to work with than any other young QB in the NFL. So not only do the Rams receivers need to play better if they want to win, but they need to play better to help further the development of their franchise QB.
That's why I'm giving them a 10.
Danny Amendola missed all of last season, so he should be a big help. Steve Smith, brought in via free agency, has All-Pro talent if he is healthy. Austin Pettis and Greg Salas both hope to have a better showing in their second season. Brandon Gibson knows he is playing for a roster spot after underwhelming last year, and Danario Alexander presents a big play option if he is healthy.
No disrespect to any of those players, but I think the Rams rookies will need to provide the spark for this group. Chris Givens is the fastest receiver on the roster, and Brian Quick looks like he could be a star. Quick could be the physical mismatch that Bradford needs, the type of player that makes opposing defensive coordinators "roll coverage" to his side of the field.
If Quick can do that, then it is really going to take pressure off players like Givens, Amendola and Smith. I don't know if this group can improve this much in one season, but rest assured, jobs are on the line as we prepare for training camp.
Lance Kendricks has a ton of talent, and he was a very good blocker last year, although he did disappoint in the passing game. I think it's just a matter of time before this kid breaks out and becomes the type of tight end that Bradford needs to be great.
Mike Hoomanawanui is a talented young player that just can't stay healthy. I'm putting "Illinois Mike" on notice right now. He needs to step up or this will be his last year in St. Louis. Matthew Mulligan looks to be a factor for the team as a blocking tight end.
This group needs to play better, and I think they will. Jeff Fisher's philosophy will suit these players well. I expect Kendricks especially to blossom in 2012.
Steven Jackson is a beast. Even as he gets older, he is an elite running back. I think he will have a better season in 2012 simply because the offensive line will be better, and also because Jeff Fisher is going to emphasize a running game that features a fullback.
Isaiah Pead is the best backup running back that Jackson has had since Marshall Faulk was finishing his Hall of Fame career. Pead is a shifty runner that will also be a big factor in the passing game. I think Pead and Jackson could easily combine for 1,500-1,800 yards this season.
I don't think this group needs to improve a whole lot. I do think these two players will form the foundation of the Rams offense, assuming this next group plays up to their talent level...
I'm giving this group a 10 because they played terrible last season, and like the receivers, the Rams need this group to play better to not only make the playoffs, but also for Sam Bradford's sake. If this group doesn't play well this season, that means Sam Bradford would have spent the first three seasons of his career running for his life.
That is how you ruin a good young QB.
Jason Smith is playing for his next contract. I hope for his sake he plays up to his talent level. Rodger Saffold is a promising young player over at left tackle. Harvey Dahl is a warrior at right guard. Scott Wells, brought in via free agency, gives Bradford one of the best centers in the league.
This group has the talent to be a very, very good offensive line. One might argue that the fate of the 2012 Rams rests on these men's large shoulders.
I believe Bradford has elite talent. I don't think it's out of the question at all that he could be a future MVP, or that he could lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.
As we've already talked about, Bradford is going to need a lot of help.
However, I think in year three, it's time for Bradford to start making players around him better. As long as the O-line gives him time to throw, Bradford has to take accountability for how his receivers progress. At some point, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning all made very average receivers look good. It's time for Bradford to elevate the play of his teammates in that same manner.
If the Rams are going to make the playoffs, it's going to mean Bradford had time to throw and he played at a very high level. If Bradford can do that, the Rams have a shot to make the playoffs in 2012.
A lot of things have to go right, and a lot of areas would have to really improve, but I love some of the moves the Rams made this offseason. The season will be here before you know it, and then we'll get to see just how smart Jeff Fisher and company were with some of these moves.