St. Louis Rams Training Camp: Strengths, Weaknesses and Question Marks
Get ready Rams' fans. Training camp is only one week away. After an offseason that saw major changes to the front office, coaching staff and the roster, we are finally going to see these players in pads. After all the speculation that goes into an NFL offseason, we're finally going to play some football.
I can't wait.
With so many changes to the football team, and the football culture for that matter, where do the Rams stand right now? What areas of this football team can we now consider a strength? What areas are still a weakness? What questions do we still have about this roster?
Today, we're going to break this roster down into those three categories: strengths, weaknesses and question marks.
Strength: Running Game
Any talk about strengths on this football team has to start with Steven Jackson. He is the rock, the foundation and the backbone of this football team. Barring injury, you can pencil Jackson in for between 4.2-4.6 yards per carry and about 1,200 yards.
Head coach Jeff Fisher loves to pound the run. The offensive line will develop a blood lust for run blocking. Fisher will give Jackson a fullback to run behind. Jackson, for the first time in a long time, will also have a competent backup in rookie Isaiah Pead.
Strength: Defensive Line
Chris Long is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. He has always been a hard-nosed guy that never took a play off, someone who not only got after the QB, but who also worked hard to defend the run. Last season, Long finally figured out how to get the QB on the ground, registering 13 sacks.
Generally speaking, if you can get a competent defensive end opposite a stud like Long, you're going to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. The Rams have Robert Quinn, who as a second year player, looks like a star. Quinn had five sacks as a rookie, and that was after missing his last season in college! What is Quinn going to do now with a year under his belt, with a normal offseason?
The Rams also seriously upgraded the defensive tackle position, bringing in two new starters in Kendall Langford (free agency) and Michael Brockers (No. 14 pick, 2012 draft). The Rams should be much more stout against the run, and both players should also be able to collapse the pocket to flush the QB out.
This area, because of injuries, was a train wreck last year for the Rams. A year later, I'm going on the record to call this the biggest strength on the roster. The Rams brought in so much new talent during the offseason, and when you combine that with the players that are healthy again, this is the deepest, most talented part of the Rams' roster.
Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Trumaine Johnson and Josh Gordy give the Rams a terrific group of corners. Quintin Mickell and Darian Stewart are also both good players, and give the Rams the best pair of safeties they've had in years.
If the "Fisherball" formula works, the Rams should be able to pound the run, get the lead and then be forced to protect the lead late in games. That means that the Rams' D will have to be able to pin their ears back, rush the passer and also protect against the pass.
This team is built to do that. We just need the rest of this roster to do their job.
Question Mark: Receivers
The Rams receivers were also terrible last year. I'm making this group a giant question mark right now, simply because there are so many new faces. We can guess what they might do, but we'd be doing just that—guessing.
Brian Quick has the body and the talent to be an elite receiver. Can he fill those shoes as a rookie? Chris Givens is the fastest player on the roster, and he runs good routes—but he is also a rookie. Danny Amendola was very productive in 2010, but he missed virtually all of 2011 with a major injury. Steve Smith led the NFL in catches back in 2009. There's no doubt he can be a big time player, but he's never been that player since injuring his knee in 2010.
That's four question marks, and we haven't even talked about incumbent receivers Danario Alexander (injuries), Austin Pettis (flopped as a rookie), Greg Salas (injured as a rookie), or Brandon Gibson (mostly ineffective over two seasons). There is definitely talent here, but until this group can move from "question mark" to "strength," expect the Rams offense (12.1 points per game in 2011) to remain stuck in neutral.
Question Mark: Quarterback
Sam Bradford is going to make or break the Rams this season, and for the foreseeable future. Having said that, right now, Bradford is the biggest question mark on the team. First of all, is Bradford even healthy? Second, have all the sacks made Bradford gun shy, or given him "cabin fever?"
Bradford is going to break out. He's simply too talented not to. My question is, will it be this season? Will Bradford elevate his play, the play of his receivers, and take this team to another level in 2012? The great QB's in this league make average receivers look good, and they make good receivers look like they belong in Canton, OH.
At some point, Bradford is going to be that dude for the Rams. If he can do it in 2012, this team has a chance to be scary good.
Question Mark: Tight Ends
Lance Kenricks could be a special player. Every good QB in the NFL has a good tight end, and Sam Bradford desperately needs Kendricks to step up in 2012. I was very disappointed in Kendricks as a rookie, after he played so well in the preseason. His drops were drive killers.
Mike Hoomanawanui is also a very talented player, but he just can't stay healthy. If Illinois Mike is healthy in 2012, he could actually challenge Kendricks for the starting job. Both tight ends do a very good job run blocking, something that should play well with Fisher, but the Rams need one of them to emerge as a pass catching threat over the middle.
Question Mark: Special Teams
John Hekker is a rookie punter. Garrett Lindholm is a rookie kicker. Greg Zuerlein is rookie kicker. Tom Malone has one year experience as a punter. The lack of experience the Rams have in the kicking game screams "question mark." Zuerlein looks like a keeper, but until these guys show it in live action, this has to scare the heck out of Rams fans.
The return game looks stronger with the addition of Isaiah Pead, Janoris Jenkins, and the return of Danny Amendola. Last year, the Rams had to run guys like Austin Pettis out to return kicks. That was a total debacle. It was so bad that I wanted to call social services and charge somebody with neglect.
Special teams could have made a difference in four Rams' losses last season, especially the return game. If the Rams can improve in this area, it could be the difference between a respectable season and picking in the Top 5 again.
You see the guy pictured above, James Laurinaitis? Yep, he's a stud. Outside of Animal's boy, I'm not sure about the rest of this linebacking corps. Unlike the receivers, who are stocked with high draft picks and a former All-Pro, the linebackers are a bunch of retreads and undrafted free agents.
The Rams got killed against the run last year. The improved D Line should help in that area, but the fact of the matter is you need linebackers that will chase sideline to sideline, and they can't be afraid to take on blockers. This is a position that will definitely be upgraded over the next couple of seasons, when the Rams are holding extra first-round draft picks.
In 2012, this group, as of today, is a weakness in my book. I hope they go out and prove me wrong.
Weakness: Offensive Line
This group probably has as much talent, high draft picks, and free agent dollars spent than any other part of the roster. So far, they have underachieved and managed to get their QB killed. In putting this group in the weakness column until they can go out and do it on the field.
Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith have the talent to be bookend tackles, maybe even Pro Bowlers, for the next seven or eight years. Harvey Dahl was perhaps the lone bright spot last year at right guard. Dahl is a mauling run blocker, and also does a nice job in pass protection. Scott Wells was brought in from the Green Bay Packers via free agency, where he was a Pro Bowl center.
The competition at left guard should be intense, and whoever emerges as the starter should be playing alongside four players that can dominate. Expect Jeff Fisher and offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to really coach these guys up. It wouldn't shock me if this group dominated this year, playing in a system that suits them, because they did a good job run blocking two years ago under the scheme that Pat Schurmur ran.
They have to do it on the field though. This is Missouri. You have to Show-Me.