July is the month for hope in the NFL. Every team is a contender. Every fan is optimistic. No matter how bad last year went, the glass is half full for every franchise in July.
As a Rams fan, July has been the best month on the calendar for the past couple of years.
Flipping over into August and September meant reality setting in. By October, most Rams fans were calling for the coach to be fired and planning for the draft. I know I speak for Rams fans everywhere when I say I hope July isn't the high point of the 2012 season.
So why should we expect this year to be different?
Because this team has some real strengths moving forward. For the first time in a few years, the Rams actually have something to build around.
Here are five of those strengths the Rams should play towards in 2012.
The defensive line is the strength of this football team. The front four is going to be able to generate sacks without any help from the linebackers. This is a tremendous advantage, especially on third down. If the Rams can improve their run defense, that should lead to more third and long type situations.
That's when this group could be among the best in the NFL.
Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, and Robert Quinn should all be able to get after the opposing QB. Eugene Sims is drawing rave reviews in camp, giving the team some much needed depth at defensive end. Trevor Laws gives the Rams a very solid DT to add to the rotation.
This is the deepest, most talented group the Rams have had up front in a long time. The scary part is that this group is still very young and will only get better.
A major weakness is now a major strength for the Rams.
Last season the Rams were so beat up in the secondary that they were holding open tryouts. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit. The offseason saw the Rams add Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, and Trumaine Johnson. With players like Jerome Murphy and Bradley Fletcher returning from injury, this group is now one of the deepest in the NFL.
Quintin Mickell, Darian Stewart, and Craig Dahl are all experienced safeties. In my opinion, the safeties are not as talented as the corners, but they are better than average starters. When you factor in that they'll get a lot of help in coverage from the linebackers on obvious passing downs—because they will only need to rush the front four defensive lineman—the Rams are going to be very good on third down.
A lot of times an extra half second of coverage is the difference between a sack or a completed pass. The Rams are going to be able to provide that type of coverage and then some, and that will be more than enough for the Rams' D Line.
The Rams could be scary good on third down if they stay healthy.
"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."
The Rams are about to pound teams with the run, and Jackson is in tremendous shape. He is running behind a fullback for the first time in years, and he also has help in the form of Isaiah Pead, the Rams' 2012 second-round draft pick, by all accounts a dangerous change of pace back.
As we just discussed, the Rams' D is going to be good. They are going to be tough to pass against, meaning teams are going to have to try to get some yards on the ground. That is going to take time off the clock. Meanwhile, the Rams are going to be pounding the run when they have the ball.
Add it up, and that means a shorter game, a lower score, and the kind of game that the Rams have a chance to win.
The Rams had the worst offense in the NFL last year. Part of that was due to injuries, especially to the offensive line, which in turn led to Sam Bradford getting beat up. The other part of that was the scheme. I've said this numerous times, but the Rams simply didn't have the personnel to run the offense that Josh McDaniels wanted to run. Their receivers were too pedestrian, and their O-line wasn't stout enough to block for that long.
John Clayton of ESPN said as much in this article.
"As a rookie, Sam Bradford had the look of an elite quarterback. Then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had him working three-step drops and quick five-step throws, and Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards. Josh McDaniels, last year's coordinator, destroyed that. In one of the most baffling offensive changes in years, McDaniels had Bradford work out of seven-step drops and five-step throws to 15- to 18-yard routes. The Rams couldn't block it. Receivers weren't good enough to get open. Bradford was battered physically and lasted only 10 games. His completion percentage fell to 53 percent, and the offense averaged only 12.1 points a game. McDaniels' departure alone should be worth six points a game. A revitalized Bradford and the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer could be worth more. Bradford looks great. He has lifted weights in the offseason and is bigger and stronger. He finished last season at 216 pounds. Now, he's 225 and throwing with authority. Schottenheimer is adding more motion to the offense with his receivers to confuse defenses. A smarter offensive scheme should mean better quarterback play for the Rams."
Jeff Darlington of NFL.com also caught Bradford in camp, and he said Bradford looks "absolutely primed for a big year." Every report I've read out of Rams' camp gives Bradford rave reviews. Whether it's Rams' insiders or the national media, a lot of smart people that know football believe Bradford has what it takes to be an elite NFL QB.
I believe that also, but in order to be elite, Bradford is going to need help.
I don't think the Rams have a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald-type receiving stud in their arsenal, but I do believe this is the most talented group of receivers the Rams have had since the Greatest Show on Turf.
Lance Kendricks is poised for a breakout season. A more simplified offense that features him as a play-action weapon over the middle and down the seam should make him a go-to weapon for Sam Bradford. Danny Amendola is dangerous in the slot, and while he won't put up a ton of yards or touchdowns, he is a chain mover.
With Kendricks and Amendola working the middle, the Rams need weapons on the outside.
According to Clayon of ESPN.com, the Rams might have stumbled onto something in camp with Steve Smith, who finally looks healthy, and has been working as an outside receiver. Rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens are inexperienced, but they both bring a lot of talent to the group. Greg Salas looks to build on his impressive rookie season that was cut short by injury.
Out of the backfield, Jackson is a weapon, and the Rams plan to use Pead as a Darren Sproles type of "scat back" weapon.
Bottom line, the Rams are more talented, far more talented, than they were a year ago. Is this group going to be a Top 10 offense? Definitely not. Will they be able to make the playoffs? Only if they're really lucky.
I know this: for the first time in a long time, the Rams have some young players to build around on offense. They are probably one elite receiver and a couple of years away from going on a deep playoff run, and you can bank on this: a lot of these players will be a part of that future success.