The Rams have a young group of players heading into 2012. A few are coming back from injuries, and some are entering the prime of their careers.
On offense, you have a quarterback who should finally gain some sort of stability entering the third year of his career. Sam Bradford isn't a bust yet, but there's no doubt that there is pressure on him. Steven Jackson has been the most consistent running back in the NFL over the last five years, and he is still on the right side of 30 years old.
Defensively, this team finally looks like it may be ready to move to the next level with a youthful core and some solid additions. How much pressure is on them to get the job done?
Here are my candidates for who is under the most pressure in St. Louis as we get closer to the start of the 2012 season.
Having a bona fide deep-ball threat at wide receiver has been a huge issue for the Rams in the last couple of years. Danario Alexander showed some signs of being that guy last year, but he's had some serious health problems that have prevented him from staying on the field. Five knee surgeries that date back to his college days could result in his release.
Danny Amendola came off the big injury in the first game of last season. We all know what he can do (85 catches in 2010). Still, he's not the answer when it comes to a deep-ball guy. He did have a 35-yard reel-in against Kansas City, but I want to see him do what he does best: catch the ball in short yardage situations and use his speed to open up the field.
Steve Smith comes in with a history of health problems, but he looks 100 percent on the field. It's just a question of whether or not he can return to the 2009 form that led him to a Giants franchise record in receptions.
After Smith and Amendola, there are a bunch of guys who are pretty much unproven. Brandon Gibson has returned to action from a hamstring injury and looks good in practice. I also love Brian Quick's potential.
The fact of the matter is there isn't one wide receiver on this team who is a sure thing right now. Pressure's on.
The Rams have had a top-20 defense twice since 2004. Steve Spagnuolo won a Super Bowl with his menacing defensive line in New York, so St. Louis brought him in to instill some toughness. That didn't work, so maybe a bunch of hungry, youthful guys will.
I've never had expectations this high for a Rams defense headed into the regular season. On the line, Chris Long has a new contract and had 13 sacks last year. Kendall Langford came in to shore up the middle.
Behind them, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is primed for a monster year after he led the team in tackles.
I'm also beginning to get really excited about this secondary. We already know what Cortland Finnegan can do, but Janoris Jenkins is starting to man up and become the player he was at Florida before he had to transfer to North Alabama. Off the field troubles throughout college marred his image when it came to the draft, but he's put that aside. Jenkins had four tackles, an assist and a forced fumble against Kansas City.
Like the receivers, the potential is there, but we don't know much about how this unit will fare in the upcoming season. To me, Long and Laurinaitis are the only sure things. For these guys, it's all about cohesiveness and playing together.
They'll have a nice test in Week 1 against Detroit.
Steven Jackson is the most sure thing on this whole team. He's had at least 1,000 yards on the ground every year since 2005, and he's still 29 years old. Unfortunately, great seasons are harder to come by for a running back who has been the unquestioned starter for seven straight seasons.
Pressure's on, Steven.
Don't get me wrong, this has nothing to do with the guy's performance since he got here. It's just the sad truth about running backs in this sport: They don't play great for long periods of time. Considering Jackson has been a workhorse for his whole career, time's running out.
Still, he's a major threat to opposing defenses because of his immense versatile talent. On one side he can ground and pound, while on the other side it may be impossible for anyone to catch him in open space.
So why is the pressure on S-Jax? First, he's got to stay healthy for a full season. Second, he simply can't afford to let up on his game. He has to rush for over 1,000 yards this season if the Rams are going to contend for anything except the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.
Also, he has to get more touchdowns. When it comes to goal line carries, Jackson is never a guarantee to get in to the end zone. That has to change this season.
You can take your pick as to what has been worse over the last decade, the defense or the offensive line. I'm taking the O-line 10 times out of 10. I remember Marc Bulger getting slammed into the ground too many times, and Richie Incognito being called for one false start after the other. Those guys are gone, but the terrible offensive line play isn't.
Sam Bradford played a full season in his rookie year. He was sacked 34 times and fumbled six times. He played 10 games last year, was sacked 36 times, and again, six fumbles.
The great news is that in two preseason games this summer, no sacks and one fumble.
The Rams signed the most coveted center in free agency in Scott Wells from Green Bay. The problem with Wells is he had a knee scope in the spring and just got into practices this week. The team says he is expected to play against Dallas this weekend, so let's see what he can do.
When LT Jason Smith was taken second overall in the 2009 draft, I caught up with him and was able to get an autograph. More importantly, I told him to "be like Pace." That hasn't really happened. In fact it's been so bad that the team had to move Smith permanently to right tackle to make room for Rodger Saffold.
I had zero confidence in the the offensive line last year, but as with every other problem on this team, the Rams addressed it in the offseason by adding Wells. The guy has played for a dominant team in Green Bay, and I trust his health moving forward. Still, there's a 24 year-old who needs the protection he had in his rookie season.
The position he plays is the one with the most pressure on just about every NFL team, and there's no exception here. Sam Bradford has the most pressure to succeed in St. Louis in 2012 and here are a few reasons why.
First, Bradford has the talent. He won a Heisman Trophy in college at Oklahoma, and proved in the first year of his NFL career that he could make an impact right away. It couldn't have been more evident last year that Bradford looked lost without an offensive line, and a receiving corps that was young and at times depleted.
Secondly, he now has the pieces around him to make the Rams a better team than they were last year. In fact, I don't see a reason to think St. Louis can't be as good as they were in 2010. Those pieces include quarterback coach Frank Cignetti, a position Bradford didn't have last year.
Third, he has the experience. He has lived through a full year in this league, and he's worked through an ankle injury. For quarterbacks, it can take a couple of years to get to where their true potential is. They have that first year to find themselves around a new environment, and the second year to decide whether or not they can indeed take that next step.
Bradford didn't have a full year to make that decision. Still, he's the cover boy of this franchise, and the pressure will be on him from the get-go to utilize the weapons he has and make more accurate throws.