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St. Louis Rams: State of the Franchise, Week 8 Edition

David HeebCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2012

St. Louis Rams: State of the Franchise, Week 8 Edition

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    The St. Louis Rams just took a good old-fashioned country butt whoopin' from the New England Patriots. It took eight games and the fifth loss of the season before the Rams finally got blown out of a game, as the Patriots blasted the Rams 45-7.

    I guess what I'm saying is, for the first time, the 2012 Rams looked like the 2007-2011 Rams.

    Like they say in coaching, "You're never as good as you just played, and you're never as bad as you just played." So Rams fans, please remember, this was just one game.

    It was horrible. It was awful. It's still just one game.

    There is a lot of hope for the future as this franchise moves forward. So today, I'm giving you my own "state of the franchise," as I break down each position group moving forward.

Quarterback

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    Sam Bradford continues to get better. Just look at the impact a speedster like Chris Givens has made for the Rams' offense and Bradford in particular. Imagine what Bradford might be able to do going forward with more weapons to work with and a better offensive line.

    Speaking of weapons, did anybody notice that Tom Brady's most dangerous weapon is Rob Gronkowski, a tight end?

    When the Rams had the top pick in the second-round last year, I said they should have drafted Coby Fleener, the 6'6" tight end out of Stanford that runs like a wide receiver. Instead, the Rams drafted Brian Quick, a raw wide receiver from Appalachian State.

    Fleener had 19 catches for 198 yards through Week 7, while Quick managed only four catches for 51 yards through Week 7, which included him being inactive for the Rams' first game of the season. If Quick goes on to be a stud wide receiver for the next decade, I take it all back.

    Until then, Bradford still wears the championship belt of "really talented QB throwing to a bunch of scrubs."

Running Back

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    Steven Jackson remains a good player, and it seems like the Rams are finally taking my advice and shopping Jackson around for draft picks. I've been saying it since the end of last season—the Rams need to trade Steven Jackson.

    Simply put, by the time the Rams are really good, Jackson is going to be washed up.

    Why not trade him now? Why not turn a good but fading player into an asset the Rams can actually use when they have a chance to win? Why not trade Jackson to a team like the Packers, who desperately need help at running back, and see what he can do on a team that can't afford to load the box against him?

    It's a smart move by the Rams. It's the right thing to do for Jackson, a warrior and a workhorse, as he nears the end of his career.

    On top of that, he could help the Packers knock the Niners out of the playoffs. That's always a good thing, right?

    With the emergence of Daryl Richardson, the Rams can finally afford to turn the page. Isaiah Pead is another talented rookie who needs an extended audition in order for the Rams to know what they really have in the backfield.

    If anybody calls offering a second-round pick and some change (a fifth- or sixth-rounder), I say make the deal. If I'm the Green Bay Packers, I'd make that deal in a heartbeat, because they are in the middle of a two or three year "Super Bowl window."

    It's a win-win. Make the deal.

Wide Receiver

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    Chris Givens has finally given the Rams a big-play receiving threat. He's only going to get better going forward, and has the look of a surefire, 1,000 yard, deep-threat receiver. Danny Amendola will only be 27 years old going into next year, and looks like the next best thing to Wes Welker if you're looking for a guy who can catch 90-100 passes for over 1,000 yards.

    So for the first time in a long time, the Rams' receivers actually have potential.

    We don't know what we have in Brian Quick yet. He might turn into Terrel Owens 2.0, or he might be a total bust. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that Quick hasn't been able to get on the field more than he has is troubling. It really forces the Rams to make some tough decisions come draft time this April.

    Brandon Gibson, who will be a free agent, has proven that he is a reliable receiver. In my opinion, he is clearly good enough to be a third option on most teams. The problem is, as I just outlined, the Rams are going to have two receivers on the roster ahead of Gibson, and one more (Quick) with more talent that needs playing time.

    I think Gibson will stay on the same solid pace he's on right now and finish with around 65 passes, give or take. He's going to play well enough to get a decent contract next year, it just won't be with the Rams. With Givens, Amendola, Quick and Austin Pettis (still under a rookie contract) in the mix, Gibson will be allowed to walk as a free agent.

    Will the Rams be content with their young quartet come draft time? Or will they roll the dice with a receiver in the first round?

    Stay tuned...

Tight End

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    Lance Kendricks is a good run blocker, and he's a decent receiver. He just isn't an elite target as a tight end, and this is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Rams' offense. As I've said numerous times, you show me a good QB in the NFL, and I'll show you a QB with a good tight end.

    Sam Bradford has now played two-plus seasons with mediocre receivers and even worse tight ends.

    I think this has to be a point of emphasis for the team moving forward, both in terms of the week-to-week game plan and the NFL Draft. The Rams have to find a way to get Kendricks more involved, and then, come draft time, they have to go out and find a tight end that is a threat as a receiver.

    Basically, what I'm trying to say is, "Lance Kendricks, you have officially been put on notice."

    Time to step up or get left behind as the second (blocking) tight end.

Offensive Line

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    The offensive line has played much, much better in 2012. Let's give credit to Jeff Fisher, for instilling a culture of toughness and accountability. Let's give credit to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for establishing a decent running game and not exposing Sam Bradford to big hits. Last, but certainly not least, let's give credit to Paul Boudreau, the O-line coach who has worked miracles with a patchwork offensive line.

    Yet for all their improvement, what do we really know about the Rams' O-line?

    Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold have both been injured for most of the season. The left guard spot has been a revolving door of Roquinishell Ojinwatsmith. I mean, seriously, the Rams have rotated four different starters through that spot already this season.

    When the most consistent starters you have are Harvey Dahl and Barry freakin' Richardson, what do you really know about your offensive line?

    Take Joe Barksdale. He's 6'5, 329 pounds, and only 24 years old. He was a third-round pick, and is obviously a talented player. Could he be part of the long-term solution in St. Louis? Maybe, and the same can probably be said for Shelley Smith, who has played much better than any of the other Rams' wannabe left guards this season.

    Most importantly, what do the Rams have in Saffold? He could be a starter at left tackle for a decade, but can you really trust Bradford's blind side protection to a guy who can't stay healthy, even if it is freak accidents that keep sidelining him?

    The Rams have some talented young players on the line, but you can bet this will be a position that gets addressed come draft time.

Safety

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    This is another area of the roster that needs a serious, serious upgrade. Craig Dahl has been a durable, reliable player for several seasons now. I say that because it's easy to hammer Dahl for being overmatched most weeks, but the Rams have never been able to find an upgrade over Dahl.

    We thought it was going to be Darian Stewart, but he has regressed this season. Maybe Rodney McLeod can fill this void moving forward, or maybe the Rams will address this through the draft.

    Quintin Mickell is Dahl's partner on the back end of the defense has been equally average this season. Mickell was a really good player a couple of seasons ago. He's just getting older, and he's probably on his way out of St. Louis.

    Bottom line, these two players both really, really struggle in coverage, and you can take it to the bank that this position will be addressed through the draft.

Corner

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    Teams are starting to pick on Janoris Jenkins. You can bank on the rookie making a couple of big mistakes every week. He is very talented, and has a nose for the ball, but the Rams drafted Jenkins to be a lockdown corner. Right now, he still has a long way to go.

    Cortland Finnegan has been worth every penny so far. The free agent has changed the entire mentality of the Rams' defense. Sure, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady lit the Rams up, but there's a line that goes around the block with burnt secondaries who could say the same thing.

    Bradley Fletcher and Trumaine Johnson are also talented young players. I think this is one area of the team that will remain unchanged next year, barring injuries.

    The secondary needs to improve, but this is one position group that is clearly headed in the right direction.

Linebacker

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    James Laurinaitis is having a good season, and as his defensive tackles continue to improve, expect him to make an even bigger contribution. Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been an above average starter as the weak outside linebacker.

    Right now, the Rams have a pretty solid group at linebacker.

    The biggest area this group has to improve on is coverage, where they've been burned by tight ends this season (see: Gronkowski, Rob). That is a recipe for disaster when you're in the same division as Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers.

    I don't think the Rams will make a splashy move for a linebacker moving forward. Simply put, the Rams have greater needs elsewhere, and they have in-house options (Sammy Brown, on the practice squad) that might fill the void.

    If nothing else, look for them to find a Dunbar-like, not-that-expensive free agent to fill the third linebacker spot.

Defensive Line

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    Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Kendall Langford, and Michael Brockers...

    Wow, the Rams are just loaded with young talent across the defensive line.

    When you factor in the Rams depth (Eugene Sims, William Hayes, Jermelle Cudjo), and the guys who haven't played much because of injury (Matt Conrath, Trevor Laws), you can see how this unit is going to be a major strength for the franchise moving forward.

    This group has shown flashes of brilliance (Arizona, Seattle), and then they've also played poorly at times (New England). When you consider that the D-line and the secondary are both very young, and they'll both improve significantly over the next season or two, it's scary to think about where this defense is headed.

    Especially if they find a couple of good safeties to plug into the back end of the defense.

    In the meantime, for the Rams to have any shot at the playoffs this season, the Rams' front four is going to have to really step it up. We need their "A Game" every Sunday.

Special Teams

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    Greg Zeurlein has arguably been the Rams' MVP so far this season. Call him Greg "the Leg," Legatron, young GZ, or whatever else you want, the dude could probably kick it over the arch into the Mississippi River. When you can get this kind of production out of a sixth-round pick, it is an overwhelming success.

    Johnny Hekker is also going to be the Rams' punter for a long time. Hekker has a strong leg, and he has shown some nice touch. He even threw a touchdown on a faked field goal for good measure.

    We even have young players returning kicks. Chris Givens, Isaiah Pead, Danny Amendola, and Janoris Jenkins have handled the punt/kick returning duties so far. They have been solid, but not spectacular, and they give the Rams' the threat of the home run on special teams for the first time in a long time.

Coaching

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    The Rams have been in every game they've played so far, except their Week 8 "home" blowout loss to the Patriots. The Chicago game got away from them late, and Green Bay had too much firepower in the fourth quarter to allow a Rams comeback.

    Basically, I'm saying it's been nice to see the Rams actually compete.

    They have been well prepared, they've made some nice in-game adjustments, and they've played hard. It's obvious that they've bought into what Jeff Fisher is selling. It's obvious that the "prospects" we've drafted are actually improving and becoming "players."

The Remainder of This Season

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    The Rams are 3-5, one game behind where I thought they'd be at 4-4 (I had them beating Miami). So while I had the Rams as a long shot to make the playoffs at 9-7, that road is considerably tougher now as we move forward.

    The Rams have tough road games at San Francisco, at Buffalo (December 9th—it's going to be freezing), at Arizona, at Seattle (where they never play well), and at Tampa Bay (who is playing surprisingly well lately).

    Their only three home games left on the schedule are against the Jets, the Vikings (one of the surprise teams in the NFL), and the Niners.

    So the remaining schedule isn't going to be easy.

    The Rams are going to get a major boost when they get Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells back on the offensive line. Getting Danny Amendola back is also going to give them a boost in the passing game. All three players could be back by Week 10 at San Francisco (the Rams have a bye next week).

    Then again, the Rams are probably going to be without Steven Jackson, who I think will be traded.

    I think the Rams can win two games on the road (at Arizona, who can't block the Rams' D-line, and at Buffalo, who isn't as good as I thought they'd be). I also think they can win two games at home (against the Jets, who aren't very good, and against the Vikings).

    So I think the Rams will finish this season 7-9. They're going to miss the playoffs, and we'll all look back at the last minute touchdown scored by the Lions in Week 1 and the miscues at Miami in Week 6 as the reasons why.

The Draft

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    Tell the truth: every week, you root for the Rams, and whoever is playing the Redskins, right?

    Go Steelers.

    The Rams are going to finish 7-9, give or take a game. The Redskins are going to finish in the same range, but I think they'll win one game less than the Rams, just because they play in a tougher division and their defense has been wrecked by injuries.

    So here is how it's all going to break down for the Rams in the draft:

    The Rams will have two first-rounders (both in the 7-10 range), two second-rounders (our own plus the pick we get in the Steven Jackson trade), and a third-rounder where they have a chance to add an impact starter. Then look for Les Snead to try to strike gold again in rounds 4-7, where he found solid players like Daryl Richardson, Greg Zuerlein, and Chris Givens a year ago.

    Expect the Rams to try to target a franchise left tackle with their first pick. If the right player isn't there, I think they'll go with a free safety or a wide receiver, and then pick a left tackle with their second first-round pick. I also wouldn't be shocked at all if the Rams drafted two offensive lineman, a tackle and a guard, with their two first-rounders.

    It all depends on how the O-line plays for the rest of this season, and a lot of that also depends on what the Rams' coaching staff really thinks about Brian Quick.

So When Will the Rams Be in the Super Bowl

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    The Rams will narrowly miss the playoffs this year. They'll make the playoffs the following year (2013). They will be a Super Bowl contender after that (2014).

    If they draft well, the Rams will win the Super Bowl in 2015.

    By that point, the Rams will have taken the youngest roster in the NFL, one that will finish 7-9 this year, and added five first-rounders, four second-rounders, three third-rounders, and whatever late round gems the front office can find.

    By that point, Sam Bradford will be 27 years old, entering his "Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning" prime, with a dominant offensive line protecting him and a deep receiving corps to throw to.

    By that point, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and Michael Brockers will be anchoring the best defensive line in the NFL. That D Line will create the pass rush that compliments a terrific secondary, led by Finnegan, Jenkins, Johnson, and two dynamic young safeties. James Laurinaitis will be the backbone of the best defense in the NFL.

    Greg Zeurlein will put the Rams in scoring range anytime they cross their opponents 40 yard line, and by that point his field goals should come less frequently, as the Rams' offense will be scoring more TD's.

    Bottom line Rams' fans, ignore the ugly 45-7 loss to the Packers. Look deeper. There are so many bright spots to look at with this team. So what, we're not better than the Packers or the Patriots. We knew that before the season started.

    This roster is young, talented, and things are only going to get better in St. Louis.

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