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Grading the Strength of Each Position on Rams Roster Heading into Free Agency

Jamal CollierAnalyst IIIFebruary 8, 2013

Grading the Strength of Each Position on Rams Roster Heading into Free Agency

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    General manager Les Snead and the St. Louis Rams brass have their work cut out for them in the upcoming NFL free agency period. In order to get anything noteworthy accomplished in the way of signing free agents this offseason, they will likely have to create cap space.

    ESPN’s John Clayton reported that the Rams have $1.8 million in cap room, but Steven Jackson’s contract situation all but balloons that number to $10.7 million. ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando noted:

    The Rams re-worked Steven Jackson’s contract to move nearly $1.9 million in cap charges from 2013 into 2012. The change means Jackson’s contract will not count against the cap in 2013 if the team releases him or if Jackson exercises an option to become a free agent.

     

    In essence, the cap charge change should have St. Louis looking at $3.7 million to work with, growing to $10.7 million once Jackson’s $7 million base salary comes off the books (via Spotrac). Of course, a portion of that released money would go toward re-signing the franchise’s leading rusher if he returns to the team.

    Along with many others, Rams senior writer Nick Wagoner believes that “tackle Wayne Hunter and safety Quintin Mikell could be asked to figure out more cost-effective contract options,” as well. If the Rams are relieved of those two guys’ base salaries, their cap situation could open up to about $20.7 million.

    Take Titus Young’s 2013 salary out of that, and STL could have as much as $20.1 million to distribute.

    To determine where St. Louis can best spend its money, the Rams will need to decide which of their position groups most needs help. If a position has an “A” grade, the Rams don’t need to dip into the free-agent—or NFL draft—pool for help: It’s a unit of strength.

    If the position grades out as a “B,” little assistance is needed: A bargain-type player or depth help would suffice. A “C” position group could certainly stand to be addressed, but the team would be fine without a talent upgrade there. It wouldn’t be hurt by a continuation of the current production at the position.

    A “D” grade signifies that a position needs attention: It was problematic for the team in 2012 and will continue to be without a lot of help. When the production from a unit is glaringly unacceptable, it receives an “F” grade: a signal that the Rams simply won’t be legitimately competitive until the situation is rectified.

     

    All following cap figures, unless otherwise specified, are from Spotrac.com.

Quarterback

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    Sam Bradford (12,595,000)

    Austin Davis (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Sam Bradford hasn’t played up to his top-10 NFL quarterback contract, which is a product of his draft status: Because he went No. 1 overall in 2010, his extraordinarily lucrative deal will last two more seasons after 2013. Without a restructure, it will take even more off the cap in subsequent years.

    Fortunately, Bradford isn’t a bust.

    His supporting cast makes it difficult to decipher just how good he is as an NFL pro. It’s hard to imagine that any of the free-agent quarterbacks—Joe Flacco included—would be an upgrade over the former Offensive Rookie of the Year, especially at any kind of bargain pricing. The NFL draft is also a lot less exciting at the quarterback position than it was a year ago, when the St. Louis Rams passed on the opportunity to grab Robert Griffin III.

    That’s why Austin Davis’ modest deal is perfect for the St. Louis Rams: Their quarterback money is tied up in Bradford. At this stage of Bradford’s career, a veteran backup serves the team better as an insurance policy than a potential long-term starter.

    Bradford has played all 16 games in two of his first three seasons. He’s also coming off his best campaign as a professional—which is exactly what you’d like to see from a top draft pick making eight figures annually. His 3,702 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 127 rushing yards, six total fumbles, 51.6 QBR and 82.6 passer rating in 2012 all represented career bests.

    St. Louis will be retaining its offensive coordinator for the first time in Bradford’s career; the continuity should be good for his development.

    This team’s problems are elsewhere.

     

    Grade: A

Running Back

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    Isaiah Pead (917,750)

    Daryl Richardson (491,474)

    Terrance Ganaway (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    Steven Jackson

     

     

    Steven Jackson is unsure of whether he’s played his last game with the St. Louis Rams, which is why he finds himself in the UFA category for the present purposes. Signing Jackson would clearly be a good thing for the Rams offense, but whether the franchise returns its all-time leading rusher will likely be a matter of finances—if No. 39 doesn’t decide to hang ‘em up.

    Can Daryl Richardson handle a full-time workload? Maybe, but we haven’t seen it.

    Richardson’s games with double-digit carries came against two respectable run defenses, the Washington Redskins in Week 2 and Miami Dolphins in Week 6. He ripped off a 40-plus-yard run in each of those contests, totaling 159 rushing yards on 26 carries (6.1 average).

    Leapfrogging Isaiah Pead in the running back rotation, Richardson also caught multiple passes in eight appearances for St. Louis. He lost two fumbles on 122 touches and didn’t score a touchdown all season; while there’s plenty of electricity to his game, there’s also something to be desired.

    Pead had one fumble on 13 touches.

    Terrance Ganaway—who didn’t touch the ball as a rookie in 2012—is 240 pounds, so maybe he’s the goal-line hammer that St. Louis can use in Jackson’s stead. There is plenty of talent at the position in the NFL draft, though.

    Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell (6’2”, 244 lbs), Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (5’11”, 212 lbs) and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (6’0”, 218 lbs) are all potential offensive difference-makers that the Rams can acquire without sacrificing a first-round pick.

    The team doesn’t have a full-time fullback. If they’re interested in acquiring an elite lead blocker, an unrestricted free-agent Pro Bowler named Jerome Felton just blocked for a 2,000-yard rusher.

    Nobody on the Rams roster is Adrian Peterson, but poaching his fullback can’t hurt—if the Rams intend to use him in 2013. Vonta Leach of the Baltimore Ravens counts for $4.3 million against the cap.

     

    Grade: C

Wide Receiver

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    Brian Quick (1,224,095)

    Austin Pettis (733,604)

    Chris Givens (604,257)

    Titus Young (555,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    Danny Amendola

    Brandon Gibson

    Steve Smith

     

     

    Titus Young just made this situation look a whole lot better. Danny Amendola’s agent told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he doesn’t think Young’s signing “affects Danny one bit,” but that’s because he’s Amendola’s agent.

    What else is he supposed to say?

    If Young makes it through training camp without incident, he’s a good bet to get plenty of playing time with the St. Louis Rams. They have to be itching to unleash the 6’3”, 220-pound Brian Quick, but the Rams seem resolved not to throw the Appalachian State product on the field consistently until he’s ready.

    He caught 11 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. Quick looks like Dallas Cowboys standout Dez Bryant (6’2”, 220) in a uniform; the quasi first-round pick will be given chances to contribute in 2013.

    Young and Chris Givens are both capable of stretching the field as well as doing slot work. Neither has the requisite size for a prototypical No. 1 wideout, however: Givens is the bigger of the two, standing 6’0” tall and weighing 198 pounds. Austin Pettis is, like Quick, 6’3” and a good red-zone target: He’s made some difficult catches and scored four touchdowns in his sophomore campaign.

    St. Louis’ problem—aside from lack of experience and abundance of injury—at wideout is that guys can’t get separation and make catches on a consistent basis. The silver lining is that their payroll isn’t getting overpaid at the position; the team can spend some money at wideout to improve the quality of Sam Bradford’s targets.

    If the Rams want to add a veteran with a resume for cheap, Terrell Owens still wants to play.

    Hey JETS!!! I'm available! I'm ready, willing & able! Call my agent @jordanwoy & let's make it happen.

    — Terrell Owens (@terrellowens) October 9, 2012

    Dwayne Bowe—a physical receiver that can make plays all over the field—would be the best fit for the Rams offense if the Kansas City Chiefs let him get away. If not, Greg Jennings, Braylon Edwards and Mark Clayton should draw some interest from St. Louis.

    Going through the avenue of the NFL draft to add a receiver likely means the Rams have to strike early and grab one in the first round. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has two 6’3” guys as his top two wide receiver prospects, Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee (205 pounds) and California’s Keenan Allen (210).

    STL will need one of them if they bypass an impact free-agent signing, because a No. 1 playmaker is sorely needed.

     

    Grade: D

Tight End

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    Lance Kendricks (1,152,555)

    Matthew Mulligan (725,000)

    Cory Harkey (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Lance Kendricks took steps toward being a legitimate NFL tight end as a sophomore. The St. Louis Rams also lined him up at fullback. The former second-round pick caught 42 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, including 16 grabs for 255 yards and two scores in his final five games.

    He recorded at least three receptions for 30 yards in each of his last five, but only topped 48 yards once all year: a 119-yard outburst against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which was aided by an 80-yard touchdown sprint.

    Kendricks was—by far—the biggest receiving threat from the tight end position. Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett are unrestricted free agents who could draw more defensive attention than Kendricks attracts to the middle of the field.

    There are worse stances to take than hoping that Kendricks’ growth continues, though. St. Louis doesn’t need to take another TE early in the 2013 draft: It’s a good position to gamble on the upside of an athletic wonder in later rounds.

     

    Grade: C

Offensive Line

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    C Scott Wells (4,500,000)

    T Wayne Hunter (4,000,000)

    G Harvey Dahl (4,000,000)

    T Rodger Saffold (1,380,000)

    G Shelley Smith (575,000)

    T Joe Barksdale (555,000)

    G Rokevious Watkins (527,825)

    G Brandon Washington (484,484)

    T Ty Nsekhe (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    T Barry Richardson

    G/C Rob Turner

    T/G Chris Williams

     

     

    The St. Louis Rams offensive line has been the single-most frustrating unit to watch on the team for quite some time. As a group, the consistency of its futility has bordered on tradition: It frequently gets blown off the ball and penetrated by defenders from all angles.

    It was ranked 26th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.

    Some of that is due to injury woes, but a lot of it is talent. St. Louis traded former No. 2-overall pick Jason Smith to the New York Jets prior to the 2012 season—and still has some of his dead money coming off its cap.

    None of the Rams’ current starters was drafted in the first round. Rodger Saffold was taken with the first pick of the second round. No one else was drafted before the sixth—if they were drafted at all. A Jeff Fisher-coached team has never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round, but one can’t help but think Sam Bradford would sleep like a baby on Apr. 25 if he knew that he’ll have some big-time beef in front of him in 2013.

    The interior of the line could use an overhaul in a major way. Chance Warmack from Alabama will bring some SEC strength to St. Louis with his 6’2”, 322-pound frame. The Rams need guys like him who can knock dudes over.

    A first-round pick on Warmack—or offensive tackles Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) or Lane Johnson (Oklahoma)—would be one well spent. It’d be hard to argue with doubling back to Alabama for Matt Miller’s top center prospect, Barrett Jones, in the second round.

    There are some major names in the free-agent market at offensive tackle, but those guys probably won’t be getting away from their current teams. It would be a surprise if Ryan Clady, Jake Long, Andre Smith or Branden Albert left their respective NFL squads.

    Phil Loadholt (6’8”, 343 lbs) is an absolute mauler at the right tackle position—the Rams running game would greatly benefit by prying the 27-year-old away from the Minnesota Vikings. Right tackle should be a priority for St. Louis: While Saffold would be best utilized as a swing tackle, he’s a legitimate blindside protector.

    If St. Louis can re-stock its offensive line with an infusion of young, pedigreed talent, the Rams can create more cap space by releasing—or renegotiating with—its veterans.

    Five of the 10 O-line starters in Super Bowl XLVII were first-round picks.

     

    Grade: F

Defensive Line

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    DE Chris Long (14,460,000)

    DT Kendall Langford (4,000,000)

    DE Robert Quinn (2,573,475)

    DT Michael Brockers (2,164,090)

    DE Eugene Sims (1,226,987)

    DT Matt Conrath (482,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    DT Jermelle Cudjo

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    DE William Hayes

    DT Trevor Laws

     

    The St. Louis Rams, paced by Chris Long (11.5) and Robert Quinn (10.5), tied the Denver Broncos for the NFL lead in sacks last season. Given that the team had a losing record (7-8-1) while Denver went 13-3, there’s not a whole lot to complain about.

    St. Louis simply has to round out its defensive line rotation from a pure numbers standpoint. That’ll happen one way or another: mid-to-late round draft picks and/or minimal financial investment in free agents should be all that’s required.

     

    Grade: B

Linebackers

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    James Laurinaitis (12,400,000)

    Jo-Lonn Dunbar (1,800,000)

    Josh Hull (583,888)

    Jabara Williams (480,000)

    Sammy Brown (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    Justin Cole

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    Mario Haggan

    Rocky McIntosh

     

    The St. Louis Rams could use a heavy dose of speed in the middle of their back seven; faster linebackers and safeties would be very beneficial to their defensive unit. James Laurinaitis has the middle linebacker spot locked down for the foreseeable future, so the infusion of quicks in the LB corps will have to come via an upgrade at the outside linebacker position.

    Unrestricted free agents Philip Wheeler, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard can run. Aaron Curry hasn’t been on an NFL roster since November, but it’s worth finding out if the former fourth-overall pick can cut it with the Rams on a modest deal—similar to how St. Louis explored Vernon Gholston (No. 6 in 2008) before the 2012 season.

    Otherwise, STL may find that guys like Rutgers’ Khaseem Green, Kansas State’s Arthur Brown , Missouri’s Zaviar Gooden or Texas A&M’s Sean Porter can be had outside of the first round and make plays on defense in 2013 and beyond.

     

    Grade: D

Defensive Backs

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    CB Cortland Finnegan (15,000,000)

    S Quintin Mikell (9,000,000)

    CB Janoris Jenkins (997,250)

    CB Trumaine Johnson (647,794)

    S Matt Daniels (483,333)

    CB Rodney McLeod (481,333)

    CB Quinton Pointer (480,000)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    Darian Stewart

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    Craig Dahl

    Bradley Fletcher

     

     

    What was possibly the St. Louis Rams’ greatest weakness in 2011 became a position of strength in the matter of a year. With 2012 newcomers Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, St. Louis’ cornerbacks improved by leaps and bounds.

    The safeties, however, did not. The Rams should prioritize returning restricted free agent Darian Stewart over his unrestricted DB counterparts, Craig Dahl and Bradley Fletcher. Stewart is entering his fourth season and should be cheaper to retain than Dahl and Fletcher, while still having proven that he can make plays on the back end.

    He has four sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a pick-six—of Drew Brees, no less—in limited playing time throughout his career.

    Safety should be an offseason priority for the Rams. The ideal candidate to hold down the back end would be Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd: a ball hawk who went to high school in the St. Louis area. He’d be an expensive addition—if the Bills allow him to walk at all—however, as would future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.

    Still, the Rams would benefit most from an additional play-making veteran presence in their defensive backfield. Consistent support for a gambler like Jenkins would be a tremendous asset to a St. Louis defense that already boasts a terrific pass rush.

    If they have to expend a high draft pick on a safety, they would be less likely to fulfill their other glaring needs in April—but securing the services of a thumper like Bacarri Rambo (Georgia) in the fourth round would be intriguing.

    Somebody has to get back there to provide air support, especially if Quintin Mikell is released.

     

    CB Grade: A

    S Grade: F

Specialists

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    Who’s Locked Up (Cap Figure):

    LS Jake McQuaide (555,833)

    K Greg Zuerlein (512,205)

    P Johnny Hekker (483,333)

     

     

    Restricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Unrestricted Free Agents

    None

     

     

    Punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein did their jobs just fine as rookies in 2012. They’re not getting top-flight money at their positions, either; the St. Louis Rams should be happy with the pair and their contract situations as they are.

    People that aren’t die-hard Rams fans likely have no idea who Jake McQuaide is—which means he hasn’t committed any long-snapping blunders of nationally-recognizable proportions. That’s also a good thing.

    The kick return game was handled by a number of players last year. Chris Givens (27 returns) and Isaiah Pead (10) took care of kickoff return duties while three players—Danny Amendola (17), Austin Pettis (11) and Janoris Jenkins (nine)—ran back nine or more punts.

    They weren’t particularly successful, though: No Rams player returned a kick or punt for a touchdown. St. Louis averaged 21.0 yards per kick return and 6.6 per punt return. Their opponents ran kickoffs 24.3 yards, and punts 9.8 yards, back on average.

    Leodis McKelvin averaged 28.3 yards per KR and 18.7 yards per PR with two punt return touchdowns for the Buffalo Bills in 2012. McKelvin would be a fine return man for them, who could also provide a second service as a nickel or dime cornerback.

     

    Specialist Grade: B

     

    For more St. Louis Rams analysis, follow Jamal on Twitter

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