With the NFL season still months away, deprived fans are left with nothing but their own thoughts and predictions on the upcoming season.
For St. Louis Rams fans, the considerable hype surrounding the team has made this offseason wait particularly unbearable. But they take comfort in the fact that there's plenty of excitment to look forward to in 2013.
When it comes to 2013 predictions, here are five statements Rams fans have been making all offseason.
If the majority of these statements become reality, the Rams will thrive during the upcoming season. If not, St. Louis fans will have to tolerate another subpar year.
The Rams emptied out the piggy bank this offseason and ponied up the cash for the top tight end on the free-agent market—Tennessee's Jared Cook.
At 6'5" and 248 pounds, Cook is an impressive physical specimen who has the athleticism to be elite. He wasn't used enough in Tennessee and has yet to reach his potential at the age of 26.
So, what can the Rams expect out of Cook? Will he continue to produce numbers that are beneath his potential, or will he break out and become a game changer?
An important factor to point out is how underutilized he was in Tennessee. Here's how many times Cook has been targeted over the last three seasons in comparison to some of the top tight ends in the game:
Jared Cook: Targeted 198 times.
Vernon Davis (49ers): 249
Jason Witten (Cowboys): 392
Jimmy Graham (Saints): 328
Rob Gronkowski (Patriots): 262
Aaron Hernandez (Patriots): 260
Each of the top tight ends in the game have seen at least 50 more passes thrown their way over the last three seasons.
Also, here's a year-by-year comparison between Cook and Davis—the best tight end in the NFC West:
2012: 72 Targets, 44 Receptions, 11.9 Yards Per Catch
2011: 81 Targets, 49 Receptions 15.5 Yards Per Catch
2010: 45 Targets, 29 Receptions 12.4 Yards Per Catch
2012: 61 Targets, 41 Receptions, 13.4 Yards Per Catch
2011: 95 Targets, 67 Receptions, 11.8 Yards Per Catch
2010: 93 Targets, 56 Receptions, 16.3 Yards Per Catch
What can we expect out of Cook, assuming Bradford looks his way more often than the Titans?
Cook turned 122 of his 198 targets into receptions, meaning he made receptions out of 61.6 percent of his targets. Meanwhile, Davis made 164 receptions out of 249 targets, giving him a similar 65.8 percent catch rate.
If Cook's number of targets in 2013 jumps to 95 (the number of targets Davis saw in 2011), his number of receptions will presumably jump to a career-high 59. And, based on his 13.4 yards per catch over the last three years, those 59 catches should be good for 794 yards (nearly a Pro Bowl-worthy yards total).
An increase in targets could very well put Cook in the mix with the top-tier tight ends.
You could argue that Cook's lack of targets is based on the limited number of routes he can run—a complaint that has surfaced in the past—but it's still hard to believe that Bradford won't look his way more often than Jake Locker.
Either way, Cook's ability to establish himself as one of the league's elite tight ends will have a major effect on the offense's ability to move the ball and score points.
Without a doubt, Cook is a key figure in 2013.
It's no secret that Rams quarterbacks have not been given proper protection in recent years.
The Rams surrendered an astonishing 47 sacks in 2011, and while 2012 was a much-improved 35 sacks, that number still tied for the seventh-highest total in the league.
The loss of quality protection has resulted in a steep decline in offensive production in recent years, leaving the fanbase yearning for the Greatest Show on Turf days, when the Rams consistently fielded one of the top passing offenses in the league.
However, the Rams seem to be in a position to finally solve their protection issues after winning a bidding war for free agent left tackle Jake Long, who is undoubtedly an elite blindside protector when healthy.
Long will team up with former Pro Bowl center Scott Wells, right tackle Rodger Saffold and guard Harvey Dahl to formulate the most talented offensive line St. Louis has seen in years.
Will the improved protection help the offense take off?
It's hard to say, but we certainly know that the demise of the offensive line contributed to the downfall of the Greatest Show on Turf.
By 1999, Orlando Pace emerged as an elite left tackle and the Rams brought in Adam Timmerman in free agency to complement him. Here's how St. Louis ranked as a passing offense from that point on:
1999: 1st in the NFL (272.1 yards per game)
2000: 1st in the NFL (327.0 yards per game)
2001: 1st in the NFL (291.4 yards per game)
2002: 2nd in the NFL (259.6 yards per game)
2003: 3rd in the NFL (247.6 yards per game)
2004: 5th in the NFL (265.8 yards per game)
2005: 4th in the NFL (252.2 yards per game)
2006: 4th in the NFL (247.6 yards per game)
Timmerman retired after the 2006 season. In 2007, Pace missed 15 games due to injury, and it's no coincidence that St. Louis finished the year 19th in passing (202.1 yards per game).
Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt receive an awful lot of credit for manufacturing the Rams offense during that time span, as they should. But Pace and the line do not always receive proper credit.
Protection issues aren't the sole reason for the offense's struggles in recent years, but they're a major part.
If Long and company can stay healthy and play to their potential, that could play a huge role in propelling this offense back to days of glory, or at least something that slightly resembles those days.
Last season, Rams fans watched as fourth-round rookie Chris Givens produced 698 yards and three touchdowns in limited playing time, while the more hyped rookie—second-round pick Brian Quick—watched from the sidelines for the majority of the year.
There was some confusion as to why a fourth-round gem was able to immediately contribute while the No. 33 overall pick (one pick away from being a first-rounder) was lucky to see the field.
Meanwhile, 2011 third-round pick Austin Pettis was immediately outplayed by fourth-round pick Greg Salas. And while Salas is gone, fans have grown impatient with the development of Pettis and have basically brushed him aside.
Why are these high draft picks getting outplayed by their mid-round counterparts?
Some players are able to contribute immediately, but overall, players need time to develop.
Quick and Pettis aren't alone when it comes to second- and third-round picks who need a few seasons to adjust. Here's a look at some of the more well-known second- and third-round receivers from recent drafts and what they were able to accomplish in their first three years:
2007: 31 Receptions, 396 Yards, Four Touchdowns
2008: 15 Receptions 141 Yards, Four Touchdowns
2009: 83 Receptions, 1,312 Yards, Eight Touchdowns
2007: Eight Receptions, 63 Yards, Zero Touchdowns
2008: 57 Receptions, 574 Yards, One Touchdowns
2009: 107 Receptions, 1220 Yards, Seven Touchdowns
2008: 33 Receptions, 366 Yards, Two Touchdowns
2009: 22 Receptions, 320 Yards, Two Touchdowns
2010: 45 Receptions, 582 Yards, Two Touchdowns
2008: 62 Receptions, 912 Yards, Two Touchdowns
2009: 62 Receptions, 1,156 Yards, Nine Touchdowns
2010: 47 Receptions, 1,056 Yards, Six Touchdowns
2008: Four Receptions, 26 Yards, Zero Touchdowns
2009: 57 Receptions, 822 Yards, Five Touchdowns
2010: 60 Receptions, 944 Yards, Nine Touchdowns
2009: 39 Receptions, 756 Yards, Six Touchdowns
2010: 60 Receptions, 1,257 Yards, 10 Touchdowns
2011: 72 Receptions, 1,193 Yards, Eight Touchdowns
Notice a trend? None of them was a 1,000-yard receiver right out of the gate. In fact, besides Wallace and Jackson, none was productive in the first year whatsoever.
Now here's what Quick and Pettis have done since entering the NFL.
2012: 11 Receptions, 156 Yards, Two Touchdowns
2011: 27 Receptions, 256 Yards, Zero Touchdowns
2012: 30 Receptions, 261 Yards, Four Touchdowns
They haven't been able to produce eye-popping numbers, but we can take solace in the fact that second- and third-round receivers seldom do.
Both Quick and Pettis stand at 6'3" and over 200 pounds, while both player run the 40-yard dash in approximately 4.55 to 4.60 seconds. They're similar players in that both have great hands and very promising physical traits.
They haven't done much in this league, but that doesn't mean they won't step up their games in the near future.
In fact, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been impressed with what Pettis has been able to do on the practice field this offseason.
“Quite honestly, he’s probably having the best camp of all the skill players,” Schottenheimer explained at a media session. “He’s just a tireless worker. Very competitive. He’s having a tremendous spring.”
The Rams have plenty of speed at wide receiver, but they don't have a sizable possession receiver who can consistently move the chains and get open in the red zone.
If Schottenheimer's comments are accurate, they may be getting just that.
Between Quick and Pettis, if either player emerges, it will provide a boost to the offense and allow Sam Bradford to choose between a variety of targets.
The St. Louis Rams had a very successful 2012 campaign on the defensive side of the ball and the majority of that production stemmed from their relentless pass rush.
St. Louis tied with Denver in leading the NFL in sacks (52.0), but the Rams have an advantage over the other top pass-rushing teams in that they don't depend too heavily on one guy.
Here are the top three sack leaders from some of the top defensive fronts in football:
J.J. Watt 20.5 Sacks
Antonio Smith 7.0 Sacks
Whitney Mercilus 6.0 Sacks
Von Miller 18.5 Sacks
Elvis Dumervil 11.0 Sacks
Derek Wolfe 6.0 Sacks
San Francisco 49ers
Aldon Smith 19.5 Sacks
Ahmad Brooks 6.5 Sacks
Ray McDonald 2.5 Sacks
Chris Clemons 11.5 Sacks
Bruce Irvin 8.0 Sacks
Brandon Mebane 3.0 Sacks
St. Louis Rams
Chris Long: 11.5 Sacks
Robert Quinn: 10.5 Sacks
William Hayes: 7.0 Sacks
Outside of Denver, the Rams are the only other team listed with two players who were able to produce double-digit sacks.
For most of these teams, there's a significant drop-off between the sack leader and their No. 2.
If any of these teams were to lose their No. 1 pass-rusher to an injury, it's questionable whether or not they'd have another player on their roster capable of producing at that level.
Not only are the Rams racking up sacks at an elite pace, but they have multiple players contributing to the sack total, which makes them a much more diverse defense.
It's a lot more difficult for an offensive coordinator to game-plan against three pass-rushers coming from multiple directions than one pass-rusher coming from the same place every play.
In this day and age, the quarterback position has evolved to a point where fans demand instant gratification.
It began when Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 15-1 record as a rookie. He became just the second quarterback in NFL history to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and the first to do so in 34 years.
Now, quarterbacks have won the award three times in a row and six times in the last nine years.
Perhaps this sudden trend of rookie quarterback stardom has caused us to forget that the position traditionally requires years of growing and development before players experience high levels of success.
Rams fans are particularly impatient when it comes to quarterbacks, but you can't really blame them considering Kurt Warner won a Super Bowl in St. Louis during his first season as a starter, while Marc Bulger earned Pro Bowl honors in 2003 after his first full year under center.
And while Sam Bradford has hardly been a disappointment in his first three NFL seasons—winning Rookie of the Year in 2010 and producing 21 touchdowns against 13 picks in 2012—he hasn't exactly lived up to his No. 1 overall draft pick status either, at least not yet.
So, where does Bradford stand in 2013?
The consensus is that the St. Louis defense is stout and will get the job done. And, while the offense will deal with youth and a questionable run game, there are plenty of weapons to work with and a promising group of blockers up front.
With the entire roster basically in a position to thrive over the next several years, it all comes down to Bradford and whether or not he can take the next step.
If Bradford can man up and become the top-10 quarterback he has the potential to be, then it's hard to picture the Rams missing the playoffs. If he suffers with the same growing pains we've witnessed for the past three years, then St. Louis will once again be on the outside looking in come January.
Not to put it all on one player, but it's time for results. Bradford is now a fourth-year veteran and the front office went to great lengths to finally piece together a reliable supporting cast.
The excuses are out the window. It's time for Bradford to thrive, which I feel he will.
Let's remember that Drew Brees was among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL during his first three years. Back then, the Chargers would've paid a king's ransom to obtain a passer like Bradford.
Brees stunk out loud until the emergence of Antonio Gates and Keenan McCardell. And in his fourth season, he took the NFL by storm with 27 touchdowns and 3,159 yards. The rest is history.
Tom Brady wasn't producing eye-popping numbers early in his career either.
Sure, he was a competitor and a Super Bowl winner, but the Patriots were primarily a defensive team during their dynasty.
In his first seven seasons, Brady never hit 30 touchdowns in a season and only once exceeded 4,000 yards. The arrival of Randy Moss helped him produce a record-setting year with 50 touchdowns and 4,806 yards in 2007.
Obviously, there's no way to tell if Bradford will have a similar emergence. But one thing we know, based on NFL history, is that quarterbacks aren't always world-beaters right out of the gate.
It's Bradford's time now. We'll know where he stands soon enough.