St. Louis Rams' Most Underrated and Overrated Offseason Additions
While the NFL offseason is an opportunity for fans to gloat and brag about their team's newest additions, it's clear, especially for fans of the St. Louis Rams, that these acquisitions don't always pan out.
On the contrary, some of the minor additions that fail to generate high levels of excitement turn out to be the most valuable acquisitions of all.
The Rams have had a phenomenal offseason, using both free agency and the draft to greatly upgrade their level of talent. So it's difficult to criticize any of these moves, but that's not to say we can't take a wild guess at which of the 2013 acquisitions will pan out and which will fail.
In an effort to do just that, here are St. Louis' two most underrated and overrated pickups of 2013.
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T.J. McDonald, Safety (Third-Round Draft Pick)
Rams fans have been buzzing over the offseason acquisitions of Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Jake Long and Alec Ogletree.
Meanwhile, safety T.J. McDonald, St. Louis' third-round pick in 2013, has been somewhat overlooked.
The Rams lost both starting safeties, Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl, in free agency, so perhaps, fans quietly believe that McDonald is being considered for a starting job because of the team's desperation more so than his talent.
That could be the case, as McDonald's coverage skills have at times been downgraded by scouts, but he still possesses physical tools that the Rams defense will find useful.
At 6'2" and 219 pounds, McDonald has above average size for a safety and makes big-time hits, which means he'll be utilized as an extra linebacker more so than a finesse coverage safety.
The NFC West has two of the best read-option quarterbacks in the game—Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson—making McDonald's run-stuffing style all the more helpful.
Also, he has the athleticism necessary to blitz the quarterback out of the secondary, which will only help an already stout pass rush when Jeff Fisher brings the heat. Expect the Rams to use McDonald much like they did Adam Archuleta prior to his back injury.
From coverage to stopping the run and blitzing the quaterback, McDonald has the ability to do a bit of everything.
However, is it realistic to expect immediate production out of McDonald in his rookie season? If not, will he eventually develop into a solid contributor?
When looking at the history of third-round safeties, it's clear that the Rams played it safe by drafting McDonald. And, in all likelihood, he'll contribute to this defense for multiple years.
Since 2003 (2013 excluded), there have been 16 safeties drafted in the third round. Of those 16 safeties, eight (50.0 percent) were able to become full-time starters at some point in their careers. Four of those 16 safeties (25.0 percent) developed into full-time starters for four or more years, while Major Wright—Chicago's third-round pick in 2010—figures to be the fifth if he retains his starting job for two more seasons.
Perhaps most surprising is how few became busts.
Of the 16 safeties, 13 of them (81.2 percent) remained in the NFL for at least five seasons or are currently in the league.
However, while history tells us that McDonald will likely contribute for multiple years, it's likely he'll experience a learning curve as a rookie.
Out of all 16 safeties drafted in the third round since 2003, they combined for just 13 starts as rookies.
If McDonald starts all 16 games as a rookie, he'll have more rookie starts than the other 16 safeties combined.
It might be unrealistic to assume that McDonald will immediately become an effective starter as a rookie, but he'll still be a significant role player and should contribute to the St. Louis defense for years to come.
Barrett Jones, Center (Fourth-Round Draft Pick in 2013)
The Rams signed Scott Wells—Green Bay's former Pro Bowl center—as a free agent a year ago in an attempt to solidify their offensive line.
Wells underwent a knee scope in 2012, forcing him to miss the majority of training camp, and when he finally returned to action for St. Louis' Week 1 showdown in Detroit, he injured his foot and was sidelined until Week 12.
When healthy, Wells is one of the better centers in the league, but injuries have tarnished his reputation in St. Louis and fans are beginning to lose their patience.
If Wells returns to form in 2013 and starts 16 games, his 2012 season will be written off a mere mishap and all will be forgiven.
If the injuries continue, the Rams will turn to fourth-round rookie Barrett Jones to remedy the situation.
Jones is a decorated lineman out of the SEC and regularly faced the top defenses in all of college football. And after four years at Alabama, no stage is too big for the All American.
With Wells struggling to stay healthy, the acquisition of Jones was absolutely necessary.
Centers are sometimes overlooked, but it's an extremely important position on offense, as they call out blocking assignments and must recognize the various blitz packages displayed by the defense.
That's why Carolina signed Ryan Kalil to a $49.1 million extension. It's why New York locked up Nick Mangold to a seven-year extension before he could sniff free agency. It's why Indianapolis kept Jeff Saturday around for 13 years. It's why Green Bay locked up Saturday the moment Wells left the building.
For the Rams, they're using the same precaution and want to ensure the center position is in intact no matter what happens with Wells, hence the drafting of Jones.
Jones is a versatile player and can fill in anywhere on the offensive line, so he'll be a valuable part of the team in 2013, regardless of Wells' health.
Ironically, Jones is also recovering from a foot injury, but he's expected to be ready by training camp according to StLouisRams.com.
If not for the foot injury, Jones would have been drafted much earlier than the fourth round. Some older mocks and predictions prior to his injury even pegged him as a first-round pick.
So make no mistake, Jones will be a significant part of the offensive line for a long time.
He's not generating the same hype as Tavon Austin or Jared Cook, but he was a steal in the draft.
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Jake Long, Tackle (Free Agency)
Jake Long, without a doubt, is a team leader and figures to be a major upgrade to the St. Louis offensive line. But given the injuries that have haunted him the last two seasons, it's important for Ram fans to manage their expectations.
Long is an elite left tackle when he's completely healthy and at the top of his game, but that hasn't been the case since 2009, so it's unrealistic to assume he'll provide Orlando Pace-type production right off the bat.
Long has missed six games total over the last two seasons, and while the Miami Dolphins' offense has not been overly impressive in recent years, the absence of Long hasn't exactly weighed them down.
Here's a comparison of what the Miami offense has been able to accomplish with and without Long in the lineup:
Without Long (Six Games):
4.87 yards per carry, 139.83 yards per game (172 carries, 839 rushing yards)
With Long (26 Games):
4.0 yards per carry, 113.46 yards per game (737 carries, 2,950 yards)
Without Long (Six Games)
6.2 yards per attempt, 181.1 yards per game, 2.5 sacks per game (173 attempts, 1,087 yards, 15.0 sacks)
With Long (26 Games)
6.79 yards per attempt, 203 yards per game, 2.7 sacks per game (780 attempts, 5,298 yards, 72 sacks)
The passing game was less productive with Long out of the lineup, but only slightly. And the Dolphins actually surrendered fewer sacks on average with Long on the bench (even after giving up seven sacks to New England in Week 17 of 2012).
The Miami run game dramatically improved with Long on the bench—averaging 25 more yards per game and 0.87 more yards per carry—but a 203-yard performance by Reggie Bush in Week 15 of 2011 helped inflate those numbers.
That's not to say Miami would've been better off with a backup tackle taking over the starting role, or else they would have benched Long every week, but it tells us that they survived without Long, and, perhaps, that he doesn't make the same impact he did early in his career.
Obviously, St. Louis fans are hoping he can rediscover the dominant form that made him an All-Pro as a rookie, but overall, he still has to prove himself on the field.
Regardless of his past dominance, he's just as much a risk as any other free-agent signing or early-round draft pick.
Zac Stacy, Running Back (Fifth-Round Draft Pick in 2013)
The Rams drafted Isaiah Pead (second round) and Daryl Richardson (seventh round) in 2012 and they are set to carry the run game now that Steven Jackson is in Atlanta.
The issue with Pead and Richardson—both under 6'0" and 200 pounds—is their size, which makes us question whether or not they can withstand the pounding of 200-plus carries throughout a 16-game season.
As an insurance policy, the Rams used their fifth-round draft pick in 2013 to select Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy.
Stacy is a more well-rounded option at 216 pounds and has a physical running style, different from the styles of Pead and Richardson, who utilize finesse rather than force.
Stacy is a promising mid-round rookie who possesses the potential to be something special in the future, but a segment of the fans have inexplicably come to the conclusion that he'll lead the running game in 2013.
In fact, on multiple occasions I've heard fans mention Stacy in the same breath as sixth-round pick Alfred Morris—the Washington Redskins' star running back who accumulated 1,613 rushing yards as a rookie in 2012.
If fans are expecting Stacy to undergo a Morris-like rise to stardom in 2013, they'll likely be disappointed.
Over the last 10 years, there have been 41 running backs selected in the fifth or sixth round of the draft (from 2003 to 2012). Of those 41 backs, only eight of them (19.5 percent) ran for over 250 yards as a rookie, while Morris is the only one to exceed 1,000 yards in his first year.
In fact, of those 41 backs, 39 of them were held under 500 yards rushing in their rookie season. Morris and Indianapolis' Vick Ballard—who rushed for 814 yards as a rookie in 2012—are the only exceptions.
And, since Morris was snubbed when Pro Bowl selections were determined, Michael Turner is the only player among those 41 backs to ever make the Pro Bowl.
So, to claim Stacy (or, any fifth- or sixth-round back) is the Alfred Morris of 2013, is quite a bold statement. There is not an annual version of Morris. He is, as the numbers show, literally a once-in-a-decade player.
We did see two late-round running backs—Morris and Ballard—carry the workload as rookies in 2012, and both did a phenomenal job.
So, there's certainly a chance that Stacy will approach their success and surprise us in 2013, but if history has anything to say about it, we should reel in our expectations.
Most likely, Pead or Richardson will steal the show in 2013, but that's not to say Stacy won't be a productive player at some point.