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Examining St. Louis Rams' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIOctober 21, 2016

Examining St. Louis Rams' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    In order to keep pace with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead had to make sure he made all the right moves this offseason.

    A 7-8-1 campaign led to a third-place division finish last season, and Snead knew he had to make a splash on the free-agent market. As the 49ers and Seahawks (and Arizona Cardinals, to an extent) continued loading up, the Rams faced a must-win scenario.

    Fortunately, Snead got a couple wins in the additions of former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long and former Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, both of whom can be game-changers when healthy.    

    Long fell from grace after a tremendous start to his career in Miami, but the 28-year-old still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Provided he remains healthy and can prepare for another NFL season with a new team, Long will give the Rams a quality set of bookends to protect Sam Bradford.

    Bradford, now 25 and with plenty of experience under his belt, put together a solid season in 2012 (3,702 yards, 21 touchdowns), but he hasn't lived up to his full potential as a former No. 1 pick just yet. Injuries and an inconsistent receiver corps have slowed his progress, but the latter factor shouldn’t be as much of an issue this year.

    Snead added Cook to augment St. Louis’ tight end group and give Bradford an athletic middle-of-the-field option to stretch opposing defenses. He also made a couple terrific moves in the draft, adding a pair of talented wideouts to the team’s receiver corps.

    Having already lost Danny Amendola to free agency, the GM needed to make some big changes. The Rams’ receivers are still very young, but that inexperience showed in 2012.

    To replace Amendola and Brandon Gibson (now with the Miami Dolphins) and also give Bradford a couple more explosive offensive weapons, Snead drafted a pair of West Virginia wide receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

    Snead moved up to No. 8 to acquire Austin, who was arguably the most explosive playmaker in the entire 2013 draft class, and he’ll go a long way toward replacing the void left by Amendola in the slot. With an electric speedster capable of taking the ball to the house on every touch, St. Louis’ entire offense will take on a new look in 2013.

    We’ll discuss Bailey and the rest of the Rams’ draft class in the following slideshow.

    Snead didn’t address every team need this offseason, however. A couple positions on the defensive side of the ball will still be major question marks entering the 2013 season.

    Safeties Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell both departed for free agency this offseason, and the Rams didn’t have much depth to start with at either position. Without bringing in much proven talent to fill the void, the back end of St. Louis’ secondary has a lot to prove this year.

    We’ll take a closer look at the team’s secondary and a couple other positions worth watching this offseason, as well as the Rams’ 2013 schedule and season outlook. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 8): WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia

    Round 1 (Pick 29): LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia

    Round 3 (Pick 71): S T.J. McDonald, USC

    Round 3 (Pick 92): WR Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

    Round 4 (Pick 113): C Barrett Jones, Alabama

    Round 5 (Pick 149): CB Brandon McGee, Miami

    Round 5 (Pick 160): RB Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt

     

    Grade: A

     

    A pair of trades will define Snead’s draft class, but given the players he acquired following those trades, there’s little reason to believe his efforts won’t be rewarded in coming years.

    The Rams entered the draft with two first-round picks, and they used the first of the pair (No. 16) to move up to No. 8 for Tavon Austin.

    The second pick (No. 22) was also dealt, this time to move back to No. 29 for Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree.

    Ogletree entered college as a safety before transitioning to linebacker, playing both inside and outside on Georgia’s defense. While there are certainly some discernible differences between all three linebacker positions in a one-gap 4-3 front, Ogletree has the speed and versatility to play any of those spots with a little coaching.   

    But given Ogletree’s speed and quickness, he’ll be a phenomenal fit at weak-side linebacker next to James Laurinaitis. As it stands right now, that’s where fans should expect to see Ogletree start the season.

    Widely regarded as a top-10 talent with some baggage, Snead found tremendous value at a position of need in acquiring Ogletree. He couldn’t have done much better in the first round.

    Snead also found a couple starters on Day 2 with a pair of third-rounders in Bailey and T.J. McDonald. Bailey has a good chance of notching extensive playing time this year in an unproven wide receiver corps, while McDonald appears headed for an immediate starting role at free safety following the departures of Dahl and Mikell.

    But perhaps the best value pick of St. Louis’ draft came on Day 3 in Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones.

    Jones is a versatile, heady lineman who, prior to undergoing offseason foot surgery, was widely considered a late first-round prospect.

    Jones can play nearly anywhere on the offensive line, though he’s probably best suited for the center and left guard positions at the NFL level. Where he plays for the Rams will depend on positional need, but he certainly provides the Rams with some youthful depth and plenty of upside.

    Fifth-round corner Brandon McGee probably won’t crack the starting lineup this season, but he has the potential to see some action in both the nickel and sub packages in his first year. Again, how much playing time he sees will be dependent on how healthy the Rams starters can remain.

    Running back Zac Stacy joins a running group depleted from the free-agent departure of two-time All-Pro rusher Steven Jackson. While the Rams have some youthful depth in Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead, it remains to be seen how effective either player can be in a featured role.

    In all, it was a fantastic draft class for the Rams, who took advantage of exceptional value while also filling some positional needs. Any GM who can make a couple first-round trades and still acquire the players he wants deserves an “A” for his efforts.

Filling the Safety Spots

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    Losing two starting safeties is usually cause for concern, especially when neither position was filled with veteran talent in the offseason.

    Dahl and Mikell may not have been the most effective safeties in the league last season (ranked 75th and 37th by AdvancedNFLStats.com, respectively), but there’s something to be said for experience. With the duo now off the roster, the Rams are left to fill in those holes with some unproven talent.

    As noted by Nick Wagoner of StLouisRams.com, McDonald and fourth-year safety Darian Stewart started the offseason representing the first-team defense, but Stewart suffered a soft tissue injury that has “opened the door” for second-year safety Rodney McLeod to see some first-team reps.

    As quoted by Wagoner, defensive coordinator Tim Walton seems pretty happy with that trio, and it appears the three young safeties have the inside track to the two starting roles:

    I’m excited so far. You’ve gotten a chance to see T.J. come in and get a lot of reps right now. He’s been able to step in and pick up things fast. Then you have Rodney McLeod that’s showing a lot of good things. He was on the team last year and showed his athletic ability. I’m impressed by the way guys pick things up, the learning curve of those guys. Then you have (Darian) Stewart, that’s the same way. Those three guys, we think that we’ll have a great group of guys that will be able to help us a lot.

    Walton may seem excited, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the position. Apart from recently signed veteran Matt Giordano, there isn’t a whole lot of experience to speak of.

    McDonald has to hit the ground running in his first NFL season, but he has the physical tools to be a terrific NFL safety. The USC product is listed at free safety (as he was entering the draft), but time will tell if he remains at that position.

    McDonald has some shortcomings in coverage and is much better suited as an in-the-box safety who excels in run support. Given St. Louis’ depth issues, it’s no surprise Walton is trying him out at free safety this offseason. Consider it trial by fire.

    Still, the Rams feature a safety group that has a lot to prove. Expectations should be tempered entering the season, though Walton and head coach Jeff Fisher are adept at getting the most out of the talent they have to work with. This year will be no exception.

Reworking the Receiver Corps

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    Selecting Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick isn’t going to change who starts on the outside in 2013.

    According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Austin will start in the slot (as expected) as Danny Amendola’s replacement, meaning the two outside receiver spots will be filled by incumbent receivers.

    As quoted by Wesseling, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has a pretty good idea which players will fill those roles:

    Quite honestly, (Pettis) is probably having the best camp of all the skill players. He's a tireless worker, very competitive, can play all the spots which helps and he's having a tremendous spring.

    Pettis, of course, is 2011 third-round draft pick Austin Pettis, who tallied 30 receptions for 261 yards and four touchdowns last season. The 6’3”, 207-pound receiver is a big target with some wheels to match, though his 8.7-yards-per-catch average last season suggests he probably won’t be expected to stretch the field much in 2013.

    With Pettis likely assuming the No. 2 role, Chris Givens should be Sam Bradford’s primary deep threat to start the season. With 42 catches for 698 yards (16.6 YPC) and three touchdowns last season, the 2012 fourth-round pick proved he can be a dangerous vertical weapon in St. Louis' offense.

    Austin will fill the slot role, though he’s also very capable of lining up on the outside as a vertical threat, as he is adept at using his straight-line speed to stretch the field. Much like Seattle Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin, Austin is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, and the “No. 3 receiver” tag doesn’t necessarily indicate how much the Rams are going to use him in 2013.

    That leaves 2012 second-rounder Brian Quick and rookie third-rounder Stedman Bailey to battle it out for the No. 4 spot on the depth chart.

    According to Wesseling, Quick is likely to start the reason in that role after catching 11 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns a season ago. Rams brass was extremely excited about acquiring Quick in the second round last year, but he didn’t have much of an impact in his rookie season due to an inability to master the team’s playbook, as noted by Joe Lyons of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    But Quick has the size (6’3”, 220 pounds) and ball skills to be a terrific fourth option for Bradford. Given the surprising depth St. Louis now features in its receiving corps, Bailey may face a similar redshirt-like rookie campaign as he adjusts to the NFL level.

    Still, the Rams addressed one of their biggest positional needs with two players who have the potential to see a lot of action this season. Austin is a true game-changer with all the explosiveness teams look for in a slot receiver, and Bailey, while not likely to start in the near future, is also very capable with the ball in his hands.

     

    Projected WR Depth Chart

    No. 1Chris Givens
    No. 2Austin Pettis
    Slot Tavon Austin
    No. 4Brian Quick
    No. 5 Stedman Bailey
    No. 6Nick Johnson

Running Back Replacement

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    Steven Jackson’s contributions in St. Louis can’t be understated. A two-time All-Pro selection and eight-time 1,000-yard rusher, the soon-to-be 30-year-old was the face of the franchise, and his departure leaves a gaping hole at the running back position.

    But St. Louis understood how much Jackson meant to the team and respected him enough to alter his contract, allowing Jackson to opt out of the final year of his deal. With Jackson now in Atlanta, the Rams have to hope they made the right decision.

    2012 seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson headlines that group after a 475-yard campaign a season ago in relief of Jackson. Richardson (5’10”, 196 pounds) has the speed and quickness to be a solid starting option, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll ultimately obtain the job.

    As noted by Clark Judge of CBS Sports, 2012 second-rounder Isaiah Pead will be pushing Richardson for the job, and while he had a rookie campaign to forget, he still has the talent to make a considerable impact—or at least add to a running back-by-committee approach to the position:

    That's not what the Rams were expecting from their second-round pick, nor is this: Pead must serve a one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Nevertheless, look for him to compete with rookie Zac Stacy and journeyman Terrance Ganaway for carries in what could be a crowded, running-back-by-committee approach.

    All things considered, no one really has any idea what to expect of the group this season. Richardson is the only back on the roster with any discernible experience under his belt, but experience doesn’t always translate to success.

    The Rams liked Pead enough to select him in the second round, and he’ll likely get his chance to shine in 2013. At the very least, the Cincinnati product should give Richardson a reason to continue improving.

    But Zac Stacy will also be a player to watch as the backfield situation unfolds. At 5’9” and 216 pounds, the Vanderbilt product offers the Rams a power element their running game otherwise lacks.

    Stacy is a pure between-the-tackle runner who doles out punishment to opposing defenders. The transition to the NFL level isn’t exactly cut-and-dry, but there’s reason to believe Stacy can parlay his college success into some immediate playing time in St. Louis backfield.

    This is just a hunch, but it does look like Schottenheimer and Fisher are headed toward a RBBC approach. Richardson and Pead both offer some finesse and big-play ability, but neither has proven he can be a featured back for a full 16-game schedule.

    Terrance Ganaway and undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham could also steal some carries from the trio, but as it stands, the Rams have enough uncertainty already. They need to identify their best backs and find out what they can do early and often in 2013.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 St. Louis Rams Schedule
    WeekDateOpponentTimeTV
    1Sept. 8vs. Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. ETFOX
    2Sept. 15Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m. ETFOX
    3Sept. 22Dallas Cowboys 1 p.m. ETFOX
    4Sept. 26vs. San Francisco 49ers 8:25 p.m. ETNFLN
    5Oct. 6vs. Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m. ETCBS
    6Oct. 13Houston Texans 1 p.m. ETFOX
    7Oct. 20Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. ETFOX
    8Oct. 28vs. Seattle Seahawks 8:40 p.m. ETESPN
    9Nov. 3vs. Tennessee Titans 1 p.m. ETCBS
    10Nov. 10Indianapolis Colts 1 p.m. ETFOX
    11Nov. 17 BYE WEEKN/AN/A
    12Nov. 24 vs. Chicago Bears1 p.m. ETFOX
    13Dec. 1@ San Francisco 49ers4:05 p.m. ETFOX
    14Dec. 8@ Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. ETFOX
    15Dec. 15 vs. New Orleans Saints1 p.m. ETFOX
    16Dec. 22 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers1 p.m. ETFOX
    17Dec. 29@ Seattle Seahawks 4:25 p.m. ETFOX

     

    *For a complete look at St. Louis' 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    If Sam Bradford is to finally break through the barrier at the NFL level, this is going to be the year he does it.

    It’s no secret the Rams have been without talented receiving options for the former No. 1 pick. Even with Amendola now in New England, Bradford is going to have some terrific young weapons to work with this season.

    And with a group of unproven running backs and some questions at the back end of the team’s secondary, Bradford may find himself in position to use those weapons excessively in 2013. That’s not to suggest the Rams will be playing from behind a lot this season, but the NFC West isn’t exactly lacking in high-powered offenses.

    Speaking of the NFC West, the division is loaded with talent, especially in Seattle and San Francisco. While neither team has won anything yet, it’s no secret the Seahawks and 49ers are favorites to win the division.

    To make matters worse, the Rams also face a brutal non-divisional schedule that features the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.

     

    Prediction: 8-8, Third in NFC West

    Realistically, St. Louis could win anywhere from seven to 11 games this year, but I’m inclined to favor the lower end of that spectrum given its incredibly challenging schedule.

    The Rams could be a sleeper wild-card team, but a lot has to go right this season. With big questions on both sides of the ball, it’s going to require a tremendous effort to make the playoffs—let alone win the division.

    But the Rams are on the right track, and Bradford showed enough last season to provide some hope for the future of the franchise. With Jeff Fisher at the helm and a lot of young talent in place, almost anything can happen in 2013.

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