St. Louis Rams State of the Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
The Super Bowl is over and the 2013 season is officially in the record books. Now, with the NFL offseason just weeks away, the fun can begin.
The Rams are in the toughest division in all of football, and they must have a superb offseason in order to compete. General manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher will have to find the right free agents and make the right draft picks in order to help St. Louis' cause in 2014.
Before the action can start, the Rams must take inventory and figure out where the franchise stands. The team must review the in-house free agents and the salary-cap situation and decide what questions need to be answered this offseason.
This article will briefly cover these issues and map out exactly where the Rams stand heading into the offseason.
Impending Free Agents on Offense
T/G Rodger Saffold
Rodger Saffold has missed 17 games in the last three years due to injuries, but he's one of the better starters on the line when healthy.
Saffold has always been an above-average tackle for the Rams, but he made the switch to guard in 2013 and excelled.
If the Rams re-sign Saffold, he'll play the entire 2014 season at guard and Joe Barksdale will replace him at right tackle. That way, St. Louis is able to get its best five linemen on the field at once.
G Chris Williams
Chris Williams started all 16 games for the Rams last season, but he was the weak link on the offensive line.
The Rams may re-sign Williams as depth, but the team will explore other options in free agency as well as the draft.
QB Kellen Clemens
Unless the Rams plan on using a high draft pick on a quarterback to compete with Sam Bradford (a doubtful proposition), they'll re-sign Clemens with no hesitation.
Clemens had a 4-5 record as a starter in 2013. The team is capable of winning games with Clemens at the helm, even if the wins are ugly. With that in mind, the Rams want Clemens back as the No. 2.
G Shelley Smith
Shelley Smith may be re-signed as left guard depth, but he has virtually no shot at winning the starting job. If the team feels that second-year player Barrett Jones is ready to go in 2014, there's a good chance Smith will be gone.
QB Brady Quinn
Brady Quinn was brought in as an extra arm following the Bradford injury. The Rams have no reason to re-sign him.
Impending Free Agents on Defense
LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Jo-Lonn Dunbar provides attitude on defense, but his antics can hurt the team at times.
Dunbar was suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for a PED violation, according to NBC Sports, and he has been known to ignite on-field scuffles.
Dunbar's production experienced a sharp decline in 2013. As a result, don't be surprised if the Rams let him walk.
Dunbar formerly played under Gregg Williams in New Orleans, so Williams' return may result in the Rams re-signing Dunbar, but don't count on it.
S Darian Stewart
Darian Stewart entered training camp as the favorite for the starting safety competition, but Rodney McLeod eventually became the starter.
The Rams will demote McLeod to backup and search for a better starter this offseason. As a result, there's no need to retain Stewart.
LB Will Witherspoon
Will Witherspoon was a last-minute replacement for Dunbar following his suspension. Witherspoon will turn 34 before the start of the 2014 season, so the team will likely depend on a younger linebacker to replace him.
S Matt Giordano
Matt Giordano may be retained for his special teams play, but most likely the 31-year-old veteran will be replaced by a younger player.
Possible Money-Saving Moves
Cut Cortland Finnegan ($7 million savings)
There is no chance Cortland Finnegan will be playing for the Rams at his current salary in 2014. His 2013 production did not come close to justifying the $10 million cap hit due this year.
Finnegan may return with a more modest contract, but that's questionable considering his sharp decline in production.
Cut Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl ($8.5 million savings)
Veteran offensive linemen Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl both struggled to stay healthy in 2013 and are no longer worth their current contracts.
The Rams will likely part ways with both players. The money will likely be used to re-sign Saffold, who will replace Dahl at right guard. Tim Barnes will replace Wells at center, and the team will likely draft another guard to start opposite Saffold.
Cut Kendall Langford ($4 million savings)
Kendall Langford is the player least likely to be cut, as he's still a productive member of the defensive line.
However, if the team has to decide between keeping Langford or re-signing Saffold, the smart move is to let Langford walk for Saffold.
The defensive line is a team strength, and Langford can be replaced without a major drop-off in production. Replacing Saffold on the offensive line is a much greater challenge.
Inflated cap numbers ($20.8 million)
The 2014 cap hits of Jake Long, Chris Long, Sam Bradford, Jared Cook and William Hayes will inflate to a combined $20.8 million.
The Rams have $11.2 million in dead money coming off the books, which offsets some of that inflation, but the five aforementioned players will still be making major dough in 2014.
2014 draft picks ($8.5 million)
Based on St. Louis' current picks in the upcoming draft, the Rams' rookie class will cost around $8.4 million.
Based on my recent predictions from previous articles this offseason, the Rams will have anywhere between $3-7 million in spending money this offseason.
It depends on how high the NFL decides to inflate the salary cap. It also depends on how ruthless the front office is willing to be when it comes to cutting veterans.
Salary-cap predictions are never 100 percent accurate. But it's safe to say the Rams will not go on a shopping spree in free agency this offseason.
Note: All contract info in this article, as well as my previous salary-cap articles, is according to Spotrac.com
Defensive Coordinator: Gregg Williams
When Jeff Fisher began with St. Louis in 2012, he hired his longtime associate and personal friend Gregg Williams to run the defense. As most people know, Williams was unable to coach a single game with St. Louis thanks to the "Bountygate" scandal, which earned him an indefinite suspension, according to the Washington Post.
Williams' son, Blake Williams, took over the defense in 2012 and did a respectable job. Regardless, Blake was fired following the 2012 season and the Rams opted to replace the elder Williams in 2013 rather than reinstate him.
With the father-son duo both booted from Rams Park following the 2012 season, there appeared to be some bad blood between them and Fisher. But evidently, that's far from the case. Williams is back and will lead the way in 2014.
Rams fans have to be optimistic. The defense greatly underperformed in 2013 under Tim Walton, especially early in the year. Considering the level of defensive talent on the St. Louis roster, there's absolutely no excuse for Walton's shortcomings.
With Williams on board, the Rams will hope to avoid another slow start on defense in 2014. If the unit explodes right out of the gate next season, the Rams will be a dangerous team.
T.J. McDonald had a promising rookie campaign and will be a bright spot at safety in 2014, but he needs some companionship up top.
St. Louis will do everything in its power to either draft one of the top rookie safeties or sign one in free agency.
If the Rams can improve run support from the secondary, the defense will take the next step in 2014.
Cortland Finnegan will likely be released for salary-cap reasons. The Rams have Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, but good teams need more than just two solid corners in today's NFL.
Don't be surprised if St. Louis heavily invests in the cornerback position this offseason. In fact, don't be shocked if the Rams use one of their first-round picks to secure a rookie cornerback—possibly Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.
If the Rams can make their secondary as stout as their front eight, they'll have a top-five defense in 2014. With that in mind, expect the team to strongly pursue corners and safeties in the upcoming months.
The Rams cannot afford to lose Sam Bradford again in 2014. If there's any doubt regarding Jake Long's Week 1 status, the team will find a tackle in the draft.
If the Rams do not have a viable option at left tackle come Week 1, it will put Bradford in danger. And if Bradford is in danger, the entire season is in danger.
As a result, the Rams will not take any chances. They'll surely pursue a tackle in the offseason.
Kendall Langford is a possible offseason cap casualty, but the Rams cannot risk putting their defensive line through a decline in 2014. The front four is supposed to be the strong point for the Rams next season, so the team better have a fallback plan ready if Langford is going to be cut.
If Langford is cut, the team will either pursue a mid-level free agent as a replacement or use a mid-round draft pick on a rookie defensive tackle.
The team will do everything in its power to retain Langford. If that's not feasible, there are other options out there to make up for the loss.
The Rams have an electric slot receiver in Tavon Austin and a speedy downfield threat in Chris Givens, but the team is still lacking a No. 1 go-to-guy on the outside.
The Rams need a top-notch wideout—someone who can move the chains, have a presence in the red zone and catch over 70 passes each season.
Will Sam Bradford Finally Excel?
This is the million-dollar question. Sam Bradford had 14 touchdowns and just four picks in 6.5 games games last season, which put him on pace for a career year, but his season was cut short with a Week 7 knee injury.
The Rams are 5-2-1 against the NFC West since 2012 when Bradford is under center and 0-4 against the division without Bradford, but once again, the sample size is too small to draw any definitive conclusions.
Bradford has demonstrated an ability to win games, as well as an ability to produce the numbers, but he has yet to do either on a consistent basis.
Unless the Rams shock the city of St. Louis by drafting a quarterback No. 2 overall, it's clear that Bradford will get another competition-free shot at quarterbacking the Rams in 2014.
Bradford is the single most important player for the Rams in 2014. His play will determine whether the Rams finally reach the postseason or whether they're left out once again.
The Rams need Bradford to finally excel in 2014. If his season is spoiled with injuries or poor play, it could be the end of his tenure.
Will Zac Stacy Build on His Rookie Success?
Zac Stacy rushed for over 900 yards in 2013 despite having just one carry in the first four games. Stacy is a Maurice Jones-Drew clone and is expected to post Pro Bowl numbers in 2014.
The Rams have had bad luck with promising rookies slipping into sophomore slumps (Janoris Jenkins, Chris Givens), but they cannot allow the same to happen to Stacy. He's too important to the offense.
If Stacy can build on his promising rookie campaign and lead St. Louis' ground game, the offense will be better off.
Will the Secondary Improve on Tackling?
The biggest issue on defense in 2013—the only issue that prevented the St. Louis defense from being top notch—was the sloppy tackling in the secondary.
The front eight is stout, but the linebackers and linemen need better support from the secondary.
The Rams will look to add a starting safety in either the draft or free agency. Additionally, don't be surprised if the team also invests in another physical cornerback, such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.
If the secondary can provide better run support, the Rams will be in good shape in 2014.
The most important aspect in 2014—even more important than the play of Bradford—is the defense's ability to become the best in the league. Or, at least be among the best.
For those fans waiting on Bradford and the offense to become the second Greatest Show on Turf, don't hold your breath. That's not what this team is about.
Coach Fisher is not building a finesse aerial team. He's building a team that wins games with top-notch defensive play and a relentless run game.
Unfortunately, that's the same blueprint every team in the NFC West is using. So in order to make the playoffs, the St. Louis defense will have to dethrone either the Seattle or San Francisco defense.
Finishing 2014 with the third- or fourth-best defense in the division will not cut it. Even if every NFC West team finishes with a top-10 defense (a strong possibility), the Rams cannot finish last defensively within the division.
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