What the St. Louis Rams need more than anything this offseason—more than a receiver, an offensive lineman or even a safety—is for their current players to improve with more experience.
Adding more talent in the draft will certainly help the team, but if the current players have breakout years, they will put the Rams over the edge next season.
The seven players highlighted in this article all have a chance at a breakout year in 2014. Some of them experienced slumps in 2013, but there's reason to believe they can thrive next season.
When I say "breakout year," I'm referring to players who are capable of producing borderline Pro Bowl numbers in the upcoming season. These Rams have a chance to be among the best at their positions.
The offense got off to a slow start in 2013, which hurt the production of key players including Chris Givens.
And after Sam Bradford went down for the season and Kellen Clemens took over, the Rams lost the ability to throw the deep ball. Since Givens is a deep-ball specialist, this practically removed him from the equation.
It was a disappointing year for him, but let's not forget that he entered the league in 2012 as a fourth-round pick who wildly exceeded expectations with nearly 700 receiving yards and three touchdowns, including five catches of 50 or more yards.
Givens had 569 yards in 2013—less than 130 yards shy of his rookie-year production—which is quite remarkable, considering his chemistry with Clemens was almost nonexistent following the bye week.
Givens was a prime breakout candidate before the 2013 season, and he is once again in 2014. With Bradford back under center, the wideout will have every opportunity to redeem himself.
Out of the receivers on the roster, he has the best shot at breaking out and exceeding 1,000 yards.
I recently heard from a reader who was baffled as to why mock drafts frequently have the Rams pursuing a tackle when both starters—Joe Barksdale and Jake Long—are viable options.
Why is Barksdale in particular so overlooked after a solid 2013 season?
It's an honest question. He performed well beyond expectations and has yet to receive proper credit.
According to Nick Wagoner of ESPN, Barksdale was a consistent positive for the Rams at right tackle:
The 6-foot-5, 326-pound Barksdale seemed to fit the mold of what the Rams are looking for at tackle. Although he's not the most athletic or strongest tackle you'll find, Barksdale competed well and was mostly a net positive in 2013. For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus gave Barksdale an overall grade of 12.2 for the season, with an 11.9 in pass protection. Barksdale earned a negative grade just three times.
The lack of respect for him stems from the fact that he entered the season as a backup. Since he was the No. 3 tackle, people automatically assume he was merely a temporary solution and hardly a long-term answer at right tackle.
That couldn't be further from the truth. Barksdale will start in 2014 and be one of the more reliable men on the line in the upcoming season.
As far as the team's need for a tackle in the upcoming draft, it's a bit early to draw any concrete conclusions.
If the Rams re-signs Rodger Saffold in free agency, there's virtually no chance they take a tackle early in the draft. If that happens, he will serve as both a starting guard and the No. 3 tackle.
But if he walks, there's a good chance the Rams will draft a tackle at some point. Entering the season with Barksdale and an injured Long, with no depth whatsoever, is a frightening thought.
Alec Ogletree had some basic rookie growing pains—missed tackles, being in the wrong place—but he has an instinct for making plays. He recorded six forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and one pick in his rookie year.
With a year of experience under his belt, he will surpass James Laurinaitis as the most productive linebacker on the team and will take the next step toward establishing himself as one of the better 4-3 linebackers in the NFL.
Ogletree is one of the young defensive standouts that the future of the franchise depends on, and his emergence will put the St. Louis defense on the map in 2014.
Janoris Jenkins was an electric playmaker as a rookie in 2012 and was the rightful Defensive Rookie of the Year—yet another Rams player who was snubbed in favor of Carolina's Luke Kuechly.
Jenkins had four picks and four defensive touchdowns. Whenever the Rams were in need of a big play, No. 21 was there to make it happen.
He did not necessarily have a down year in 2013. He didn't have as many big plays and didn't take a step closer to becoming an elite NFL corner, but he was the most reliable member of St. Louis' secondary.
Jenkins is just too talented to be held back forever. He'll break out in 2014 and remind everyone why he was considered one of the biggest steals of the 2012 draft.
Michael Brockers has been silently brilliant throughout his first two years in the league, but look for the defensive tackle to break his silence in 2014.
With two years of experience under his belt, it's time for him to earn recognition by becoming one of the best 4-3 tackles in the NFL.
With 9.5 career sacks in two years, he has already silenced the critics who initially pegged him as a run-stuffer with no pass-rush skills. His sack statistics will continue to grow, and his already stout run defense will continue to solidify.
We saw Robert Quinn break out in a big way in Year 3. Brockers—now entering his third year—is the Quinn of 2014.
Early in the 2013 season, Tavon Austin's production was plagued by needless penalties, and he had troubled adjusting to the speed of the game.
By midseason, Rams fans were able to see why the team traded up to No. 8 overall to draft him.
Austin missed the final three games of the season due to injury, but things were finally starting to click toward the end of the season.
He is a dangerous offensive weapon and has the ability to take over a game in a way Rams fans have not seen since the "Greatest Show on Turf."
He still has a long way to go, but not since Marshall Faulk have Rams fans witnessed a player who is capable of baffling opponents with otherworldly moves and bullet-like speed. Austin has that ability—the ability to make defenses feel that their best efforts will simply not suffice.
Bradford's arm, mechanics and overall production are not a concern. At least not in my mind.
With more than 1,600 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four picks, he was posting gaudy aerial statistics and surpassing most NFC passers in the 6.5 games prior to his knee injury.
Considering St. Louis' run game was nonexistent at the time and the defense was struggling, there's no reason to believe he cannot create similar production when he returns. If the run game and defense can get off to better starts next season, there's a chance he will even exceed his 2013 production.
The only thing holding him back, at least in my mind, is his ability to stay healthy. Bradford has mustered just two healthy seasons in his last five years of football dating back to college. It would be quite foolish to ignore that fact and pretend as if injuries are not a concern.
Regardless, Bradford will get another competition-free shot at starting in 2014. If he stays healthy, he's capable of posting some of the more impressive passing statistics in the NFC.