This should be the year.
In theory, 2014 should be the year that Jeff Fisher's rebuilding project with the St. Louis Rams finally comes to fruition. The team has been flush with picks since the Robert Griffin III trade in the 2012 NFL draft, has talent on both sides of the ball and currently possesses two picks within the first 15 selections of Round 1 this year.
If you were looking for the year when the Rams should break out and perhaps reach the playoffs, this would be it.
But the 2014 schedule won't be doing the team any favors. Battling in the NFC West is difficult enough, but the Rams will also have a slew of other playoff teams to contend with this year. In fact, according to ESPN.com, St. Louis has the third-toughest schedule based on its opponents' 2013 records.
That just means it will be all the more impressive if the Rams reach the postseason this year. Let's take a look at how the Rams stack up against the competition.
|1||Sept. 7||vs. Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||Fox|
|2||Sept. 14||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|3||Sept. 21||vs. Dallas Cowboys||1 p.m.||Fox|
|5||Oct. 5||at Philadelphia Eagles||1 p.m.||Fox|
|6||Oct. 13||vs. San Francisco 49ers||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7||Oct. 19||vs. Seattle Seahawks||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Oct. 26||at Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||Fox|
|9||Nov. 2||at San Francisco 49ers||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|10||Nov. 9||at Arizona Cardinals||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|11||Nov. 16||vs. Denver Broncos||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 23||at San Diego Chargers||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|13||Nov. 30||vs. Oakland Raiders||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 7||at Washington Redskins||1 p.m.||Fox|
|15||Dec. 11||vs. Arizona Cardinals||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|16||Dec. 21||vs. New York Giants||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|17||Dec. 28||at Seattle Seahawks||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
In total, the Rams have eight games against teams that reached the playoffs and 11 games against teams that finished .500 or better. The Rams will face the Denver Broncos at home, which is certainly better than facing them in Denver, though Peyton Manning and Co. appear to be loaded again for another Super Bowl run.
The road schedule for the Rams is really, really brutal. Along with playing each team in the NFC West on the road, they also have to play the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers away from home, meaning five of their eight road games come against 2013 playoff teams.
St. Louis fans will certainly hope the young team can come away with wins versus the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders at home and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington on the road. But even some of those games (the NFC East teams in particular) present a challenge.
Obviously, this schedule could look far easier (or far more difficult) once the season begins. But for a team that went 7-9 a year ago, the road again looks perilous.
But there are reasons to be optimistic, as well. Before going down to injury, Sam Bradford was having a very strong season, throwing for 1,687 yards, 14 touchdowns, just four interceptions and completing 60.7 percent of his passes in seven games. His 90.9 quarterback rating was the best of his career.
Keeping him healthy this year will obviously be key, as will be getting explosive second-year wide receiver Tavon Austin more involved in the offense. Jeff Fisher is certainly expecting big things, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all. One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back—one against Dallas—and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two.
Austin finished 2013 with 40 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns, 151 rushing yards and another score and one return touchdown. Expect him to be a bigger weapon for the team this year.
The team also took a low-risk chance on receiver Kenny Britt. Britt, who played under Fisher in Tennessee, has always had potential but hasn't yet been able to fully put it all together. He's a player to keep an eye on.
One of the most promising developments last season was the emergence of running back Zac Stacy, who finished the year with 973 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns after winning the starting gig midseason.
He wasn't just the fantasy sleeper of the year, either, as he also gave the Rams the ability to attack teams with a physical rushing attack.
On the other side of the ball, the defense continues to be a work in progress, but the combination of Robert Quinn (19 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, seven forced fumbles) and Chris Long (8.5 sacks, six tackles for loss) might be the best defensive line duo in the NFL.
But will they get more help on that side of the ball in the draft? The Rams hold the No. 2 and No. 13 picks in the first round, and what they decide to do with the second overall selection could shape the entire draft, as Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports notes:
Aside from the Texans at No. 1 overall, the Rams might have the most leverage or power of any squad in the draft, mostly because they don't need a franchise quarterback and they have a pretty decent left tackle in Jake Long (so they wouldn't necessarily need to draft Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, as four of the five CBSSports.com mock drafters are predicting—unless they wanted to place him on the right side of the line). Jadeveon Clowney would be a strong pick, but St. Louis already has one of the best pass-rushers, Robert Quinn, on its team.
So, why not think about a trade?
If Clowney is available with the No. 2 pick, you can bet teams—(cough, cough) the Atlanta Falcons (cough)—will come calling. The Rams could once again be movers and shakers in this year's draft, though some fans might prefer them to stay put and simply take the best player available.
One way or another, there is reason for optimism in St. Louis this year. This is a young team that should take another step forward in 2014 in another season under Fisher. The return of Bradford should coincide with the return of the passing game, while Stacy won't be taking anyone by surprise this time around.
If the defense continues to improve and the schedule doesn't turn out to be quite as daunting as it looks, the Rams could be in store for a very strong 2014. There's reason for excitement in St. Louis.
Being in the NFC West alone ensures that the Rams will face a difficult schedule. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks reached the NFC Championship Game last season, while the Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs but won 10 games. The six toughest games on the schedule for the Rams may very well be the ones they play within the division.
The Rams went 1-5 against those teams in 2013. If they don't improve that mark in 2014, they'll miss out on the playoffs again.
Outside the division, St. Louis will need to handle business against other contending NFC squads. This team is banking its playoff hopes on a wild-card spot, so taking wins from teams in the NFC East—a division that is seemingly always muddled with playoff hopefuls—could hold significant weight once the regular season is complete.