Rapid Development from Offensive Weapons Is Key to Rams Stealing NFC West Title

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Rapid Development from Offensive Weapons Is Key to Rams Stealing NFC West Title
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Ever since the St. Louis Rams drafted Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, expectations have been through the roof. 

At the time, Rams fans were hoping Bradford would end up being the second coming of Kurt Warner and The Greatest Show on Turf would be reborn with No. 8 under center. 

Unfortunately, Bradford hasn’t been the second coming of Warner, and The Greatest Show on Turf is still the most unique offense the city of St. Louis has ever seen. 

However, the good news is the Rams no longer need Bradford to emulate Warner. The only thing they need him to do is stay healthy and play turnover-free football. 

Why? Because for the first time since he was drafted, St. Louis has a top-10 defense, an improved offensive line and the necessary weapons at the wide receiver and running back positions. 

No, Bradford doesn’t have a difference-maker like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald at the wide receiver position, but he does have seasoned veterans (Kenny Britt and Austin Pettis) and youngsters who are making strides (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick).

Furthermore, he has one of the best young running backs from last year’s draft class (Zac Stacy) and a rookie who was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 (Tre Mason). 

With that being said, the key to the Rams stealing the NFC West title in 2014 will be the rapid development of the offensive weapons mentioned above.

Obviously, winning the NFC West title comes off as a daunting task considering the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have been the class of the division the last two years, but the notion of St. Louis moving to the top is entirely plausible. 

Nonetheless, as I alluded to earlier, Austin, Bailey and Quick have to get better and show more consistency on a weekly basis for the shift in power to happen. 

Fortunately for Bradford and the Rams offense as a whole, Quick knows that’s the case, which is why he has spent the entire offseason honing his craft. 

Apparently, Quick’s hard work and dedication opened some eyes during OTAs. Here’s what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had to say about the third-year pass-catcher out of Appalachian State on June 17, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:

Probably the most improved player I've seen is Brian Quick. He’s doing a great job. Another guy that we're giving an opportunity to, he's competing for playing time and he's made the most of his opportunities.

Quick’s improvement is music to the Rams’ ears based on the fact the second-round pick has had a less than impressive pro career up until this point. 

According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Quick garnered a minus-3.7 grade overall grade on 548 career snaps and has only caught 29 passes on 61 targets for 460 yards receiving. 

As far as Austin goes, Schottenheimer has praised him the same way he has praised Quick. 

“Moving him around to a lot of different spots,” Schottenheimer said, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You’ll see us hand him the ball, do some different things. He’s playing so much faster just because he knows what we’re doing. He has the system down cold.”

Austin having the system down cold is encouraging since he admitted to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that adjusting to life in the NFL was tough: “It was a pretty big adjustment for me at first. The playbook was different. The speed of the game was different. I eventually caught on and the game settled down.”

Austin’s right: The game did settle down for him toward the end of the year. Over the course of the final four games of the season, he tallied nine receptions, 211 yards receiving, three touchdowns (including special teams) and 157 punt-return yards. 

Even though Austin was never able to carve out a role for himself in 2013, one should expect a monster year from him in 2014. He has all the ability in the world, and he was the eighth pick in the draft for a reason. 

The only young receiver the Rams coaching staff hasn’t gushed over is Bailey.

Yes, the second-year wideout from West Virgina is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, yet he arguably has the highest ceiling of any of receiver on St. Louis’ roster. 

Despite starting the 2013 season extremely slow, the route-running extraordinaire recorded 17 receptions on 18 catchable passes and finished with the highest wide receiver rating on the team. 

Per PFF, Bailey accumulated a 109.3 wide receiver rating. For the sake of comparison, he ended the year with a higher wide receiver rating than Wes Welker, Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall

Sure, the sample size was incredibly small since he played 194 measly snaps, but that doesn’t mean you should discredit the numbers he was able to amass as a rookie. 

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Bailey scored the first touchdown of his career on a double reverse against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As you can see, it’s safe to say Bradford is out of excuses. Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have finally provided him with the required help he has desperately needed.

It is now up to him to elevate the players around him and take this team to the next level. Some analysts have said that the Rams are still a year or two away from seriously contending in the NFC West, but that’s simply not the case.

If St. Louis can end with a 7-9 record in 2013 with Kellen Clemens at the helm, there’s no reason Bradford can’t lead the Rams to their first winning season/NFC West title since 2003. 

It’s not like Bradford performed poorly prior to his season-ending ACL injury. In fact, he was on pace for a career year. In seven games, he passed for 1,687 yards, 14 touchdowns and posted a quarterback rating of 90.9. 

Here’s what Matt Harmon of The Backyard Banter said after he studied Bradford in-depth:

After watching the Rams offense on the all-22 film, it is almost impossible to conclude that Sam Bradford is the root of the teams’ issues. He displayed a number of positive attributes and growth all while being placed in a dysfunctional offense. Bradford’s percentage of good throws during his injury shortened 2013 season show that he is better than both his basic statistics, and the national perception of him.

Harmon hit the nail on the head. Bradford isn’t the root of St. Louis’ offensive woes; Schottenheimer and the inexperience on the offensive side of the ball were. 

This, in turn, brings us back to our original point. If the Rams want to steal the NFC West title in 2014, they will need rapid development from their young offensive weapons.

 

Unless otherwise noted all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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