St. Louis Rams 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
It's finally here. The NFL season is upon us, which means we can put the lesser sports aside and turn our focus toward the Holy Grail of American sports—football.
The St. Louis Rams are coming off of a 7-9 campaign and are looking to crack the postseason for the first time since 2004. Making the playoffs is always an uphill battle in the NFC West, but the team will enter Week 1 with eagerness and a clean slate.
This article will take one last look at each position (because the Rams just recently made their 53-man roster official). We'll also look at some of the X-factors for the 2014 season, as well as some of the most anticipated games on the schedule.
Depth: Shaun Hill (starter), Austin Davis
Quarterback is an important position for any football team, so the loss of Sam Bradford to a knee injury puts the Rams in a less-than-ideal situation to start the season, but it's nothing that can't be overcome.
This Rams team is built to run the football and play defense. This isn't the pass-happy New Orleans Saints, where an injury to the quarterback spells the end of the season. The Rams much more closely resemble the 2006 Chicago Bears—a group that made a run to the Super Bowl on the back of mega-bust Rex Grossman.
Starter Shaun Hill does not need to pass for 300 yards and three touchdowns every week. He simply needs to avoid turnovers, move the chains and manage the offense, which he has been doing his whole career.
Bradford certainly has a much higher ceiling than Hill and has the potential to be a great passer, but Hill is not a drastic drop-off from the 2010 or 2012 versions of Bradford. He's right up there with him, and the Rams were able to win games with that kind of production.
If Hill goes down, the Rams are certainly in trouble, but at least they'll get a chance to see what Austin Davis can do. Davis is a gunslinger and has been a preseason star for the Rams since 2012, so it'd be nice to at least get a glimpse of what he can do in the regular season.
As long as Hill is healthy and starting, the Rams are almost as good as they were three weeks ago with Bradford.
Depth: Zac Stacy (Starter), Benny Cunningham, Tre Mason, Trey Watts, Chase Reynolds
Zac Stacy produced over 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a fifth-round rookie last year, and he will once again lead St.Louis' rushing attack.
Benny Cunningham is not far behind Stacy as a player and appeared eager this preseason. He'll be the No. 2 and will see plenty of action.
Tre Mason and Trey Watts will battle for the No. 3 title, while Chase Reynolds will strictly be reserved for special teams.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Depth (Wide Receiver): Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis
Depth (Tight End): Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Alex Bayer, Justice Cunningham
Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Tavon Austin will be the three receivers to regularly see the field, while Chris Givens and Austin Pettis will be mixed in on occasion.
Wide receiver Stedman Bailey will rejoin the team after serving a four-game suspension, and his return will surely shake up the depth chart. He made great strides this preseason and will likely see some action when he returns.
Shockingly, the Rams opted to keep five tight ends on the final roster. It was assumed that Alex Bayer and Justice Cunningham would battle for the fourth and final spot, but the team decided to keep both.
However, the competition between the two is far from over. When Bailey returns, it'll make more sense to cut one of the tight ends rather than one of the current five receivers. As a result, either Cunningham or Bayer will likely be gone, so the two must continue the battle for four more weeks.
As for the starters, Jared Cook will be utilized primarily as a receiver, while Lance Kendricks will catch passes while also contributing as a blocker.
Depth: Jake Long (left tackle), Greg Robinson (left guard), Scott Wells (center), Rodger Saffold (right guard), Joe Barksdale (right tackle), Davin Joseph, Tim Barnes, Mike Person, Barrett Jones
The starting offensive line features a considerable amount of talent, including No. 2 overall draft pick Greg Robinson, as well as former Pro Bowlers Jake Long and Scott Wells.
Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale have also developed nicely over the years and could very well be St. Louis' two best offensive linemen this season.
Davin Joseph will be the ultimate sixth man. If a tackle gets injured, either Robinson or Saffold will bump outside and Joseph will replace them in the middle. If a guard gets injured, Joseph will just replace them directly.
Tim Barnes will be the backup center, while Mike Person and Barrett Jones will be the emergency backups.
Depth: Chris Long (left end), Kendall Langford (defensive tackle), Michael Brockers (defensive tackle), Robert Quinn (right end), William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Aaron Donald, Alex Carrington, Ethan Westbrooks
Even if the Rams fail miserably this season and finish last in the division, the one thing you can still count on is that they'll field one of the best, if not the best, 4-3 defensive fronts in football.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn alone will approach 30 combined sacks, while the rest of the line will contribute at least another dozen (a bare minimum). So, if you'd like to bet on which team will lead the NFL in sacks, the Rams are the safest bet—they finished third in 2013 (53) and tied for first in 2012 (52).
At tackle, Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers will begin the season as the starters, but expect first-round rookie Aaron Donald to slowly take over Langford's starting job. Donald is a fierce pass-rusher. Once he adapts to the speed of the game, the St. Louis line will be virtually unblockable.
Another thing worth noting is that all five of the backup defensive linemen have the ability to play either inside or outside. The coaching staff clearly values diversity, and this will ensure that the defensive line is constantly fresh all four quarters.
If the Rams do anything worthwhile in 2013, this is the group that will make it happen.
Depth: James Laurinaitis (middle), Jo-Lonn Dunbar (outside), Alec Ogletree (outside), Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates
The defensive line gets all of the attention, but St. Louis will be fielding a very promising group of linebackers, led by veteran James Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis is the captain of the defense and the smartest player on the field. He lacks the pure athleticism of a Patrick Willis, but he's a solid playmaker in his own right.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar is the attitude of the defense—there's seldom a play where he's not running his mouth and getting under the offense's skin—and Alec Ogletree is the rising star and the playmaker of the group.
Ray-Ray Armstrong will eventually earn the starting job, but there's no telling when. Daren Bates will primarily contribute on special teams, but he's more than ready to step in if needed.
It's a bit shocking to see that the Rams are only carrying five linebackers, but it shouldn't be. The position has decayed in recent years and isn't nearly as important as it was 20 years ago. Even if the Rams lose three linebackers in a game, the defense can still finish the game with only two linebackers, and it honestly would not be that debilitating.
Depth (Cornerback): Janoris Jenkins (starter), Trumaine Johnson (starter), Lamarcus Joyner (nickel, slot), E.J. Gaines, Marcus Roberson, Brandon McGee
Depth (Safety): T.J. McDonald (starter), Rodney McLeod (starter), Cody Davis, Mo Alexander
Janoris Jenkins will be counted on as the leader and playmaker of the entire secondary. The Rams are really counting on him and need him to regain his rookie form.
Trumaine Johnson is a capable starter opposite Jenkins, but he suffered an MCL sprain and will not be ready for action for several weeks.
Rookie second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner will be depended upon, which means he'll have to mature quickly. Fellow rookies E.J. Gaines and Marcus Roberson had preseason flashes and seem ready to contribute.
At safety, 2013 starters T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod will be returning. The depth is quite thin, but the group should be solid as long as they avoid the injury bug.
Depth: Greg Zuerlein (kicker), Johnny Hekker (punter), Jake McQuaide (long snapper)
This has been the special teams trio since 2012, and the group will once again handle special teams duties in 2014.
Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker are both Pro Bowl-worthy, while Jake McQuaide has been reliable ever since joining the team in 2011.
It's worth noting that wide receiver Givens will be the primary kickoff returner, while Austin will resume his role as the team's electric punt returner.
Does Shaun Hill Still Have His Touch?
Shaun Hill was pursued by the Rams in free agency because he has been one of the best No. 2s around in recent years, but can he still be counted on?
The 34-year-old did not attempt a single pass in 2013 and has just 16 total attempts in the past three seasons combined. He has not started a game since he was 30 years old.
The age of 34 is not terribly old for an NFL quarterback, but it's certainly no given that he'll be the same player he was four years ago.
If Hill proves that he's just as capable now as he was in 2010, the offense will be in good hands.
Can Zac Stacy Avoid Sophomore Slump?
Stacy led the Rams in rushing last season and was a pleasant surprise on offense, but can he take the next step and become a 1,200-yard Pro Bowl running back?
He certainly has the ability, based on his 2012 production, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. LeGarrette Blount also appeared to be the next great back for Tampa Bay in 2010, but he has been shockingly average ever since.
The offense needs a healthy run game in order to be successful. The only way that can happen is if Stacy avoids the dreaded sophomore slump and reaches the next level.
Is Defense as Good as Advertised?
The St. Louis defense has generated considerable hype this offseason and has the potential to be one of the best units in all of football, but nothing is guaranteed in the NFL.
With the injury to Bradford, the offense is suddenly stuck in neutral and incapable of carrying the team. This means the defense absolutely has to be elite in order for this team to have success in 2013.
When you look at playoff teams, they're either great on offense, great on defense or well above average both ways. The Rams only have the ability to be one of those things, and it has to be a great defense. It's the only way.
If the defense is not as advertised, the Rams will have to push through another season of mediocrity.
Can Brian Quick Reach the Next Level?
Hill's abilities as a backup and his past accomplishments are typically praised, but what people conveniently forget to mention is that Hill was throwing to Calvin Johnson in Detroit.
The Rams do not possess a receiver that comes remotely close to Johnson's talents. For the sake of Hill and the offense, St. Louis needs a receiver to step up in a big way. Brian Quick can be that guy.
Quick, a former second-round pick from 2012, had a remarkable preseason and seems to be on the verge of a breakout year. It's easy to remain skeptical, as Quick has been terribly inconsistent during the past two regular seasons, but it looks as though he might be ready to finally make a statement.
If Quick can become the go-to-guy he was drafted to be, it won't be as good as having Calvin Johnson, but at least it'll be something. Hill needs Quick to take the next step.
Highlight Games of 2014
Week 1 vs. Minnesota Vikings
The first game of the season is never a must-win game and that certainly holds true for the Rams this season, but it's still a very important game.
Rams players may not be showing it during interviews, but every player on the roster has been feeling doubt in the pit of their stomachs ever since the injury to Bradford. It's perfectly natural, but it's also the reason why they need a Week 1 win—they need to silence their inner doubts.
Getting the season off to a flying start—proving they can win without Bradford—is the best thing for this team. It's a very winnable home game, so the only question is whether they'll show up or not.
Week 6 vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Rams don't need to win every divisional game, and it's an unrealistic goal considering they play in the best division in football. Although, it'd be a major boost of confidence if they can win their first game against a division opponent—especially because that game is on national television in front of a home Monday Night Football audience.
A win against the Vikings will prove that they can win games without Bradford, but a prime-time win over San Francisco will prove that a division title is possible.
This is the fifth game of St. Louis' season. If the Rams enter this matchup as a two-win team, this is the game that will set the tone for the rest of the season.
Week 11 vs. Denver Broncos
The Rams have the makings of a great defense, but the Week 11 game against the Denver Broncos will determine if the unit is truly elite.
If the Rams believe they're a playoff-ready team capable of pounding opponents into submission with a top defense, this is the game to prove it. Denver's offense is relentless. If the Rams can shut down Peyton Manning's aerial attack, then they can silence any offense in the league.
This is St. Louis' only game against a truly superior offense, so it's also the defense's best chance to make a loud statement to the rest of the league.
Week 17 at Seattle Seahawks
This is the final game of the 2014 season, and any Rams fan is willing to admit that they fear this game above all others.
The Rams have not won on the road in Seattle since 2004. They had a chance to break the streak in Week 17 of 2010 with a playoff berth on the line, but they choked big time.
The Rams are not good enough to write their own ticket into the playoffs. Chances are, their playoff hopes will come down to the wire, which will likely make this a must-win game.
If the Rams truly belong in the playoffs, they need to prove it by snapping an embarrassing losing streak that should have ended years ago.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.