St. Louis Rams: 10 Things That Must Happen in 2011 Before Winning the NFC West
Outside of the items on this list, there are certainly other things that must happen if the St. Louis Rams want to return to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
They have to win on the road, stay healthy, adjust to the pressure of prime time games and overcome a fairly difficult schedule.
However, this list focuses primarily on the players.
Each player has his personal goals to accomplish, but some of the high profile players simply need to accomplish their goals if the team wants to win the NFC West.
Here it goes: Ten things that must happen in 2011 before the Rams win the NFC West...
10) Danario Alexander Must Build on His Rookie Season
Danario Alexander went undrafted during the 2010 NFL Draft, despite leading the NCAA in receptions (113) and receiving yards (1,781).
The primary reason teams passed on Alexander was not due to his skills necessarily, but rather a devastating series of knee injuries that made an NFL career seem unfathomable for the young receiver.
So when the Rams signed Alexander to a contract in August, fans were happy due to his potential, but no one was getting their hopes up due to his knees.
But despite his questionable knees, Alexander stunned the fan base when he made his NFL debut on October 17th, 2010.
People really didn't expect him to see the field—let alone have 72 receiving yards, including a 38-yard touchdown reception.
However, Alexander did not do much for the team other than the occasional big play.
But since he has that big play ability, and since the team is weak at the wide receiver position, it would be invaluable for the team if Alexander developed his skills as a receiver.
He needs to be a useful target on every play, whether it's a 10-yard route or a 50-yard route. That should be his goal for 2011.
9) Lance Kendricks Needs to Become an Offensive Threat
The St. Louis Rams certainly did not use the No.47 overall pick of the 2011 draft on tight end Lance Kendricks so that he can be a blocker.
They picked him for his versatility as an offensive weapon.
One thing the Rams clearly lacked in 2011 was offensive firepower. The offense was very bland for the most part, and they really didn't have any players that scared the opposing defense (outside of Steven Jackson).
Kendricks can certainly add some flavor into the mix.
He can catch the ball out wide as a receiver, or off the line as a tight end. He can also become a receiving threat out of the fullback position.
His mix of size and speed makes him a reliable red-zone threat, as well as an ideal target for the screen pass.
If the Rams want to run away with the NFC West, then they need to have flexibility on offense, which Kendricks would certainly provide if he can hit the ground running in St. Louis and contribute as a rookie.
8) Save Danny Amendola's Energy for the Offense
Whether it was the offense, the kick return team or the punt return team, it seemed as if Danny Amendola was constantly on the playing field.
As far as his heart and commitment, he's as tough as they come, which might lead some to believe that he can handle himself regardless of how often he is on the field.
But he is 5'11" and 186 pounds, so how long can he really keep that up?
His heart and guts can only keep him up for so long before his body can no longer take the abuse.
He's vital to the team in the return game, as he averaged 22.8 yards per kick return and 11.3 yards per punt return.
Even so, he didn't score any special teams touchdowns in 2010, so the only thing he's really offering is field position, and the team should be able to find a full-time return man capable of producing similar averages.
And besides, whatever the team loses on special teams by holding him back, they'd regain on offense by having him fresh for every play as a wide receiver.
Also, with the new kickoff rule mandated by the NFL, it's even less likely that he'll be able to make a huge difference on kickoffs anyway.
7) Find a Backup Running Back
It's should be pretty clear by now that Kenneth Darby is not the go-to-guy as the team's backup running back.
Steven Jackson has been carrying the load as the team's workhorse for six consecutive seasons, and his 3.8 yards per carry average in 2010 possibly suggests that he's lost a step due to the team overusing him throughout the years.
Whether someone on the current roster steps up to fill the role or the Rams go sign a free agent, it's pretty clear that the team desperately needs someone to take at least five to ten carries a game.
If Jackson can stay fresh for four quarters every single game, then that's a major advantage the team did not have last season.
6) Keep the Injury Bug Away from the Wide Receivers
If receivers Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton did not go down with season-ending knee injuries early on in the season, then there's a chance that the Rams' receivers wouldn't have been as awful as they were in 2010.
Avery and Clayton should both be returning in 2011 (Clayton is a free agent, so his future is not certain), which should be a major boost to the offense.
But if they return in 2011, just to have two other receivers go down with season ending injuries, then it doesn't do a lot of good.
The addition of 2011 draft picks Austin Pettis and Greg Salas certainly helps the depth, but it's still vital for the position as a whole to avoid injuries.
The team has to keep the receivers healthy—whether it's making the players add some extra bulk, more time in the weight room, or even more sophisticated padding and helmets. They simply can't afford to lose playmakers.
5) Donnie Avery Must Break Loose
Ever since the 2008 NFL draft, when the Rams passed on DeSean Jackson in the second round for Donnie Avery, there have been constant comparisons by St. Louis fans between the two.
It's pretty obvious which player is winning the race at this point, so it's time for Avery to finally stop living under Jackson's shadow and go earn his status as a high second-round draft pick.
Not every player is a superstar starting with the very first game of his career. Some players take a few years to develop, which led some fans to believe that perhaps Avery was on the verge of having a breakout season in 2010.
Unfortunately, Avery went down with a season-ending knee injury during the 2010 preseason match-up against the New England Patriots.
Avery will be completely healed and ready for the 2011 season.
There is no doubting Avery is an intriguing weapon with his sub 4.3 second 40 yard dash, but he just hasn't developed the route running skills and the toughness that's necessary at the professional level.
He has two years of playing experience, and he spent all of the 2010 season watching and learning. It's time for him to either show up and produce, or go home.
4) Tackles Saffold and Smith Must Take It to the Next Level
The Rams invested a lot into their two offensive tackle positions, so they are expecting a big payoff.
The team used the No.2 overall pick of the 2009 draft on right-tackle Jason Smith, and they used the No.33 overall pick of the 2010 draft on left-tackle Rodger Saffold.
The team has already received an acceptable amount of production from both players, particularly Saffold, who is clearly the best tackle of the 2010 draft class at this point (and it's really not even close).
And as for Smith, it will take another year or two of development before it's possible for him to fulfill his status as a No.2 overall pick, but in the meantime he's a mean run blocker and he's adequate in pass protection.
But it's time for both of them to kick up the volume.
Saffold needs to build on his promising rookie season and make it known around the league that he is a top-tier left-tackle.
Smith needs to improve his pass protection and continue to plow the road for Jackson.
Together they need to make it evident that rushing Sam Bradford from either edge is a fool's errand.
They have the potential to be the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL as early as next season, but they have to step up and make that happen.
3) the Defensive Line Must Produce a Devastating Pass Rusher
Chris Long was a pretty nasty player in 2010, and he was feared by the offensive tackles and offensive line coaches who were forced to deal with him.
And while his 8.5 sacks last season were certainly respectable, he was not known as a pure pass rusher.
His value came from being a well-rounded player.
He was a force against the run game, and he applied a consistent motor that required attention from the offensive line, which allowed other players (Fred Robbins, James Hall) to get in the backfield and make plays. And, of course, he got the occasional sack.
What the team needs on defensive is a relentless pass-rushing force to play at the right-end position.
They used the No.14 overall pick of the 2011 draft on defensive end Robert Quinn, and they drafted him to be that dominant pass rusher.
We don't know if Quinn is going to come in and immediately have over 10 sacks as a rookie, especially since he missed his entire 2010 college season due to an NCAA suspension.
But if Quinn is not a dominating force from day one, then the team needs to develop a promising rotation between Quinn, Hall and Selvie.
As long as there's a player closing in on the quarterback's blindside every play, it doesn't really matter if it's Quinn by himself, or a rotation of guys, just as long as the job gets done.
2) Steven Jackson Needs to Remain Productive
The front office will attempt to find Steven Jackson some help in the backfield, but he needs to be ready to produce no matter what happens.
There is no doubt that Jackson played at a very high level in 2010, and he certainly has the heart and determination to carry the load.
But running backs have short life spans in the NFL, and you never know when they'll hit the wall.
Despite having 1,241 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2010, Jackson only averaged 3.8 yards per carry, which made it the first season of his career with an average below 4.0 yards per carry.
The young Rams are still rebuilding, which means they are not in a position to go out and find a new franchise running back if something happens to Jackson.
The team needs to be smart and avoid overworking Jackson, and Jackson himself needs to stay healthy and productive if he wants to return to the postseason for only the second time in his career.
Regardless, neither the team nor fans need to panic at this point.
Despite having a lot of miles on the odometer, Jackson is still in his prime at the age of 27, and the 3.8 yard average can be easily explained by the team's pitiful run blocking, as well as opposing defenses constantly stacking eight men in the box to face Jackson.
1) Sam Bradford Must Avoid a Sophomore Slump
Sometimes when a rookie experiences success, the overall satisfaction of being a star can get to the player's head and cause him to slip during his second season.
The player typically doesn't work as hard in the offseason and training camp as he did before his rookie season, and the result is a sophomore slump.
The Rams don't have to worry, since all signs point to Sam Bradford being a humble athlete that doesn't quit in the film room or the gym.
However, since quarterback is such a vital position towards the success of any team shooting for the playoffs, it's important that the Rams help Bradford avoid a sophomore slump.
And though it's not likely given his smarts and physical gifts, there are some factors that could possibly contribute to Bradford regressing in 2011.
While the team's newly hired offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a reputation of being great with quarterbacks, it's still not easy for a second-year player to learn a new system.
It makes it even harder for a player to learn a new system when there is a lockout that's preventing the coaches and players from talking.
Another factor to be weary of is the 2011 schedule, which is easily more difficult than the schedule the Rams faced in 2010.
However, facing those tough defenses will only make the team better as a whole, and it will make the games against the NFC West rivals that much easier.