Sam Bradford Among Things St. Louis Rams Fans Can Celebrate Entering 2011 Season
Rams fans, for the first time in a long time, have legit reasons to anticipate and celebrate the approach of a new season.
As we (hopefully) approach the new season, there are at least 4 major things to celebrate as we anticipate fireworks during the 2011 season.
This looks to be the year that the Rams—who are in the midst of a playoff drought dating back to 2005—will make their return to the NFL playoffs.
In reverse order of magnitude, let's take a look at those four reasons in detail.
The Rams Defense Will Harrass QBs and Wreak Havoc
One thing that has been a staple of Coach Spagnuolo’s defenses in New York and St. Louis has been an ability to generate a consistent pass rush.
Built by a strong pass-rush led by Michael Strahan—plus a creative set of multifaceted blitz packages—Spagnuolo was able to put quality defenses on the field for the New York Giants.
According to the Defensive Hog Index from coldhardfootballfacts.com, the 2010 Rams D ranked ninth in the NFL in defensive passer rating. The unit also ranked ninth at forcing negative pass plays. Finally, they ranked second in the entire NFL in third-down defense, with a superb 33.5 percent success-against rate.
Each of these stats tend to indicate a team possessing a solid pass rush, as the Rams did in 2010.
Chris Long and James Hall combined for an impressive 19 sacks last season, making them one of the NFL’s top QB-catching defensive end tandems. According to Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders, Long led the league with 41.5 quarterback hurries in 2010—this means he was very close to a major breakout last year.
Hopefully, the Rams can land a defensive tackle to help Fred Robbins push the pocket a little more consistently this year. If so, it should help Long turn a handful of those 41.5 QB hurries into sacks.
A healthy season from the formidable starting cornerback duo of Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell wouldn’t hurt, either, in giving Long that extra tick or two to get to the quarterback.
St. Louis added Robert Quinn of North Carloina to the mix, taking him in the first-round of last year's draft. Many talent evaluators put Quinn at the top of the rookie list in terms of pure pass-rush potential.
Second-year man George Selvie showed some pass rush ability last season, and will be among a rotation of other contributors that’s likely to include Eugene Sims and C.J. Ah You.
Steven Jackson Is Among the Best 2.2 Percent of NFL Players
I could imagine you may be scratching your head right now after reading the title of this slide.
According to the NFL Network’s top 100 list, Steven Jackson’s peers considered him to be one of the top 2.2 percent of players in the NFL. After checking in at No. 38, it is obvious that Steven is highly regarded by his competitors around the league.
Although some were disappointed in Steven’s spot on the controversial list, thinking he should have rated a little higher, he had an amazing season considering the circumstances.
To begin, he faced eight in the box far too often. With a mediocre receiving corps and a rookie quarterback, teams loaded up to stop the now three-time Pro Bowler.
Even then, Jackson managed to gain 1,241 yards on the ground.
Although his yards per carry were down and some suggested he seemed a tad bit slower, remember Jackson intentionally played at a heavier weight than normal in an attempt to avoid injury. He was successful in that regard, playing in all 16 games for the first time since 2006.
As you'll see in the Bradford section, the Rams passing game should be much improved next year, which will give Jackson more room to run. Teams should not be able to load the box as they did in 2010, particularly with a healthy Avery and/or Alexander, who are consistent deep threats.
Additionally, Jackson may choose to revert to playing again at a little lighter weight than last season. If so, one would expect him to be a little quicker and faster this year.
Either way, an improved passing attack should allow Jackson to have a better year running in 2011 than 2010.
At just 28 years old this season, Jackson should be able to maintain his elite level of play—most elite runners maintain their skills up to around age 30.
The NFC West Is Not Yet the Best
As most of you probably know, the Seattle Seahawks were the first team in history to win a division with a 7-9 record.
Although free agency hasn’t taken place yet due to the lockout and it's impossible to know what the Rams or their NFC West opponents fully become until its conclusion, it appears that each team in the division has more questions entering the season than the Rams, especially at QB.
And success in the NFL typically starts there.
Seattle, Arizona, and San Francisco all face considerable questions at quarterback.
Point blank, the Rams are in the best position in the West at quarterback, with Bradford at the helm and solid vet A.J. Feeley at the backup spot.
Peter King has reported his belief that Matt Hasselback will not return to Seattle.
If so, unproven Charlie Whitehurst will start. Whitehurst has appeared in a grand total of eight games over five seasons. He has only thrown 99 passes during his career. Obviously, Whitehurst is a major question mark.
In Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald has publicly stated he wants Kevin Kolb or Marc Bulger. Kolb would have to come via trade and would require giving up a premium draft pick(s) to obtain, but he may be the safer choice of the two as he shows more promise at this stage of his career.
However, former Rams Pro Bowler Marc Bulger would come much cheaper after performing unimpressively in his last couple of seasons in St. Louis and due to ongoing questions about his future potential as a starting quarterback.
Former Rams Vice President Tony Softli believes Bulger is a battered and beaten quarterback.
“Marc Bulger was rumored to be headed there last season, but ownership rejected the transaction,” wrote Softli. “A backup to Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens, he is in the right spot as a No. 2. Shell-shocked quarterbacks really struggle with happy feet and give up on a play rather than stand in there and throw under pressure.”
Of course, Kurt Warner was described in similar terms after leaving St. Louis, too, and we all know how that worked out.
In San Francisco, former number-one pick Alex Smith is unsigned and Troy Smith is also a free agent. If these two remain unsigned, will the 49ers turn to another battered quarterback, David Carr, or perhaps rookie Colin Kaepernick?
In all probability, if the 49ers do not re-sign Alex Smith, they will be shopping for a veteran quarterback—perhaps a Vince Young—to add to the mix.
With all the uncertainties at quarterback in the division outside of St. Louis, the Rams are the favorites to have the division’s best offense.
As discussed earlier, the Rams defense should more than hold its own in relation to the other defenses in the division, too.
If the Rams can survive what should be a very challenging first seven games—which include contests versus the Super Bowl-winning Packers, Saints, Ravens, and Eagles—they should find themselves in position to contend for the division crown and their first trip to the playoffs since 2005.
Sam Bradford Should Be Better in 2011 and May Be NFL's Next Great Franchise QB
In 2010, the Rams selected Sam Bradford with the first overall pick, and—after having a stellar rookie season working with what most considered a below-average receiving corps—expectations are very high entering his sophomore season .
The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year looks to have all the tools and the "it" factor that defines franchise quarterbacks.
Veteran sportswriter Vic Carucci of NFL.com is one of many experts who believe Bradford will be the best of a group of standout young QBs that includes Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, the Jets' Mark Sanchez, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco.
Comparing Bradfors to other young quarterbacks, Carucci says:
"...my pick is Sam Bradford. It isn't just his talent, which is immense, or his tremendous football intelligence and instincts. It's because Bradford managed to make all of his assets work to his and the Rams' advantage as a rookie”.
Bradford had a strong rookie year despite injuries to multiple receivers, including season ending injuries to not one but two primary targets, Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery
As for Clayton, he and Bradford developed remarkable chemistry in a short time.
Clayton told the Tulsa World that he hopes to re-sign with St. Louis. With the rapport they shared, you have to think Sam hopes for the same.
Before the lockout, Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Rams and Clayton were close to a deal.
Avery went down before the regular season even began, unfortunately.
Like Clayton, Avery appeared to be developing some chemistry with Bradford. Due to his elite speed and the threat he provides on any given play of getting behind the defense, Avery, a former second-round pick and the Rams' primary deep threat, would have helped reduce the number of eight-man fronts that Jackson faced in the running game while helping to open up routes underneath.
One has to wonder what Bradford might be able to accomplish with both of these men healthy and in the fold.
The injuries didn’t end there, as the receiving corps battled through several other injuries to players including Michael Hoomanawanui and Denario Alexander.
Both of the preceding players could be impactful in 2011.
"Illinois Mike" showed himself to be a legitimate receiving target out of the tight end spot, particularly against zone coverages.
DX, otherwise known as Denario Alexander, flashed the type of play-making ability that earned him All-American honors at Mizzou. In big games versus San Francisco and Seattle, for example, Rams fans drooled at what might become of a truly healthy Alexander.
With a re-signed Clayton and a healthy Avery and Alexander, the Rams passing attack should instantly be better.
We haven’t even mentioned the NFC’s version of Wes Welker, the diminutive Danny Amendola.
He led the team with 85 catches and should be a force in the slot. Of note, however, was his league-low 8.1 yards per catch.
Finally, the Rams added three pass catchers early in the draft.
This group includes receiving tight end Lance Kendricks, Greg Salas, and Austin Pettis.
Kendricks, a second-round pick, was said to be particularly coveted by new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are both big, tall receivers who are said to have good hands. Perhaps they will be good red zone targets, considering their size and skill.
If the Rams wideouts can maintain a more consistent level of health while possibly garnering some contributions from a rookie receiver or two, Bradford should have a terrific sophomore season.
Shane Gray is a long-time St. Louis Rams fan and covers the Rams year round. To check out the rest of his work, click: http://bleacherreport.com/users/582932-shane-gray