St. Louis Rams: 8 Rams Most Likely To Break Out in 2012

Shane GraySenior Analyst IDecember 19, 2011

St. Louis Rams: 8 Rams Most Likely To Break Out in 2012

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    The 2011 season looked promising. 

    Many prognosticators pegged St. Louis as the pick to win the NFC West.

    Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network (http://www.nfl.com/nflnetwork) predicted that the Rams would be the NFL's breakout team during the preseason.

    If anything, the Rams have been the "break it" team, sending a mass of players to injured reserve, including 10 from the secondary alone. 

    Looking ahead to 2012, there is hope. 

    A new draft offers new possibilities.  

    A new group of free agents will make St. Louis their NFL home. 

    With the new rookie wage scale, trading down to stockpile picks or trading up for the guy a team strongly covets will be easier than ever.  

    In all likelihood, a new head coach and general manager will be in place.  If so, it will give fans hope for a brighter day.

    With the Rams in the midst of the NFL's worst all-time winning percentage over a five-year period, hope is in high demand and not easily found.  

    But again, there are positives to be found, as touched on above.

    In this piece, we will look at eight of the most promising players on the roster who could break loose next year. 

    These players are young and talented, and offer hope for a successful season in 2012.

    With that, let's get this countdown underway.  

8. Danario Alexander

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    Danario Alexander has averaged almost 17 yards per catch in his first two seasons. 

    This season, he has averaged almost 18 yards a reception on 21 catches in eight games. 

    As always, talent and ability is not the issue with Alexander.  Health is the issue—and may always be the top concern with Danario.

    This season, he has again missed multiple games due to injury, as was the case last season—his rookie year.  

    Considering his low cap count, however, Danario will likely at least get a shot during training camp.  

    With a full offseason ahead without a major surgery looming, he will have an opportunity to build up his legs and make progress towards a hopefully healthy campaign next season.  

    At 23, Alexander has already had five left knee surgeries—his most recent in late 2010—for cartilage damage.  He considered a "clean-up" procedure this preseason, but decided to forge forward.

    It is unclear if he will opt for that procedure following the season's completion.  However, nothing major is in the fold and that's a positive and encouraging sign for Alexander and his potential for impacting the 2012 St. Louis Rams. 

7. Bradley Fletcher

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    Just like the aforementioned Alexander, injury concerns surround Bradley Fletcher.

    As a third-round rookie in 2009, Fletcher hyperextended his right knee, requiring surgery to repair both his MCL and ACL.

    In 2010, Fletcher returned to play well.  However, he was not at full strength, of course, after recovering from his late 2009 injuries and surgeries.  

    2011 was supposed to be his breakthrough season.

    Fletcher was pegged to start alongside incumbent Ron Bartell after fully recovering (or so we thought) from his 2009 injuries.  

    Once again, however, Fletcher severely injured his right ACL, sending him to the injured reserve.  

    Fletcher had surgery in October.  The Rams will likely open training camp in late July in preparation for the regular season opener in September.  

    Athletes in various sports, including the NFL, often return from ACL injuries in nine to 12 months.  It is possible, then, that Fletcher will be ready to roll by the start of training camp.  

    If healthy next year, Fletcher has the potential to be a plus-rated starting NFL corner for St. Louis.  He has great size and has shown the skill and speed, among other things, to excel.

    Of course, him being healthy and ready to go in 2012 is a big if, preventing him from projecting as a more likely breakout performer next season.  

6. Lance Kendricks

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    Lance Kendricks looked like a possible star in the preseason.  Of course, St. Louis finished the preseason 4-0, proving that the preseason can be fool's gold. 

    Such was largely the case with second-round rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, who burst onto the scene in preseason with 11 catches for 175 yards and three touchdowns. 

    However, his stellar preseason performance—as was the case with several Rams players and the team as a whole—did not translate to the regular season.  

    As was the case with many St. Louis receivers, Kendricks came out of the gate slowly and was plagued with multiple drops.  

    The Rams are 14 games into the season, and their primary tight end target has but 23 catches.  

    That is not impressive, but St. Louis has had an awful time across the board offensively.

    The line has failed to consistently protect Bradford.  

    When protected, Bradford has tended to lock onto his primary target, failing to progress through his reads. 

    With that said, Kendricks has the potential to be a sophomore sensation in 2012, as both he and the St. Louis offense improves.  

    Look for Kendricks to end up with 25 catches or so this year.  Expect that catch total to double next season as the tandem of Bradford and Kendricks develops chemistry and confidence.

5. Jerome Murphy

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    Jerome Murphy, known as an aggressive tackler and big hitter, was progged as the Rams' nickelback in 2011.  

    Unfortunately, as was the case with projected starters Bartell and Fletcher, the 2010 third-round selection went down to a season-ending injury.  In Murphy's case, he fractured his ankle in the preseason, ending his 2011 campaign before it started. 

    Unlike Danario Alexander and Bradley Fletcher, who have a history of career-threatening knee injuries, the long-term prognosis for Murphy is encouraging.  He should have no long-term ill effects from the ankle injury.

    Looking at 2012, Fletcher should be primed for a breakout season.

    At 6'0" and 200 pounds, Murphy brings great height and size to the corner spot.  

    He also possesses terrific speed and a great recovery burst and loves to help in run support.  

    If Bartell and/or Fletcher cannot return next year, look for the physical Murphy to contend for a starting spot in St. Louis.   

4. Greg Salas

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    Although many draft evaluators had Salas rated as an equal or better wide receiver prospect than St. Louis teammate Austin Pettis, the Rams ultimately selected Pettis in Round 3 before nabbing Salas in Round 4.

    Before succumbing to a broken bone in his left leg, Salas hauled in an impressive 27 catches at 10 yards a clip, doing much of his damage in the slot, while also contributing when split wide.

    His rookie counterpart, by comparison, has contributed 23 catches in 12 games, four less than Salas in twice as many games.  

    Salas, in his last game of the season, had seven catches before being injured at Arizona.  

    As a rookie, he displayed good hands, an ability to get open and a knack for picking up solid yards after the catch.

    St. Louis has work to do in improving the receiving corps.  

    However, expect Salas to be a part of the solution going forward, along with impending free agent Brandon Lloyd and diminutive Danny Amendola, who himself will be returning from IR in 2012. 

3. Rodger Saffold

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    According to Sports Illustrated's Don Banks (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/), the Colts regretted passing on Rodger Saffold early in the 2010 NFL draft.

    Saffold was rated as the 13th most efficient in pass protection amongst all tackles in 2010, according to Pro Football Focus (http://www.profootballfocus.com/). 

    Entering 2011, most expected that Saffold would build upon his successful rookie season and lock down the left edge of the line for Sam Bradford and the St. Louis offense.

    However, Saffold entered the season with a nagging back injury.  As the year progressed, Rodger struggled with nicks and bruises, and, probably in direct relation, his level of play fell off in his sophomore season. 

    In November, Saffold succumbed to a season-ending pectoral injury and landed on IR.  

    Saffold should be good-to-go before the season opener next September.  

    Look for him to play more like he did in 2010, not like the guy battling injuries in 2011.  

    Expect Saffold to play at a high level in 2012 (his third season), establishing himself as one of the better offensive tackles in the NFL.  

2. Robert Quinn

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    Robert Quinn, St. Louis' first-round selection this year, has showed flashes of the talent and skills that led to him being selected 14th overall.  

    In limited playing time, Quinn has collected five sacks in 13 games (after being inactive in the season opener).  

    As a part-time player and a rookie this year, that's pretty darn good. 

    Surprisingly, but perhaps most impressively, Quinn has made an impression on special teams. 

    Last week versus Cincinnati, Quinn got his hand on another punt. Since the punt passed the line of scrimmage, it was not recorded as an official blocked punt. 

    However, he does have two official blocked punts this year, with his second coming November 20 at home against Seattle

    It will be interesting to see if Quinn can nudge Hall out of the starting lineup in 2012. 

    Hall has been banged up a little this year, but has played well.  In 13 games, he has accumulated five sacks and 44 tackles.  

    Hall will be 35 in February and will be in the last year of his contract.  If the Rams cut him, it wouldn't be a major hit, since he'll be in his last year.  If retained, I expect his snaps to be reduced as Quinn takes on more of the load.  

    With a full offseason under his belt, more playing time and a greater understanding of the NFL game, expect the ultra-talented Quinn to improve upon his promising rookie campaign and increase his statistical output and level of play next season.  

    Ten sacks is within reach for Quinn in the 2012 season.

1. Sam Bradford

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    Sam Bradford's future in St. Louis and future potential as a franchise quarterback in the NFL has invoked heated debate in Internet chat rooms and forums, via articles nationwide, within the walls of the Edward Jones Dome, and even between Monday Night Football announcers Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski during the recent St. Louis game at Seattle.  

    However, let's slow down for a moment. 

    With Bradford's huge rookie contract that guarantees him over 50 million in pay—and potentially much more—Sam is almost untradeable, if the Rams were to indeed consider that option.

    The new rookie wage scale is much more team friendly, particularly at the top of the draft, and there are some good options this year at the position, including Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, among others.  

    With options like that available at a greatly reduced cost, trading Bradford would be very unlikely. 

    In order to trade for Sam, another team would not only have to give up a great deal in regard to compensation to St. Louis, but would also add a big burden to their cap for years to come.

    In addition, St. Louis itself would incur a major cap hit for multiple years if they dealt Bradford.

    Even if that were not the case, it is nothing more than mere speculation at this point that St. Louis would even consider the option.

    In a nutshell, however, when looking at the above and more, Sam Bradford will be the Rams' starting quarterback in St. Louis when the season opens in 2012. 

    With that established, how will the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who many proclaimed as the league's next elite quarterback, bounce back from an underwhelming sophomore season?

    For starters, St. Louis needs to upgrade the offensive line.  

    Right tackle Jason Smith struggled mightily in his third season before yet another concussion knocked him out for the season.

    He is a question mark to return to St. Louis, not only because of his play and health, but because he is jeopardizing the health and limiting the play of Bradford.

    If Smith does return, the Rams may look to give him a try at guard.  

    His big and powerful body may be a better fit in a smaller space, where his struggles at moving quickly enough to keep up with speedy pass rushers off the edge would theoretically be reduced. 

    St. Louis will likely look to upgrade at any spot that doesn't include the names of Rodger Saffold or right guard Harvey Dahl.  

    That leaves the potential for new blood at a guard spot, center and right tackle, depending again on the future of Jason Smith. 

    Secondly, the Rams must upgrade at wide receiver.

    They immediately will get a boost with the return of Danny Amendola, Bradford's slot receiver and security blanket, who hauled in an impressive 85 catches in 2010.

    If the Rams bring back Brandon Lloyd, he and Bradford should develop a fine chemistry in the offseason.

    Even if St. Louis retains Lloyd, the Rams need an upgrade at the opposite starting receiver spot.

    Danario Alexander has played well in spots, but once again has battled injuries and cannot realistically be relied upon to stay on the field.

    Greg Salas should be solid as perhaps a fourth receiver and looks like a keeper.

    Austin Pettis hasn't shown anything to be too excited about, but could be back as a depth receiver.  The same goes for Brandon Gibson.  

    No matter how it breaks down, the Rams absolutely must add an elite receiver to the mix. 

    In the draft, Justin Blackmon is a name that has been mentioned and is a player who offers the potential to fill the bill

    In free agency, the receiver group is expected to be deep.  Names expected to hit free agency include Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Johnson, Robert Meacham, Pierre Garcon and Mario Manningham, among others.  

    Outside of upgrading the line and the receiving corps, having an offensive coordinator in place for a second consecutive year would likely help.  

    Bradford will have two offenses under his belt in as many seasons in the league at the conclusion of the season. 

    On the other hand, he has struggled this year under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

    The coaching situation appears to be in flux.  

    Head coach Steve Spagnuolo's future in St. Louis is tenuous at best.  

    McDaniels could be a candidate for head coach in other cities, too.  He may also be in play here.  

    So much is unclear.  

    One would have to think that some continuity would be good for Bradford, even though this year has been a struggle in this new offense.  Weighing it out, retaining McDaniels at OC makes sense in regard to giving the young Bradford a chance at some stability and an opportunity to get grounded in a system for the first time in his career. 

    Bringing back McDaniels would give he and Bradford a full offseason to iron out the kinks.

    Finally, Bradford himself needs to improve.

    He has done a poor job of progressing through his reads, often locking onto a receiver for far too long. 

    He is having trouble locating open receivers (although those are admittedly not always available to be found) and finding his check-down options.  

    In the end, Bradford will benefit from having a full offseason and (hopefully) an upgraded line and receiving corps.  

    Look for Bradford to build off of his rookie year, when he played well enough to earn the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2010.  

    His sophomore season was an aberration. His 2012 season will be a breakout year, as Bradford will turn heads in St. Louis and nationally throughout the NFL. 

Three Others Who Could Break Loose

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    Josh Gordy—The corner has stepped in and shown that he could be a solid player for St. Louis in 2012. 

    Austin Pettis—The rookie wide receiver has shown good hands after his initial rookie jitters.  He has good size and could be a good red zone and third down target for the Rams. 

    Darian Stewart—Stewart has almost 70 tackles this year.  He is only 23 and looks to be improving week to week.  

     

    Shane Gray is a passionate St. Louis Rams fan and covers the Rams year round. To check out the rest of his work, go here.