Predicting St. Louis Rams' Starting Lineup After the 1st Wave of Free Agency
Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have made some exciting moves at the start of the new league year. However, there are still some major questions when it comes to the St. Louis Rams' starting lineup.
The most important need entering the offseason was at quarterback. The Rams quickly addressed this by trading Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Nick Foles, per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
According to Thomas, the team also inked contracts with New England Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The two pickups strengthen an already potent defensive front.
Some of the moves were expected, while some were total surprises. It was certainly an ambitious start to the offseason for the Rams, but the roster is far from complete. The offensive line in particular is still in need of three starters.
We'll outline each position and attempt to predict what the finished product will look like. That will require speculating about possible draft choices and future free-agency signings, but it should provide a rough image of what the team will look like on Sundays.
Starter: Nick Foles
It's far too early to get overly optimistic by proclaiming Foles as the team's long-term answer at quarterback. But it is a hopeful sign at the position for a franchise that has watched its starter go down with season-ending injuries for two years in a row.
Foles showed the NFL what he's capable of in 2013. He threw for 27 touchdowns with just two picks and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl. That doesn't happen on accident—it requires a certain level of talent that few NFL quarterbacks possess.
However, the Rams don't even need that kind of flash out of Foles. They simply need a competent passer who can manage games and keep the score close. If they can find that, the dangerous St. Louis defense will take care of the rest.
Foles has a 14-4 record since taking over as Philadelphia's starter in 2013. That proves that teams can win with Foles at the helm, and that's all the Rams are looking for—someone who can give them a fighting chance.
Starter: Tre Mason
Third-Down Back: Benny Cunningham
The Rams seem set at running back, but don't be surprised if another back or two is added to the roster before training camp. Knowing Fisher, that's always an option.
For now, Tre Mason will lead the way. As a rookie in 2014, Mason did not even touch the ball until Week 6, and he didn't start a game until Week 9. That didn't stop him from amassing 913 yards from scrimmage and five total touchdowns.
Mason possesses a unique combination of qualities. He's small and shifty but can take a hit, and he's strong but still has breakaway speed. He'll be an excellent player for St. Louis over the next several years.
Benny Cunningham will also play an important role as the team's top receiving back. He was fifth on the team in receiving with 352 yards on 45 catches. His pass-catching skills will be an asset in 2015.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
X Receiver: Kenny Britt
Y Receiver: Tavon Austin
Z Receiver: Brian Quick
Tight End: Jared Cook
Blocking Tight End: Lance Kendricks
The Rams offense will not feature many proven commodities when it comes to pass-catchers, but the talent and potential is there. The team can win if the above players can stay healthy and develop a rhythm with Foles.
Britt and Brian Quick are expected to lead the way in the aerial department. Quick was in the process of a breakout year in 2013, but a shoulder injury ended his year and makes his role in 2015 somewhat questionable.
Britt stepped up in Quick's place and had a solid year. He finished with 748 yards and three touchdowns—his best campaign since 2010.
Tavon Austin had a disappointing year with only 466 yards from scrimmage. However, he's still the team's most explosive offensive player and will hopefully be better utilized in 2015.
At tight end, Jared Cook will play a major role in the aerial game, while Lance Kendricks' most valuable asset is his run-blocking.
However, don't count out Kendricks in the passing game. The team didn't re-sign Kendricks so he can serve as a glorified fullback. There's a chance the team has something bigger in mind for him on offense.
Left Tackle: Greg Robinson
Left Guard: Justin Blalock
Center: Cameron Erving
Right Guard: Rodger Saffold
Right Tackle: Brandon Scherff
This is the area that generates the most concern among fans, and rightfully so. The team has just two starters—Greg Robinson, Rodger Saffold—returning from 2014.
It was assumed the team would make a solid effort to fix the line in free agency. Unfortunately, the first week of free agency produced zero upgrades, and the St. Louis offensive line remains in shambles.
Of all the linemen associated with St. Louis since the start of free agency, it seems Justin Blalock of the Atlanta Falcons is likely the most affordable. Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Rams are interested in Blalock, but neither side has announced a deal.
If the team reaches an agreement with Blalock, there's a good chance Saffold will move to right guard where he's more comfortable. Putting Saffold—one of the team's better linemen—on the right side will also help out the rookies that the team will inevitably draft at center and right tackle.
At center, the best rookie of the class is Florida State's Cameron Erving. There's a chance he'll be off the board by the end of Round 1, but St. Louis must jump at the opportunity if he's there in the second round.
As for the first round, there are multiple tackles the team can draft, like Stanford's Andrus Peat or Miami's Ereck Flowers, but the team values diverse linemen capable of playing multiple positions. That makes Iowa's Brandon Scherff the ideal option, as he can also play guard if needed.
If Scherff is drafted, he'll be a Day 1 starter at right tackle. Unless, of course, the team re-signs Joe Barksdale. In that case, Scherff can move over to left guard.
At left tackle, former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson will return for his second season. Robinson had his ups and downs as a rookie, but he possesses unbelievable talent and will be expected to take the next step in 2015.
Left End: Chris Long
Defensive Tackle: Aaron Donald
Nose Tackle: Michael Brockers
Right End: Robert Quinn
Third-Down Tackle: Nick Fairley
Rotational End: William Hayes
The St. Louis defensive line has been one of the best in the business since Fisher's arrival in 2012. The unit continues to be the team's top strength.
Chris Long, Robert Quinn and William Hayes will provide a relentless edge rush. Veteran Eugene Sims will also be part of the rotation.
On the inside, fourth-year pro Michael Brockers will eat up blockers at nose tackle, and second-year Pro Bowler Aaron Donald will make plays and complement the pass rush. On passing situations, the team will likely sub out Brockers for Fairley, as he's the superior pass-rusher.
Overall, the defensive line is top-notch and needs no further additions. But knowing Fisher, there's always a chance the team will draft another pass-rusher.
Strong-Side Linebacker: Alec Ogletree
Middle Linebacker: James Laurinaitis
Weak-Side Linebacker: Akeem Ayers
The outside linebacker spot opposite Alec Ogletree was actually a pretty glaring need following the 2014 season. It's a position that few discussed, given the more obvious needs on offense, but it's a good thing the front office took notice.
Ayers fills that final hole and will start on the right side. Playing on the quarterback's blind side will also allow him to capitalize on his pass-rushing skills.
At middle linebacker, James Laurinaitis is clearly the weak point of the front seven, at least physically. But he's a smart player and the quarterback of the defense. He's not an athletic playmaker, but he gets the job done.
Ogletree will be entering his third year. He got off to a miserable start in 2014 but eventually solidified in the second half of the season. The former first-round pick will be expected to break out in 2015 and become a defensive star.
Right Cornerback: Janoris Jenkins
Slot Cornerback: Lamarcus Joyner
Left Cornerback: E.J. Gaines
Free Safety: T.J. McDonald
Strong Safety: Mark Barron
It's difficult to determine what combination the team will go with at cornerback. The team has talent at the position, but the coaches haven't found the perfect combination.
Janoris Jenkins gets burned on occasion and gambles too much, but he's still the most athletic and capable corner on the team.
E.J. Gaines started 15 games with the Rams as a rookie in 2014 and became more reliable as the year progressed. However, starting Gaines would force the Rams to bench the talented and experienced Trumaine Johnson, unless they play Johnson over Jenkins.
In the slot, 2014 second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner will be penciled in as the starter. The only thing that might change that is if the team goes with Johnson and Gaines on the outside. In that scenario, the team might then play Jenkins in the slot.
The safety position is equally tricky.
T.J. McDonald has been a solid starter, and new arrival Mark Barron also made his presence known. Since the team has invested more into these two players than the other safeties, it only makes sense that they'll be the starters.
Rodney McLeod really stepped up his game last season, so he's another option, as is second-year pro Mo Alexander, who the team drafted in the fourth round last year.
It should be interesting to see what combination the team will go with in Week 1.