St. Louis Rams: 5 Veterans Poised for Bounce-Back Seasons
The St. Louis Rams are ready to make a move up the ranks of the NFC and the entire NFL. The pieces are starting to fall into place, helping to build what could be a dominant defense and a balanced offense.
But in order to surpass other teams within its own division, St. Louis will need a complete team effort. Young players like Todd Gurley, Tre Mason, Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald will be the building blocks that help shape the franchise for years to come.
Last season, the Rams showed signs of being a force to reckon with down the road. But they still finished with just a 6-10 record. To help turn the corner, the team will need several veterans to have bounce-back seasons in 2015 in order to aid that crop of young players.
Whether it was due to injury or just poor production, these players had forgettable seasons last year. 2015 will need to be different for them.
Read on to see five players who will turn things around this coming season.
Chris Long, Defensive End
Chris Long is an obvious choice for this list, because he will have a bounce-back season from his injury-plagued 2014 campaign.
In need of surgery on his ankle last season, he played in just six games and recorded only one sack. However, over the course of the rest of his career, he has been effective.
In the four seasons prior to 2014, Long registered at least 8.5 sacks each year. He has 51.5 for his career.
Rams fans should expect to see the Long of old in 2015 because when healthy, he is one of the best pass-rushers in the league. Entering his eighth season and having plenty of time to clear his head and get ready for the grind again, Long will be a hungry player this season.
Michael Brockers, Defensive Tackle
Which team has the most formidable defensive line in the NFL?
Given the four projected starters—Long, Aaron Donald, Nick Fairley and Robert Quinn—the Rams certainly could lay claim to that title. You know your defensive line is good when you can comfortably stick a guy like Michael Brockers on the bench.
Perhaps that will help Brockers, a former first-round pick, become a more effective player.
Entering his fourth season in the league, he had 9.5 sacks in his first two seasons. That number dipped to just two sacks last year as he had a marginal season.
In 2015, Brockers will spell Fairley and Donald, looking to add a big, fresh body off the bench that can get after the passer and help shut down the running game. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 18 defensive tackle in terms of defending against the run.
Since 81 other defensive tackles were ranked, that's an encouraging statistic, particularly since he came in at No. 41 the year before.
Rodger Saffold, Guard
Rodger Saffold played in all 16 games in a season last year for the first time since 2010. But according to Pro Football Focus, he didn't play particularly well.
Saffold came in at No. 41 out of 78 guards ranked by PFF and will need to be better as a run-blocker, where he ranked No. 60 on the list. In other words, there were many players in the league who could run-block better than Saffold last season, but none of them play for the Rams, so they will have to rely on him.
If the Rams are going to establish more of a power running game, the offensive line as a whole will have to become a stronger unit. That applies to Saffold perhaps more than anyone else on the line.
On the flip side of the coin, he was ranked as the No. 18 guard in terms of pass blocking. That could be a key factor, especially since Nick Foles is going to need time to throw out of the pocket.
The Rams targeted the offensive line in the draft and will enter the season with several rookies and young players (such as Barrett Jones) possibly joining the starting lineup. Saffold is the veteran of the group, and these players will need his leadership to help the unit jell, which will be a huge key for the upcoming season.
Tavon Austin, Wide Receiver
Is Tavon Austin a bust?
There are those who would argue that he is. The Rams selected Austin with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft just two years ago, and while his career statistics (71 receptions, 660 yards, four touchdowns) don't scream first-round pick, it could look much worse.
Austin just needs to work with the coaching staff to determine how he can best help the team. After all, if you're going to argue that he is a bust, you have to also consider the fact that perhaps former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer just didn't know how to use him.
New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti could invent new ways to get the ball in the hands of Austin, taking advantage of his natural speed and ability to pull away from defenders. A creative offensive mind could rejuvenate Austin's career.
Austin was selected as high as he was for a reason, and he is still only 24 years old. It's a little early to write him.
He will have his best season as a pro in 2015, becoming a viable receiving threat who also makes a huge difference on special teams. The team should also focus on what Austin can do on running plays.
Quarterback Nick Foles has a nice selection of receiving targets, but the coaching staff is smart enough to recognize Austin's game-changing ability.
If Austin flops this season, then you can turn your back on him and look at all the players who went after No. 8 in 2013 that the Rams could have had instead. For now, relax and look at the positives that he brings to the table.
Isaiah Pead, Running Back
Isaiah Pead has to be considered a long shot to do just about anything, especially having a bounce-back season in 2015.
He hasn't had a great start to his career, and that is a major understatement. After tearing his ACL in the team's second preseason game last year, he missed the entire season. It is going to be an uphill climb for him this season.
The Rams drafted Todd Gurley in the first round and have second-year running back Tre Mason to form what could be a dangerous two-headed monster.
Benny Cunningham is a capable third-down back, and that will put Pead into a battle to make the 53-man roster.
It almost feels like he has never played since being drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. Maybe it feels that way because he has just 17 career carries.
But Pead has abilities that he's never had a chance to show at the professional level. He has natural quickness and the ability to make good cuts with the ball in his hands. He's also good at picking up blitzing defenders as a blocker on top of above-average skills as a receiver.
If healthy, this could finally be the year where he is able to do these things in a St. Louis uniform.
Pead needs an excellent training camp, but he is capable of turning some heads. If he doesn't fit into the plan at running back, he can be a regular contributor on special teams.
Despite the rocky start to his career, the Rams shouldn't give up on Pead just yet.