With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
There is optimism in St. Louis these days, maybe more than there has been since the team's last playoff trip in 2004.
The seasons between then and now have been frustrating, to say the least. The Rams have posted only one .500 record in that span (8-8 in 2006), and have rolled through four head coaches and a pair of interim replacements. We talk of the "Greatest Show on Turf," St. Louis' once-great offense, in the same way we mention black-and-white TV or parachute pants or dinosaurs -- as a lovable relic from the history books.
But the Rams could be good in 2013. Maybe even really good. Their defense, which finished a respectable 14th in points and yards allowed last season, arguably upgraded thanks to rookies Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald. Oh, and that offense ... if all goes according to plan, and Sam Bradford takes the next step with a gaggle of talented weapons around him, the sky could be the limit.
St. Louis has cause for hope again. Can the Rams turn those good vibrations into an end to their playoff drought?
• Biggest storyline: The kids.
Not one of St. Louis' projected top three running backs was in the NFL before last season. Outside of Austin Pettis, the same goes for the Rams' top five wide receivers. That's an almost unheard of level of youth at the skill positions, and it is both the reason for optimism and cause for concern with regards to QB Sam Bradford -- a grizzled vet here, at 25 years and in his fourth season.
During St. Louis' 2012 season, Bradford had running back Steven Jackson and (when he was healthy) WR Danny Amendola to lean on in the offense, a pair of players who had been through the grind. The pressure falls more squarely on Bradford this season, despite the arrival of TE Jared Cook and former Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long.
The overwhelming consensus is that this is a fork-in-the-road type of season for Bradford. For him to prove his worth, he'll need big contributions from do-everything rookie receiver Tavon Austin, improved performances from 2012 picks Brian Quick and Chris Givens and one of three young RBs (Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, 2013 draft pick Zac Stacy) to emerge in Jackson's absence.
Oh, right, and St. Louis also has to bank on several youngsters on defense: rookie LB Alec Ogletree, rookie safety T.J. McDonald, 2012 first-rounder Michael Brockers, 2012 second-rounder Janoris Jenkins and so on.
All that youth means St. Louis may be better in 2014 and '15 than it is in 2013. But will the Rams still be good enough this year to make a run?
• Most intriguing positional battle: Running back.
Steven Jackson rushed for more than 10,000 yards (and added another 3,324 receiving) over nine seasons in St. Louis. The players tabbed to fill his shoes -- Richardson, Pead and Stacy -- have a combined 529 yards rushing in the NFL. That trio's just getting started with its collective career, of course, while Jackson, now 30 and in Atlanta, may be turning for home in the coming seasons.
Still, for as explosive as the Rams hope their offense will be, the backfield is entirely unsettled. Early reports out of St. Louis have Richardson and Pead emerging as the top two options, with Stacy trying to close the gap from behind. Richardson served as Jackson's backup last season, averaging 4.8 yards on 98 carries.
• New face, new place: Jake Long, OT.
For the majority of the 2012 season, the Rams featured Rodger Saffold at left tackle, Barry Richardson at right tackle ... and Sam Bradford running for his life. The offensive line absolutely had to improve for the Rams to be considered a playoff contender in the NFC, and so they handed a $34 million contract to former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long.
Long will slot in as Bradford's blindside protector, with Saffold reluctantly accepting a move to the right side. Should Long stay healthy through the 2013 season (something he was unable to do in either 2011 or '12), St. Louis' offensive line should be far more formidable at the edges.
The Rams' chances of keeping Bradford upright should be buoyed, as well, by new tight end Jared Cook. Another of the Rams' offseason additions, Cook will provide Bradford with a better pass-catching option at tight end, which should in turn allow Bradford to get the ball out of his hands more quickly.
• Impact rookie: Alec Ogletree, OLB.
In the interest of spreading some love to the Rams' defense, Ogletree grabs the spotlight here over Tavon Austin, whom many are considering a Rookie of the Year favorite right now.
Ogletree, though, could be equally critical to the Rams' chances. The 30th pick in this year's draft, Ogletree will be expected to replace Rocky McIntosh at an outside linebacker spot in St. Louis' base 4-3 defense. His wide-ranging defensive game should put myriad options on the table for Jeff Fisher and Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton. The 6-foot-2 Ogletree plays a rangy game -- he can cover in space and get to the ballcarrier, sideline to sideline.
McIntosh saw only 456 snaps last season, about 600 fewer than middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and the Rams' other starting OLB, Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Ogletree ought to surpass that number, should he stay healthy, even if the Rams opt to pull him off the field in passing downs, in favor of a nickel corner.
• Looking at the schedule: The Rams posted an impressive 4-1-1 record within the division last year, including a 2-1-1 mark against San Francisco and Seattle. So, they know that they can hang with those teams, and a Week 1 home opener against Arizona looks like a glorious chance to get off on the right foot.
They had better leave that first Sunday of the season still undefeated, because the schedule cranks up in a hurry. After that, St. Louis heads to Atlanta and Dallas on back-to-back weekends, before coming home to take on San Francisco. Also on the schedule from outside the division: Chicago, New Orleans, Carolina, Houston, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Jacksonville. That Week 5 home matchup with the Jaguars falls into the same "Must Win" category as the opener vs. Arizona. Finding the way to more wins than last season's seven will be a significant challenge.