Despite playing in a loaded division, Jeff Fisher is quietly building a very talented team in St. Louis
The mission of this report is to prevent people from saying in December that “nobody saw the Rams coming.” Playing in the same division as the Seahawks and the 49ers might make it tough for this rebuilding team to reach the postseason, but expect the Rams to be, at the very least, a meaningful part of the playoff picture.
Since taking over a team last year that had won just 15 games over the past five years and was bad enough to have just earned the No. 2 overall draft pick, coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have had their pick of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. With ample cap space available, they’ve been able to fill some of those holes with major free-agent signings: cornerback Cortland Finnegan and center Scott Wells in 2012; left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook in 2013.
But most of the holes are being plugged through the draft, with Fisher and Snead focused on accumulating raw athleticism. In leveraging that No. 2 pick into three years’ worth of first-round picks plus two additional second-rounders, they were able to draft five high-shelf athletes in the first 65 picks last year (DT Michael Brockers, WR Brian Quick, CB Janoris Jenkins, RB Isaiah Pead and CB Trumaine Johnson) and two top-shelf athletes in the first 30 picks this year (WR Tavon Austin and LB Alec Ogletree).
In their quest for speed and athleticism, the Rams have been accused of turning a blind eye to character. Half of their 10-man 2012 draft class has gotten in some sort of trouble since joining the team, and two other members of that class had minor legal issues in college. This offseason, the Rams had disgraced ex-Lion Titus Young on the roster for a few days. And they drafted Ogletree, who had been removed from some teams’ boards because of problems at Georgia and a recent DUI. At one point, COO Kevin Demoff felt the need to publicly assert that this is “not an organization of renegades.”
We can’t analyze and project how players’ character will affect a team. We can analyze and project what impact players' talents will impact have. The Rams are quietly assembling a strong collection of talent. More intriguing, when you look closely, there appears to be a clear, and shrewd, plan for how use it all.
Fourteen years ago the Rams introduced a revolutionary concept to pro football: four-receiver sets on all downs, not just 3rd-and-long. An aggressive barrage of downfield bombs and intricate route combinations created the Greatest Show on Turf and recast how the NFL viewed offense. Since then, multi-receiver offenses have become more prevalent, though they’ve gradually morphed into more versatile variations that include mismatch-creating tight ends and a broader stylistic array of wide receivers.
Every team has been a part of this evolution somehow, though not every team has committed to it. The previous Rams regimes would dabble with more innovative schemes, but they never could find the right types of players to execute them. Last season Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer took some creative stabs, but, lacking resources in the passing game, they often wound up using more traditional, controlled concepts.
Things are about to change. Fisher and Snead seem bent on modernizing their offense. Look at the moves they made this offseason: cutting workhorse black-and-blue running back Steven Jackson and going with smaller but dynamic second-year scatbacks Pead and Daryl Richardson; signing flex tight end Cook; and, most telling, trading their No. 16 pick, a second-rounder and seventh-rounder to move up and draft Austin at No. 8. Smells like the Rams are brewing a new spread-oriented system.
The sense intensifies when you consider that Sam Bradford played in a spread system at Oklahoma. Last season Schottenheimer—Bradford’s third offensive coordinator in his three-year NFL career—worked closely with Bradford on getting rid of the ball quicker. Whether they knew it at the time or not, the Rams were laying the groundwork for what appears to be the new long-term system.
They may not have to wait too long for the plan to bear fruit. Austin has unique, even unparalleled, playmaking potential. He won’t be a slot receiver, outside receiver, running back or H-back; he’ll simply be a ball-handler. The Rams will do whatever they can to get him touches in space. Some are skeptical of the 5-8, 174-pounder’s ability to hold up in the NFL. But Austin missed only one practice in his four years at West Virginia. And, the way he will be used, defenders will rarely get a clean shot on him.
Even if he winds up struggling a bit with his transition to the pros, Austin will still be of tremendous value because he gives this offense multidimensionality. Defenses will have to go outside their schematic comfort zones in figuring out their responses to the various threats he poses. Look for the Rams to accentuate this by having Austin frequently shift and motion before the snap.
The Rams can also create similar, though less novel, matchup quandaries with tight ends Cook and Lance Kendricks. How they’re used is especially important given that both players are better in abstract than in real life. The long-striding Cook has good straight-line speed, but he’s not nimble enough to warrant the $19 million that St. Louis guaranteed him. There’s a reason Cook never had a 50-catch or 800-yard season in his four years with the Titans. That said, he is capable of flexing from a traditional tight end spot into the slot or even out wide. Kendricks is also capable of flexing or even coming out of the backfield. However, he’ll need other weapons lined up around him because he’s not dynamic enough to consistently create his own opportunities. Nevertheless, there’s possibility for tremendous formation variation in St. Louis’s passing game. With a clever offensive designer like Schottenheimer, this in and of itself can be extremely valuable.
Given that a flexible, space-oriented attack lightens the demands placed on an offensive line, it’s somewhat surprising that the Rams splurged for veteran left tackle Long, especially given that Long has struggled with various upper-body injuries and pass-blocking the past two years. Then again, Bradford has worked hard to overcome what Ron Jaworski famously described as his “cabin fever” (the tendency to nervously anticipate the rush). Perhaps $9 million a year to ensure your young quarterback’s peace of mind is worth it. After all, Long’s addition moves sound fourth-year pro Rodger Saffold to right tackle, which fixes a perennial weak spot. What’s more, these changes will collectively improve the run-blocking.
As for the men lining up between the tackles: Center Scott Wells is smart and technically sound. At 32 he hasn’t shown any sign of serious decline, but the Rams still spent a fourth-round pick on his possible successor, Barrett Jones. At right guard is Harvey Dahl, an seventh-year journeyman turned starter who has more grit than athleticism. He’ll play ahead of former Chicago first-round bust Chris Williams and opposite 26-year-old fringe starter Shelley Smith.
Exciting as all the new weapons might be, it’s fair to question the Rams’ returning skill players. At wide receiver, Chris Givens has sensational speed and natural movement skills, but he must mature off the field and as a man of his craft. Third-year possession wideout Austin Pettis remains too much of an unknown; last year’s second-rounder, Brian Quick, is still trying to earn his coaches’ trust after a disappointing rookie campaign. If Fisher and Snead were supremely confident in all of these incumbents, they probably would not have drafted Stedman Bailey in the third round.
The backfield is equally tenuous. Cincinnati’s academic calendar and NFL rules prevented Pead from attending early team activities as a second-round rookie last year. He fell miserably behind and wound up seeing his role go to seventh-round rookie Daryl Richardson. Richardson has flashed tremendous lateral burst and acceleration. This, along with quickness through the hole, should make him a nice fit in spread concepts. The hope is Pead, who has a very similar style, can also step up. If he can’t, the Rams will have to preemptively turn to fifth-round rookie Zac Stacy.
Some also apply the backfield question marks to Bradford. Maybe that’s fair given he’s yet to complete more than 60% of his passes in a season. But it’s hard to fully critique a young quarterback when he has constantly had new systems and an iffy supporting cast. On his own, Bradford still exhibits the quick release and intermediate throwing velocity that made him the No. 1 overall pick. Fisher and Snead are wise for not abandoning him.
It’s not just the looming change and innovation on offense that makes the Rams an intriguing dark horse playoff contender. More so, it’s the raw talent on all three levels of this 4-3 defense. There’s enough of that talent along the first level to give St. Louis one of the best defensive lines in football. Quietly, the defensive line last season was responsible for 39 of the Rams’ NFL-leading 52 sacks.
The final steps to evolving into a Giants-like front four hinge on 2011 first-round defensive end Robert Quinn and 2012 first-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Both seem destined for stardom. Quinn is fluid and has remarkable speed and quickness in skimming the edge. He just needs to become more consistent in his technique, particularly on counter moves back to the inside. Brockers shows tremendous suddenness in confined areas. He has natural country strength and the athleticism to dominate laterally. He improved his pass rushing as a rookie, but his forte is stopping the run.
There’s a third former first-round pick along this line: Chris Long, who has already developed from formidable base end to a dynamic all-around force. Long has the strength to move blockers on stunts, but it’s improved closing quickness over the last two years that has led to a lot of his 24.5 sacks. In some nickel packages, usually when there’s a blitz involved, the Rams have played Quinn inside next to Long. But generally, the defensive tackle filling that spot is former Dolphin Kendall Langford, who has an underrated combination of power and quickness against the run.
The Rams also enjoy solid depth along their front four. Fourth-year pro Eugene Sims has a willowy build similar to Quinn’s, which he uses well both as an edge-bender or gap-shooting tackle; defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo offers quick upper body movement; William Hayes is a good in-line run-defender from the edge and inside. He also had seven sacks last season.
The Rams, theoretically, have a potent enough front line to eschew most blitzes and play a host of different field-crowding hybrid coverages behind a straight four-man rush (a la the Giants). However, Fisher, while a fairly strong advocate of traditional 4-3 principles, likes a little more creativity from time to time. After parting ways with longtime friend Gregg Williams (who was suspended all of last season and never wound up coaching in St. Louis) and Williams’ son, Blake, he filled his vacant defensive coordinator position with former Lions secondary coach Tim Walton. Fisher had met with bigger name assistants like Dick Jauron, Mike Singletary and Rob Ryan (who was hired as coordinator but left after a few days). None of them were familiar with St. Louis’s defensive terminology. Walton was, thanks to his time in Detroit working for Jim Schwartz, Fisher’s former Titans defensive coordinator.
Under Schwartz, Walton coached a lot of traditional two-deep zone coverages. Here, he should have an opportunity to use more man-to-man. That’s cornerback Jenkins' specialty. The second-rounder’s scintillating playmaking prowess was evident as a rookie (four touchdown returns), but so was his immaturity (suspended at one point for violating team rules). He also seemed to lose confidence in his man-to-man prowess during a midseason slump, which can’t happen given his greenness as an off-coverage and zone defender.
Opposite Jenkins is Cortland Finnegan. He did not make a ton of plays in his first year with this club, but he was still the stable run-force player and slot shadow that Fisher and Snead expected when guaranteeing him $27 million. It’s crucial that Jenkins further his development and Finnegan stay solid in 2013; the rest of this secondary could be a house of straw. Trumaine Johnson is slated to be the outside nickelback. He gradually improved as a third-round rookie last season but is still very much a mystery. Fifth-round rookie Brandon McGee is the only other drafted cornerback on the roster.
There’s only one drafted safety—T.J. McDonald—and he’s a third-round rookie whom plenty of evaluators aren’t sold on. The Rams are counting on the former Trojan to start in departed veteran Quintin Mikell’s free safety spot. At strong safety is Darian Stewart, a decent downhill player but somewhat iffy pass defender. Stewart was a starter in 2011 but was demoted last season to the back part of a rotation behind Craig Dahl (now a Niner).
Fortunately, the arrival of Ogletree may lighten Stewart’s responsibilities in coverage. Ogletree, who played safety at Georgia as a freshman, has fantastic raw speed and athleticism, which he can apply rushing the passer, chasing down ballcarriers or roaming in coverage. At strongside linebacker is Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who is a sound scheme fit aside from occasional gap discipline issues. He assertively takes on lead blockers and has a great feel for improvised blitzing (evidenced in part by his 4.5 sacks last season). At middle linebacker is James Laurinaitis, who has developed into an active all-around force and lynchpin for most of this defense’s tactics. For depth at linebacker, the Rams signed Will Witherspoon, who has played a variety of positions in a variety of different schemes in his 11-year career.
Greg Zuerlein was all the rage after kicking field goals of 56, 58 and 60 yards in his first month as a pro. However, after making all 13 of his field goals in Weeks 1 through 5, he connected on just 10 of his 18 attempts the rest of the way. Punter Johnny Hekker, who unlike Zuerlein was not drafted, is back after netting an acceptable 39.9 yards per boot last year. Someone from St. Louis’ chest of speedy young athletes—Jenkins, Pead, Givens—needs to spark the return game. Last season the Rams’ average drive started on the 23.7 yard line, which ranked dead last in the NFL.
This young team is poised to take a big step forward in 2013. That is, assuming everyone stays healthy. As is common with second-year rebuilding projects, the Rams have a glaring lack of depth in several key areas. But hey, that’s the most benign “major weakness” this team has had in years.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.