The defensive front is the NFL's best and Sam Bradford's confidence is rising as the talent around him continues to grow. But surviving in division with Seahawks and 49ers might be too much to ask for Jeff Fisher and company
The MMQB team rolled west into Earth City, Mo., just west of St. Louis, at the Rams’ football complex. This complex opened 18 years ago, but it’s still got a fresh feel to it. Unfortunately, it was a special-teams practice only in advance of the Friday preseason-opener against the Saints, so we didn't get to see the rebuilt left knee of Sam Bradford in action. A pity. “Wish you’d gotten to see us practice,’’ Bradford said to me after we spoke. Me too.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Michael Sam running upfield as the right side of the two-man wedge block on the kickoff team. Hey, in a special-teams practice, the pickin’s, as they say, are slim. But here was Michael Sam playing NFL ball. That’s worth something. He looked lithe and agile, having dropped 13 pounds (he’s now 257) from his spring practice weight.
How this team can go 12–4
It is imperative that Sam Bradford become more comfortable—and therefore more aggressive—in Brian Schottenheimer’s system. Schottenheimer is adept at catering to his quarterback’s needs. Last year, with Bradford and the Rams receivers struggling in a new flex, spread-oriented approach, Schottenheimer dialed back and featured a smash-mouth, between-the-tackles running game. Drafting Auburn tackle Greg Robinson second overall suggests the Rams could remain smash-mouth; they certainly have a stingy enough defense to compete in close, black-and-blue games. But ideally, Schottenheimer will put more on his quarterback’s plate and creatively use Tavon Austin and Jared Cook in the passing game. If they can conjure big plays through the air, the Rams will be home-run hitters on both sides of the ball.
How this team can go 4–12
If this four-man pass rush declines, the Rams defense is dead. Their talented but callow secondary can’t be expected to shoulder a heavier load in coverage. Playmaking corners like Janoris Jenkins and, to a lesser extent, Trumaine Johnson, count on being able to plant and drive on erroneous quick passes. Erroneous quick passes stem from pressure on the quarterback. Last season, Robert Quinn was far and away the most dominant edge player in the NFL. With offenses double-teaming and sliding protections towards Quinn, this defensive front’s other first-rounders—end Chris Long, tackle Michael Brockers and rookie tackle Aaron Donald—will draw favorable one-on-one situations. If they cannot take advantage, this defense will become reactionary and incapable of carrying the offense.
Now, from fantasyland …
Keep these tips in mind in this year’s fantasy drafts:
1. Quietly, Zac Stacy has become a very solid running back. He proved as a fifth-round rookie starter last season that he can be a bell cow. True, his 3.9 yards per carry is not gaudy, but with an improved O-line, that number should go up. More importantly, the Rams have shown they’re willing to scale back their offense and pound the rock. Of course, some of Stacy’s touches will go to third-round rookie Tre Mason, but that’s not likely to happen in the tight red zone, where fantasy points can come in bunches.
2. Kenny Britt has been running with the first team so far—a surprise to anyone who has seen the ex-Titan hobble around a balky knee for most of the past two years. The Rams will likely spread the ball around; Britt is just one of six viable receivers to choose from. But chances are good you’ll be able to draft the soon-to-be 26-year-old in the later rounds. He could be a steal.
3. Sad thing for fantasians, the four-game suspension to Stedman Bailey. Sam Bradford loves him, and there was a real chance he’d have been draftable as a deep threat opposite Tavon Austin. Now you can wait till Week 5 to take a flyer on him if you’re desperate for a wideout.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR1||Kenny Britt||LE||Chris Long|
|LT||Jake Long||DT||Kendall Langford|
|LG||Greg Robinson||DT||Michael Brockers|
|C||Scott Wells||RE||Robert Quinn|
|RG||Rodger Saffold||OLB||Jo-Lonn Dunbar|
|RT||Joe Barksdale||MLB||James Laurinaitis|
|TE||Jared Cook||OLB||Alec Ogletree|
|WR2||Stedman Bailey/Brian Quick/Austin Pettis||CB||Trumaine Johnson|
|WR3||Tavon Austin||CB||Janoris Jenkins|
|QB||Sam Bradford||Nickel||Lamarcus Joyner|
|RB||Zac Stacy/Tre Mason||FS||Rodney McLeod|
|FB||Cory Harkey||SS||T.J. McDonald|
|K||Greg Zuerlein||P||Johnny Hekker|
With Stedman Bailey on a four-game league suspension (PEDs) to start the season, playing time at the receiver slots is wide open. The stunning starter should be Britt—still just 25—and Austin will be a regular in the slot. But the other receiver spot will be Quick or Pettis or sometimes Austin, and when Austin moves outside, Jared Cook could play in the slot some … Tre Mason has earned the chance to take away a bunch of Stacy’s carries … Amazing on defense that not much is up for grabs, other than rotational playing time. If Michael Sam makes it, he’s got to win a roster battle with several fellow defensive linemen. A surprising contender has emerged in camp: free-agent defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks, who has shown some pass-rush ability from the side.
Best new player in camp
(tie) Aaron Donald, defensive tackle; Lamarcus Joyner, nickel back. The first- and second-round rookies have been really good early in camp. Donald will be a seven-man defensive-line rotation, and Jeff Fisher indicated to me that the only one of those seven players who will play significantly more than others is Robert Quinn. So Donald will be in the game as the three-technique tackle and maybe even playing outside in some instances. Joyner’s been exactly what Gregg Williams wanted as his nickel—a pain-in-the-rear needler and more physical than a 5-8, 184-pounder should be. And he played lots of nickel at Florida State, so he didn’t have to make much of an adjustment.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Aaron Donald will be the defensive rookie of the year.
Something I’ve never seen before
An openly gay player playing football. Michael Sam was running downfield on the one special-teams unit, kickoff coverage, he is slated to play. If you watch Friday night when the Rams open their preseason against New Orleans at home, Sam will be wearing number 96, and you’ll see him in the middle of the kick-coverage team.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
Three things: Sam Bradford is significantly more confident than I remember in either of the previous two camps I’ve seen … Michael Sam is not a distraction of any sort … The Rams might be significantly improved, but the schedule is a bear, and how do you climb Mount Ninerhawk in the NFC West? St. Louis could finish 9-7, out of the playoffs money, and still call the season a success.