THE OFFENSE'S TURN
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
On March 13, the Rams had themselves a day. Already set to trot out Nick Foles as their new quarterback (having traded Sam Bradford and his one working knee to the Eagles), they welcomed a surprise guest to the news conference: Nick Fairley, the second-best defensive tackle on the free-agent market behind Ndamukong Suh. Fairley, a former Lion had just signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth up to $7.5 million in St. Louis.
These are the kind of moves one might expect from the Rams—address one weakness but in the process keep stocking their defensive line, which now has five first-round picks. Since general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher arrived in St. Louis in 2012, they've been obsessed with building the NFL's best D-line, sometimes at the expense of investing in other units. And what they've built is impressive. Not only have they picked linemen high, but they've also picked good ones, including All-Pro Robert Quinn and '14 Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, who could easily contend for Defensive Player of the Year in the next few seasons. So, Fairley or no Fairley, St. Louis's front four was going to be strong, but a defensive line, no matter how talented it is, cannot alone lift a team to a winning record—or, in the Rams' case, a winning record for the first time in more than a decade.
What will give St. Louis that final push—which they seem poised to make, although predicting a playoff berth this season is a stretch—is their decision to cut ties with Bradford, who was the No. 1 pick in 2010 but started just 49 games for St. Louis, including seven over the last two seasons. Foles, who went 14--4 as a starter in his two years under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, will boost an offense that averaged the fifth-fewest yards of any team a year ago, largely behind Bradford backups Shaun Hill and Austin Davis. If running back Todd Gurley, who was still a first-round pick despite tearing his ACL at Georgia last season, returns fully healthy, the Rams will have their best offensive arsenal in a decade. (For context: St. Louis has not finished in the top half of the league in rushing yardage since '01, or in passing yardage since '06.)
Despite the trepidation many associate with taking a running back in the first round, especially an injured one, the Rams need offense, and the draft's two best pass protectors went in the top nine, as did the top two receivers. With St. Louis still holding out hope that 2013's No. 8 pick, receiver Tavon Austin, will develop into a consistent, big-play threat, selecting a rare talent such as Gurley at No. 10, the highest-drafted back since Trent Richardson in '12—was an obvious risk to take.
Much of that risk is related not to Gurley's knee but to the offensive line he will be running behind. Fifth-year-player Tim Barnes, who hasn't started a game since 2013, is battling to take over at center, and on the right side the Rams will probably line up two rookies: right tackle Rob Havenstein, a second-round pick out of Wisconsin, and Jamon Brown, a third-rounder out of Louisville. On the left side St. Louis will rely on able veteran Rodger Saffold at guard and Greg Robinson at tackle; Robinson, the No. 2 pick a year ago, had an uninspiring rookie year and will need to improve to avoid being labeled a bust.
According to Snead, the offensive line is St. Louis's next obsession. For now the group, one of the league's worst, remains the difference between last year's 6--10 record and the playoffs, as new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti (who was promoted from quarterbacks coach after Brian Schottenheimer's departure to the University of Georgia) installs his zone-blocking scheme. The baseline for improvement is low; last season the Rams allowed an average of 2.9 sacks per game, eighth worst in the league.
Defense ensures short-term respectability. Beyond the line, third-year safety T.J. McDonald is another bright spot; in 2014 he ranked No. 1 at his position in Weeks 9--17, according to the film grades done by Pro Football Focus. Still, the key to crossing the .500 threshold is having an offense that can carry its weight and afford the defense a margin for error that it's lacked in recent seasons. This year, no matter how little daylight their line creates, it's up to Foles and Gurley to provide that opening.
SI'S PREDICTION: 11--5
ANDY BENOIT ON THE RAMS' STACKED DEFENSE
The Rams are poised to supplant the Seahawks as the most electric defense in the NFL. In their second season under coordinator Gregg Williams, this young and ridiculously talented group finally has a grasp on the various pressure concepts, alignments and coverage disguises that Williams, a mad scientist with an appetite for risk, has built his career on. St. Louis has good—but not yet great—off-coverage corners in Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. If those two were a tick better, Williams might be compelled to simply play a straight 4--3, as most coaches employ a more basic design when they have the more talented personnel. But Williams has a considerable advantage with the rest of this talented group. Robert Quinn is the game's most explosive edge-rusher, and next to him is the most explosive interior rusher, second-year pro Aaron Donald (above). At linebacker, Williams has shrewd veteran James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, who in his third season is on the cusp of the league's elite. At strong safety is the best player you've probably never heard of: T.J. McDonald. A lanky 6'2" and 217 pounds, the third-year pro stalks the field with a natural range that creates even more possibilities for Williams's schemes.