Published August 20, 2011
| Sports Network
Even with a six-year playoff drought lingering in the background, it is safe to say football is back in the city of St. Louis.
How else could you explain the rush of talent that took their services to the Rams this offseason?
After winning a grand total of six games between 2007-09, the Rams eclipsed that mark with a 7-9 campaign a season ago. That ninth loss was a big one, though, as St. Louis let an unlikely chance at an NFC West title slip through its fingers following a season-closing defeat to the Seattle Seahawks with the division crown on the line.
Few would have been impressed if the Rams did make the playoffs despite a .500 mark -- many were even less enthused about the 7-9 Seahawks hosting a first- round postseason game -- but that didn't prevent the likes of wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, guard Harvey Dahl and linebackers Zac Diles and Ben Leber from joining up with the club following the end of the lockout.
"I just like what they're doing here," said Mikell, who inked a four-year deal in the offseason. "I like what the team's doing the last couple of years. You can see the growth, you can see the excitement surrounding the program. It doesn't hurt to have a franchise quarterback that can go out there and play well, so those three things were a key to me."
That aforementioned signal-caller is Sam Bradford, who is coming off a freshman campaign that earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. And while St. Louis will feature a host of new talent on the field, one of the biggest upgrades may be the addition of Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator.
McDaniels, who will also serve as the quarterbacks coach, spent three seasons at the helm of New England's vaunted offense as its coordinator from 2006-08 before taking over for a short stint as Denver's head coach. He replaces Pat Shurmur and his West Coast offense after the former OC took the role of head coach with the Cleveland Browns.
The move could help Bradford be even better in 2011, and the 23-year-old is ready to embrace a relationship that he hopes will be similar to when he worked exclusively with quarterback coach Josh Heupel at the University of Oklahoma en route to winning a Heisman Trophy.
"It's going to be awesome," Bradford said of getting to work with McDaniels. "I think he's very smart, I think he knows a lot about this game. I'm excited to learn from him. I think if you look at what he's done in the past, some of the offenses he's had, they've done some special things. I think we have the opportunity to do the same things here in St. Louis."
Jackson, who said the Rams are ready to build off of last season's progress, has also been inspired so far with McDaniels, pointing out that the coach wants to tailor the offense to what the players already do best and perfect it from there.
"I was very impressed when he said 'what we do best' and not try and force something that he may want to do," added Jackson. "So that told me that he's very understanding and very open to evaluating the talent around him and using it to his advantage."
The time could be now for the up-and-coming Rams given the current state of the NFC West, as long as the team is able to successfully mix together its new blood -- especially on defense -- with the returning veterans.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the St. Louis Rams, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 7-9 (2nd, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to Atlanta in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Steve Spagnuolo (8-24 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Josh McDaniels (first season with Rams)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Flajole (third season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Sam Bradford, QB (3512 passing yards, 18 TD, 15 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: James Laurinaitis, MLB (114 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 26th overall (25th rushing, 21st passing), tied 26th scoring (18.1 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 19th overall (17th rushing, 19th passing), 12th scoring (20.5 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Mike Sims-Walker (from Jaguars), TE Lance Kendricks (2nd Round, Wisconsin), OG Harvey Dahl (from Falcons), DT Justin Bannan (from Broncos), OLB Zac Diles (from Texans), S Quintin Mikell (from Eagles), RB Carnell Williams (from Buccaneers), RB Jerious Norwood (from Falcons), OT Quinn Ojinnaka (from Patriots), DT Daniel Muir (from Colts), DE Robert Quinn (1st Round, North Carolina), OLB Brady Poppinga (from Packers), OLB Ben Leber (from Vikings), CB Al Harris (free agent)
KEY DEPARTURES: FB Mike Karney (released), OLB David Vobora (released), S Oshiomogho Atogwe (to Redskins), RB Kenneth Darby (not tendered), WR Laurent Robinson (to Chargers), TE Daniel Fells (to Broncos), TE Darcy Johnson (not tendered), TE Derek Schouman (to Redskins), OG John Greco (to Browns), DT Clifton Ryan (not tendered), OLB Larry Grant (to 49ers), CB Kevin Dockery (to Steelers), CB Quincy Butler (to Saints), S Michael Lewis (not tendered)
QB: Bradford (18 TD, 15 INT in 2010) seized hold of the Rams' starting quarterback position by Week 1 and never let go. He set a few NFL rookie records on the way to his award-winning campaign, including completions (354) and attempts (590), and his 3,512 passing yards were the second-most ever by a first-year triggerman, behind only some guy named Peyton Manning. Another impressive mark on Bradford's season was a string of 174 completions without an interception, another rookie record, and he didn't blink in the face of NFL defenses. The challenge now will be for him to take the next step under McDaniels. Veteran A.J. Feeley did not get to take a snap for a third straight season thanks to Bradford's durability, but does own starting experience in the past. Second-year Duke product Thaddeus Lewis is slated for the No. 3 quarterback spot.
RB: In addition to continuing his role as a locker room leader, McDaniels said Jackson (1241 rushing yards, 6 TD) should factor more into the passing game in 2011, possibly similar to when the 236-pound back grabbed 90 balls during a monster 2006 season. That extended usage will hopefully get Jackson into the end zone a little more as well, as he has scored just 10 touchdowns in the past two seasons. His string of six straight 1,000-yard rushing campaigns is the longest active run in football, however, and he also passed Eric Dickerson to become the Rams' all-time leading rusher last season while earning a third Pro Bowl trip. Assuming he stays healthy, Jackson remains one of the top backs in the conference. The 28-year-old did go over the 300-carry mark for a second straight season, so the Rams opted to bring in a pair of veteran backups in Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. Williams (437 rushing yards, 3 total TD with Buccaneers) is a former Rookie of the Year himself who saw his career come off the rails due to injury in both 2007 and '08 before appearing in back-to- back 16-game seasons. Norwood missed all but two games last year due to a knee injury, but has big-play ability and will serve as a change of pace behind Jackson. The exit of Mike Karney opens the door for the 243-pound Brit Miller to take over the fullback position.
WR/TE: McDaniels appears as though he will have a lot of options for Bradford to connect with, and the Rams could keep as many as seven wideouts on the roster. The loss of speedster Donnie Avery to a knee injury before the start of the 2010 season left the Rams without their projected No. 1, though Danny Amendola (85 receptions, 3 TD) had a productive year working mainly out of slot. Amendola will reprise that role alongside projected starters Sims-Walker (43 receptions, 7 TD with Jaguars) and Brandon Gibson (53 receptions, 2 TD) in the new-look attack, and the Rams hope Sims-Walker can emerge as the playmaker the team lacked in the passing game last year. Second-year pros Danario Alexander (20 receptions, 1 TD) and Mardy Gilyard will also be in the mix, and St. Louis drafted a pair of bigger targets in 6-foot-3 Austin Pettis (Boise State) and 6-foot-1 Greg Salas (Hawaii) in the third and fourth round, respectively. Those selections came after the Rams grabbed Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks in the second round in the hopes of adding another receiving option for Bradford. Billy Bajema (14 receptions, 2 TD) returns as a strong blocking tight end.
OL: The Rams continue to fine-tune their offensive line through the draft and free agency, this year landing Dahl to take over at right guard. The former Falcon is aggressive with his 6-foot-5, 303-pound frame and has helped open up holes for a talented Atlanta ground game in the past. Adam Goldberg started all 16 games for the Rams last year at Dahl's new spot, but will now likely find himself in a backup role somewhere on the right side. Tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, who's set to line up next to Dahl, and center Jason Brown all return as starters and will all look to improve on the Rams' 25th-ranked rushing offense from a season ago. Jacob Bell started at left guard a season ago, but was behind Renardo Foster on the depth chart during training camp. The winner of that battle will fill out a line that allowed Bradford to be sacked 34 times last year.
DL: Thanks in large part to defensive ends Chris Long (29 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and James Hall (54 tackles, 10.5 sacks), the Rams were among the league leaders in sacks but still ranked just 19th against the pass. However, the club often bent but didn't break, coming in 12th in scoring defense. Hall is coming off the second-highest sack output of his career but is set to enter his 12th NFL season, so the Rams grabbed end Robert Quinn with the 14th overall pick of the draft as an eventual replacement. Quinn has a high ceiling and likely would have been drafted even higher if not for two factors: a suspension that spanned his entire final season at North Carolina for improper contract with an agent and a brain tumor found while in high school that has not been an issue for him since. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo will likely ease Quinn into his role of future starter opposite Long. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins (28 tackles, 6 sacks) set a new career high in sacks and also had seven passes defensed in his first season with the Rams. He gets a new linemate this year in Justin Bannan (35 tackles, 1 sack), a 310-pound experienced run stopper who spent 2010 with the Broncos. Gary Gibson (18 tackles) started all 16 games opposite Robbins last year, but now slides into a reserve role.
LB: Set at middle linebacker with explosive 24-year-old leading tackler James Laurinaitis (114 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), the Rams brought in a host of options to start alongside the Ohio State product in 2011. Along with holdovers Na'il Diggs (36 tackles) and Chris Chamberlain (34 tackles) -- neither Larry Grant nor David Vobora return -- the Rams added Diles, Leber and Brady Poppinga (14 tackles, 1 sack with Packers) to compete for outside positions. Leber (46 tackles, 1 INT), a veteran of nine seasons, should grab the starting strongside spot and the aggressive 32-year-old can help both against the run and in coverage. Diles (82 tackles) spent his fourth NFL season on the weakside for the Texans last year and will battle with Diggs for that spot. Josh Hull, who had his rookie season cut short last year because of an ACL injury, is the top candidate to back up Laurinaitis.
DB: Spagnuolo's new-look secondary will feature a pair of players he has worked with before in Philadelphia in Mikell and former Pro Bowl corner Al Harris. Mikell (88 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) made the Pro Bowl himself in 2009 and should step right in as a starter to replace departed safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who finished second on the Rams with three interceptions last year. Fellow safety James Butler (20 tackles, 2 INT) will be given a chance to earn the other starting nod over Craig Dahl (98 tackles, 2 INT) despite a solid 2010 campaign from the latter that featured 13 starts. Harris, who played in three games with the Dolphins a year ago, should serve as a mentor to St. Louis' young corners such as third-year pro Bradley Fletcher (75 tackles, 4 INT), who made 15 starts last year and led the club in picks. Oft-injured Justin King will try to stay on the field as St. Louis' third corner, with veteran Ron Bartell (61 tackles) back to man the other starting spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In addition to being the Rams' top receiver, Amendola also handled the majority of the returns, averaging 22.8 yards per kickoff and 11.3 yards on punts. He and Gilyard should fill the role again this year. Kicker Josh Brown has had his ups and downs in three seasons since joining the Rams, but after hitting on just 79.2 percent of his field goal attempts in '09, that number went up to 84.6 percent last season after he made good on 33-of-39 tries. He did miss the second extra point of his career, but has a very strong leg and gives Spagnuolo a comfortable option on long-range kicks. Punter Donnie Jones was named a Pro Bowl alternate after ranking fourth in the NFC with a gross punting average of 45.5 yards per boot, and he was second in the conference with a 40.0 net average.
PROGNOSIS: There are a lot of things to like about the Rams going into this season. The addition of McDaniels and Sims-Walker to the offense could mean high scoring that would help overcome some of the defensive deficiencies that held the club back a year ago. That being said, the changes to the personnel on that side of the ball could also make the Rams take another step forward, especially with a deep and talented linebacking group now in place and an already established pass rush. St. Louis will be tested early with games against Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Baltimore and Washington before its bye -- though three of those contests are at home -- and it gets defending Super Bowl champ Green Bay, Dallas and New Orleans following the break. That tough stretch could have the Rams in a pretty deep hole by the time they begin division play on Nov. 6, but a few stolen victories and St. Louis could challenge for the NFC West title with ease.