NFL Preview Series: St. Louis Rams

Byron Dixon| Elite Insiders 

The Rams never had a chance last year because Sam Bradford tore his ACL during the preseason. Of course, this was expected, given how injury-prone Bradford has been over the years. St. Louis fans always had to hold their breath every time Bradford was tackled or simply fell down on his own, so it must be a relief for them that they no longer have to do that.
Having said that, Nick Foles isn’t completely durable either, having missed eight games in 2014. Foles did well in Chip Kelly’s offense and was on pace for a 4,000-yard season prior to going down with a broken collarbone. Foles’ numbers will definitely decrease in a lower-volume, run-based offense, as the Rams will ask him to manage games instead of throw 40 times. This could be an issue because of Foles’ accuracy – he completed 59.8 percent of his passes this past season – though being more reliable than Bradford, he’s obviously an upgrade over the two backup signal-callers who quarterbacked the Rams in Bradford’s absence last year.

While We Were Away: It’ll be ideal if St. Louis can establish a constant, dominant ground attack to keep Foles’ passes to a minimum. The front office had this in mind when it spent the No. 10 overall selection on Todd Gurley. The Georgia product was considered the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, and one team thought so highly of him that it labeled him to be the next Jim Brown. The current problem is that Gurley is coming off a torn ACL, so he might miss the first few weeks of the season. Tre Mason, who gained 765 yards as a rookie last year, will carry the load in his absence. It’s likely that Foles won’t have much time in the pocket, so he obviously will have to lean on throwing the ball to solid intermediate target Jared Cook rather than connecting with his band of No. 2 receivers. Brian Quick is the best of the bunch – he had some big performances early in 2014 – but missed nine games because of a shoulder injury. Kenny Britt is the other starter, while Stedman Bailey will man the slot. Britt, only 26, is capable of being extremely productive – he had a 9-103 line in Week 16 – but injuries and lack of motivation are concerns with him. Bailey is a neat option, but I’m sure St. Louis would rather have former first-rounder Tavon Austin be more productive. Austin, who had 31 catches this past season, has been nothing more than a gimmick player thus far. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti told the media that he plans on getting Austin more involved, but it remains to be seen how realistic that plan is.

2015 Season Outlook: The Rams will once again have to lean on their defense to carry them, at least until Todd Gurley returns from injury. It didn’t look like the St. Louis stop unit was going to have much success this past season when it surrendered multiple 30-point performances in the early going, but the team limited the opposition to just 19.9 points per game beginning in Week 6. The difference? Aaron Donald. Donald, the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was just a part-time player until Jeff Fisher made the decision to insert the Pittsburgh product into the starting lineup. The impact was tremendous, as Donald dominated the trenches in all aspects. He clogged running lanes and aside from Robert Quinn, he happened to be the team’s best pass-rusher, accumulating nine sacks. That’s a big number for a defensive tackle who didn’t make a start until Week 6. And what’s scary is that he did this as a mere rookie. He could be even better in 2015.

The Rams have a very talented group up front overall with Donald, the otherworldly Quinn, Chris Long and Michael Brockers as the starters. Long didn’t perform well last season because he played through the final few weeks on one leg. Brockers has never developed into the pass-rusher the Rams were hoping he would be when they chose him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s very effective at containing the run. Besides, St. Louis can substitute Brockers with the newly acquired Nick Fairley on passing downs. Fairley has work-ethic concerns, but his talent level is off the charts, and when motivated, he can be an absolute terror on the interior.

St. Louis will once again be able to generate tons of pressure, which will continue to aid the secondary. All four starters plus the nickel will return in 2015, as no changes were made to this group. The top corner, Janoris Jenkins, didn’t perform especially well this past season because he was hampered by a lingering knee injury. He should bounce back to form, if healthy. He’ll start across from E.J. Gaines, who surprised many by being effective despite being a sixth-round rookie. Trumaine Johnson will reprise his role as an adequate slot corner.
Rounding out the secondary, T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod figure to start at safety, though Mark Barron, acquired via trade during the 2014 campaign, will fight for playing time. Both McDonald and McLeod were solid, but unspectacular last season. Barron, being a former first-round choice, is more talented than them, so it’s possible that he could crack the lineup. The weakest group in St. Louis’ defense is the linebacking corps. James Laurinaitis is a big name, but he hasn’t played well in years, and he actually has regressed each season. Former first-rounder Alec Ogletree also needs to step up, as he has disappointed thus far in his career. Akeem Ayers, signed over from the Patriots, figures to be a solid contributor on the first two downs.

Remember when the Edwards Jones Dome was such a huge advantage for the Greatest Show on Turf? The magic is gone, as the Rams went just 3-5 as hosts last year. They lost by double digits at home on three occasions. Greg Zuerlein’s nickname is “Greg the Leg” because of his massive kicking power. He blasted 5-of-7 tries from 50-plus this past season, but hit just 80 percent of his kicks overall. He nailed 92.9 percent of his tries the year before. Johnny Hekker maintained the highest net-punting average at 44.2 in 2013, and he was fourth in that category this past season (42.3).

2015 Record: 10-6 

Four of the Rams’ initial five games are against the Seahawks, Steelers, Cardinals and Packers. A 1-4 start could capsize their playoff hopes, though their slate definitely gets easier after that. The Rams are a sleeper team in my opinion and playing in the NFC West is never easy but this team could make a wildcard push with that great young defense and capable offensive play makers. Call me crazy but I think Jeff Fisher is the right coach for this team and this season they could make that playoff leap, if the offensive line can hold up they will be good enough to get the job done and make a playoff run.

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