STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
It didn't take long for the Steve Spagnuolo bandwagon to come to a screeching halt in front of new owner Stan Kroenke. After the Rams managed a respectable 7-9 record in 2010, the club bombed in 2011 and Spagnuolo found himself out of a job. In Spagnuolo's defense, losing 10 defensive backs, most of the offensive line and most of the receiving corps to the IR didn't exactly leave him with the tools to get the job done. However, the NFL is about winning something the club did only 10 times under Spagnuolo and Kroenke does not accept failure. The result? A full front office housecleaning, and the start of the Jeff Fisher era in St. Louis.
The good news was that Steven Jackson continued to defy the odds, and pounded out yet another 1,000-yard rushing season (his seventh straight). He also had 42 receptions for 333 yards. While Sam Bradford appeared to take a step back, in fairness he faced the challenge of learning his second new offense in as many seasons, this time without an offseason. He threw behind a Swiss cheese offensive line, and was without his favorite receivers for the majority of the year. On the defensive side of the ball, Chris Long finally came into his own, registering a career-high 13 sacks. In addition, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis tallied career-high 142 total tackles, with three sacks and two interceptions.
As is normally the case when a team overhauls its front office and coaching staff, the Rams also saw plenty of turnover in the locker room this offseason. The club said goodbye to starters Brandon Lloyd, Jason Brown, Jacob Bell, James Hall, Justin Bannan, Fred Robbins, and Ron Bartell, as well as kicker Josh Brown, punter Donnie Jones and key backups Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. To help fill those holes, the team stockpiled picks and got aggressive in the free agent market. Everyone in Rams' camp is counting on OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Kendall Langford, C Scott Wells, and CB Cortland Finnegan to provide legitimate upgrades at their positions.
Overall, 2012 is more likely to be a learning and transitional year. Holes at the linebacker and safety positions, as well as a green group at cornerback and almost all the skill positions, are likely to leave the team vulnerable. And with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams suspended indefinitely, the team will be lacking coaching leadership on that side of the ball. That said, Fisher is a powerful presence and a guy who gets his players to play with a chip on their shoulders. We see that translating into a more driven squad with a nasty edge. While a playoff push seems like a long shot, the Rams appear to be back on the right track.
Cortland Finnegan, CB (Titans)
The nasty and experienced corner may be the perfect mentor for talented, but undisciplined newcomers Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Finnegan and coach Jeff Fisher go back a ways.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB (Saints)
Not a Pro Bowler, but he's better than anything else the Rams had on the outside in 2011.
Michael Brockers,DT, LSU (Round 1, 14th overall)
The Rams traded down twice in the draft but still got one of their main targets. Expected to step in, start, and produce right away.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati (Round 2, 50th overall)
An explosive back who will complement Steven Jackson, while providing QB Sam Bradford with a firecracker screen pass target.
Brian Quick, WR, Appalachian State (Round 2, 33rd overall)
Appears to have the physical tools to succeed, but questions remain as to whether or not those will translate to the NFL game. The Rams see a ton of upside here, however, and there's a chance he starts right away.
Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest (Round 4, 96th overall)
Has the wheels to develop into a deep threat for Bradford in time.
Brandon Lloyd, WR (Patriots)
The emergence of Brian Quick or Chris Givens would help ease his departure. Those great hands will be missed, however, no matter how you slice it.
Ron Bartell, CB (Raiders)
Last year's No. 1 cornerback was expendable after a corner-heavy draft.
Sam Bradford TO?
Over the course of 2011, Sam Bradford saw wideouts Donnie Avery and Mike Sims-Walker get shown the door, while Danny Amendola, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Danario Alexander and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui ended up on IR. Lance Kendricks also disappeared after a great preseason. Bradford then had to watch his new favorite target, Brandon Lloyd, leave in the offseason. But now he's been given two new, highly-touted rookies, Brian Quick and Chris Givens, who are perhaps ready to step in right away, as well as free agent signee Steve Smith. That's on top of the return of Brandon Gibson, as well as the team's wideouts coming back from injuries. The club is likely to keep just six wideouts seven at the most which means that someone has to go. More important, there are no definitive starting roles at this point, not even Amendola in the slot. And even when the assignments do get worked out, we could see a depth chart that could change drastically week to week. From a fantasy perspective, tread lightly.
CAN Steven Jackson KEEP IT UP?
Seven straight 1,000-yard seasons is certainly worthy of praise. However, this is the NFL, a place where running backs rarely last seven seasons, let alone bring solid production for that many. Jackson says all the right things and appears to be in great shape, but one can't help but wonder when all the wear and tear is going to catch up with him. With a new coaching staff on board, as well as Isaiah Pead having been added to the club's backfield, this may be the year that Jackson ceases to be an every-down back. That could have a big impact on his receiving numbers. With more weapons on offense and some injured players returning, Jackson's low touchdown totals (he's averaged just six a year over the last five seasons) may dip even lower. Jackson should still be on your draft list, but we think expectations should be tempered somewhat.
CROSSING FINGERS IN THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
Coach Steve Spagnuolo always stressed that the Rams would only draft and sign players with minimal character questions. Jeff Fisher is no Steve Spagnuolo. He and new General Manager Les Snead went into the draft knowing they needed severe upgrades at several positions. In order to try and fill those holes with players who are capable of jumping right in and excelling, they both knew chances would have to be taken. Enter cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Both were graded highly on skills (many teams had Jenkins rated as the No. 1 cornerback in terms of talent), but both also have police records and character questions galore. Fisher thinks that he can get them to buy in. If that happens, the two youngsters should soon give the Rams one of the better cornerback trios once you factor in Cortland Finnegan.
RISING: Danny Amendola is back, healthy and ready to once again be Sam Bradford's No. 1 target.
DECLINING: Brandon Gibson, last year's No. 1 receiver to start the year, might not even make the cut this time around.
SLEEPER: Lance Kendricks is just too talented, both from a size (6-3, 247) and skills perspective, to not make an impact in his second year.
SUPERSLEEPER: Brian Quick is a talented albeit raw rookie who will be given every opportunity to succeed. If he hits the ground running and can nab a starting spot, the numbers will come fast.
Chris Long, DE
Career-year in 2011, with 37 tackles, including 13 sacks.
James Laurinaitis, LB
If Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford come through up front, Laurinaitis should have another career year.
Robert Quinn, DE
With James Hall gone, the talented youngster will get the starting nod at RDE following a five-sack rookie season.
RotoWire Rank: 18