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2013 St. Louis Rams Team Preview: Tavon Austin In, Steven Jackson Out in St. Louis

Zach Kukkonen

Zach Kukkonen

Zach Kukkonen writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

State of the Franchise

The Rams were part of the NFC West's surprising resurgence in 2012, flirting with .500 all season as coach Jeff Fisher helped St. Louis improve its win total by five games. After the Rams seemed to be in shambles following a disastrous 2011 campaign, hope reappeared as QB Sam Bradford and a host of young players brought St. Louis closer to contention.

That said, it's difficult to predict whether the team will continue to improve or fall back to its 2-14 ways of 2011. All-time leading rusher Steven Jackson is gone, as is No. 1 wideout Danny Amendola, and the offense wasn't all that stellar, even with the two of them. The Rams had one of the worst third-down conversion percentages in the league last season, which contributed to a paltry average of 18.7 points a game. In his fourth year, Bradford, along with his developing supporting cast, will have to take major steps forward this season to keep the Rams heading in the right direction.

Since the Rams lack the collective talent to contend with San Francisco and Seattle, their skill players will look to speed past defenses to get victories this season. First-round burner Tavon Austin hopes to emerge as the top wideout weapon Bradford has been waiting for, while fellow youthful receivers Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Austin Pettis will jostle for depth chart slotting. The strength of the offense may lie in the TE corps, however, as Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks form a formidable pass-catching duo that will allow St. Louis to mix up its formations.

The real question mark in the offense lies in who will replace Jackson, who had been featured by the Rams since 2005, when he took over that gig from Marshall Faulk. Those are tough acts to follow, but Fisher loves to run the ball, so there's a fantasy sleeper in the making here.

Much of the Rams' improvement in 2012 can be credited to their defense. While their numbers are fairly middling, they made enough big plays to keep St. Louis in games. DE's Chris Long and Robert Quinn led the Rams to a league-leading 52 sacks, and tackle machine James Laurinaitis is one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Ball-hawking CB Janoris Jenkins scored four defensive touchdowns for the Rams and garnered Defensive Rookie of the Year attention. Almost the entire array of defensive players returns for the Rams and they will be entrusted to perform well early, especially with the youth on offense.

Fisher worked wonders with the Rams in 2012, and it will take another masterful performance to get St. Louis back into the playoffs with the Seahawks and 49ers in the same division.


Offseason Moves

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Jared Cook - TE, Titans
The Rams hope Cook is worth the big deal they gave him and that he can provide Bradford with a reliable target at TE.

Jake Long - OT, Dolphins
The former No. 1 overall pick should shore up pass protection and open up holes for the team's running backs.

Tavon Austin - WR, West Virginia
(Round 1, 8th overall)
Provides a speedy target for Bradford to replace Danny Amendola; may get a few carries as well.

Stedman Bailey - WR, West Virginia
(Round 3, 92nd overall)
Can't keep up with Austin speed-wise and thus won't be featured as heavily in the Rams' offense, but he might be the better pure receiver between the two.

Alec Ogletree - LB, Georgia
(Round 1, 30th overall)
The Rams got a steal in Ogletree, as many believed him to be the best linebacker in the draft.

KEY LOSSES

Steven Jackson - RB, Falcons
The long-time workhorse back will be sorely missed, especially since the Rams don't have a clear-cut replacement tabbed.

Danny Amendola - WR, Patriots
Productive when healthy, he will now man the slot for the Patriots, replacing Wes Welker.

Brandon Gibson - WR, Dolphins
Could have been the No. 1 receiver in St. Louis had he stayed, but he'll try his hand in Miami instead.

Team Notes

REPLACING MR. JACKSON

Replacing a rusher who is coming off eight straight 1,000-yard seasons won't be easy, and the Rams look to tackle Steven Jackson's former position with a stable of running backs. Daryl Richardson has the inside track as the No. 2 runner last season, but he'll only be entering his second NFL season. There's little experience among the four players vying for the starting running back role, as Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Terrance Ganaway and rookie fifth-rounder Zac Stacy have a combined 108 carries' worth of experience between them. Richardson may be the favorite, averaging 4.8 yards a carry last season, but if anyone has a standout preseason, it's his job for the taking.

THE LEG, ROUND TWO

Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein surprised everyone in 2012 with his monster leg, kicking seven field goals of more than 50 yards. He also nailed all seven of his attempts from 40-49 yards and rewarded St. Louis for its sixth-round flier out of Missouri Western. Zeurlein looks to build on his solid foundation in 2013, as his field goal percentage of 74.2 could use some improvement. He also struggled down the stretch, hitting only two of four field goals in his last four games. Nonetheless, if St. Louis' offense can score more points, Zeurlein's fantasy stock rises considerably, especially considering that at least eight of his games take place indoors and he now has a year as a pro under his belt.

IS THIS BRADFORD'S YEAR?
As a Ram, QB Sam Bradford has always had the built-in excuse of not having enough talent around him. But in his fourth season, the Rams are looking for him to move to the next level. He bounced back from a terrible 2011 with a solid, if unspectacular 2012 effort, throwing for 3,702 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, he will miss slot man Danny Amendola and can no longer depend on the reliable Jackson out of the backfield. He has gained a solid option in Jared Cook to go with fellow tight end Lance Kendricks, and has loads of speed at his disposal with his young wideouts. For Bradford to become a viable fantasy starter and take the next step in the echelon of NFL quarterbacks, he must be precise and show off his strong arm, especially with three of the league's top six pass defenses residing in his division.

Value Meter

Rising: Greg Zeurlein should see a bump in his numbers this season, as the Rams' offense appears built for speed and quick scores.

Declining: Lance Kendricks had a solid 2012, with 42 catches for 519 yards, but with Jared Cook getting a boatload of money to sign with the Rams, he'll likely see fewer targets.

Sleeper: Chris Givens was actually the leading receiver in St. Louis last season yardage-wise, with 698. He's fast and can go up and get passes.

Supersleeper: With no clear-cut starter at running back, Zac Stacy, a powerful runner out of Vanderbilt, should get his chances to shine.

IDP Watch

James Laurinaitis - LB
Has racked up at least 114 tackles in all four of his seasons, capped by 142 in each of the past two seasons.

Chris Long - DE
Has 24.5 sacks his last two years and forms a fearsome duo with fellow DE Robert Quinn.

Janoris Jenkins - CB
Burst into the NFL in 2012 with four defensive touchdowns and 73 tackles.

TEAM DEFENSE

RotoWire Rank: 19