STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After the team failed to top the .500 mark for the 10th straight season, some might deem 2013 a failure for the Rams. Yet despite playing in the toughest division in football and losing their starting quarterback in Week 7, the youthful Rams were able to remain competitive, compiling a 7-9 mark under coach Jeff Fisher.
GM Les Snead evidently felt that the franchise was on the right track, as the team was relatively quiet in free agency, apart from taking a flier on wideout Kenny Britt, signing backup quarterback Shaun Hill and adding offensive lineman Davin Joseph.
If the Rams are to vacate the basement of the NFC West, they'll do so on the back of their defense. Defensive end Robert Quinn warranted Defensive Player of the Year consideration with 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2013, and rookie Alec Ogletree led the team with 119 tackles. The front seven should be one of the best in football, especially with the addition of 13th overall pick Aaron Donald to an already fearsome front line. If the defensive backfield can improve and force more turnovers, St. Louis will be tough to score upon.
There is no dearth of potential in the St. Louis offense, but the failure to realize said potential has kept the Rams middling in mediocrity. Few NFL quarterbacks will face more scrutiny in 2014 than Sam Bradford, who returns from an ACL injury that prematurely ended his 2013 campaign. Fans and pundits alike have been awaiting Bradford's ascent from good to great, and it may have to happen this season in order to keep the franchise's faith in him.
It can be maintained that the success of the Rams' attack lies more on the broad shoulders of their second-year running back Zac Stacy. The offense improved when it turned to Stacy as a workhorse (which helped open up the passing game) and he nearly topped 1,000 yards, despite not seeing significant action until Week 5. He'll be joined in the team's backfield by third-round pick Tre Mason, with both backs in line to benefit from the addition of the team's powerful new blocker, No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson.
Meanwhile, the team will seek additional consistency from its wideout corps. Playmaker Tavon Austin had a solid, if unspectacular, rookie campaign and needs to become more involved in the passing game after catching just 11 passes over the last six games of the season. Someone from the group of Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis and Britt has to step up, especially with fellow receiver Stedman Bailey suspended for the team's first four games. That would allow defenses to focus less on the tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, who combined for 83 catches last season.
Greg Robinson – OT, Auburn (Round 1, 2nd Overall)
The college standout adds to an offensive line that improved over the 2013 campaign.
Aaron Donald – DT, Pittsburgh (Round 1, 13th Overall)
Highly successful at the college level, the Rams' new DT draws comparisons to Cincinnati's Geno Atkins.
Tre Mason – RB, Auburn (Round 3, 75th Overall)
A potential third-round steal for the Rams, who also landed a backfield bargain (Zac Stacy) in round five last year.
Kenny Britt – WR, Titans
If he can recapture the success he enjoyed during his first two years in the league, Britt could be a free agent bargain.
Davin Joseph – G, Buccaneers
Adds offensive line depth, with Jake Long bouncing back from an ACL injury.
Cortland Finnegan – CB, Dolphins
Had a terrific first year with the Rams, but struggled with injuries last season and didn't play particularly well when he was healthy.
Kellen Clemens – QB, Chargers
Filled in decently for Sam Bradford in 2013 but was replaced as the team's top backup by Shaun Hill.
Daryl Richardson – RB, Jets
Had a brief stint as the starter, but squeezed out by the emergence of Stacy and the subsequent drafting of Mason.
The Rams didn't take a quarterback (Garrett Gilbert) until late in this year's draft, hoping the endorsement will instill confidence in returnee Sam Bradford and help him to take the step forward they've been awaiting. Coming off an ACL injury isn't easy, but the team drafted stout lineman Greg Robinson with the No. 2 overall pick to help protect their franchise (for now) quarterback. If Bradford can recreate some of the magic he enjoyed with wideout Tavon Austin and tight end Jared Cook early on last season, and Zac Stacy continues to improve at running back, the 26-year-old signal-caller could mount a nice comeback. Bradford did have 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 60 percent completion rate in seven games before getting hurt last season. On the flip side, if Stacy has anything resembling a sophomore slump and/or the team's receivers don't overcome their inconsistency, it could be a trying season for Bradford.
MASON IN THE MIX
While Zac Stacy is the Rams' clear-cut No. 1 running back heading into the season, the draft selection of Tre Mason sets up a possible thunder and lightning combination. Mason set a rushing record with 195 yards in the BCS National Championship game, while displaying good quickness and moves in general while with Auburn. Mason, the SEC Player of the Year, may have a chip on his shoulder after slipping to the third round of the draft and could make an impact out of the gate, assuming he claims the team's No. 2 job over Benny Cunningham and Isaiah Pead. With Stacy being more of a bruiser, in such a scenario, Mason could be a nice change-up to throw at teams when Stacy needs a rest. Though few question his running ability, Mason could use a little more bulk, especially in the rough and tumble NFC West, plus he needs to improve on his route-running and ball security.
The Rams' pricey signing of tight end Jared Cook last offseason looked like a stroke of genius after Week 1, as he caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in his first game with the team. He would top 50 yards only once more, however, and finished the season with 50 catches for 671 yards and five touchdowns. Defenses may have clamped down on him after his big opening effort, but he has to fight through that if he wants to be a Jimmy Graham-type player and emerge as a top-flight tight end. The presence of quarterback Sam Bradford for the entire 2014 season could help the athletic 6-5, 254-pound tight end realize his considerable potential after recording a modest total of 13 TDs over his last four NFL seasons.
Rising: Zac Stacy will be the definitive starter heading into 2014 after a productive run as a rookie.
Declining: Isaiah Pead was viewed as a potential replacement for Steven Jackson before a one-game suspension and inconsistent play torpedoed his 2013 campaign and dropped him down on the depth chart.
Sleeper: Tavon Austin struggled with consistency his rookie year, but if Sam Bradford can remain healthy, the wideout should make some noise in 2014.
Supersleeper: Tre Mason should be a solid change-of-pace option while working in tandem with Stacy.
Robert Quinn - DE
Will be pressed to duplicate his 19-sack, 57-tackle season of 2013, but should be one of the top fantasy defensive lineman options nonetheless.
Alec Ogletree - LB
Burst on the scene with 119 tackles, six forced fumbles and a touchdown in his rookie season.
James Laurinaitis - LB
Somewhat overshadowed by Ogletree, Laurinaitis still racked up 116 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions and remains an excellent IDP option.
RotoWire Rank: 5