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Recent posts by Dan Arkush
Before anybody gets too carried away about the Rams' perfect preseason record, all one has to do is look back a year ago at this time at the way the division-rival 49ers were knocking off opponents left and right.
See where I'm going here?
After posting a perfect 4-0 record in the games that didn't really count in 2010, Mike Singletary's Niners quickly began to unravel in stunningly embarrassing fashion in Week One, falling hideously short both physically and mentally in a 31-6 meltdown in Seattle that set the stage for a season that couldn't have been more disappointing.
Something tells me, though, that it would be a really big shock if the Rams were to follow in the Niners' footsteps and struggle mightily to muster up a winning record in 2011.
The way I see it, this is a team that could be worthy of racking up double-digit wins even if it wasn't in the NFC West, where it once again seems quite possible the division winner could finish with a sub-.500 record.
That the rest of teams in the NFC West don't appear to be nearly as strong as the Rams obviously bodes well for St. Louis' future this season.
But let's forget for a few moments the rest of the NFC West — which shouldn't be real difficult to do at all — and take a closer look at 10 reasons why I can see a 10-6 record and a division title for the Rams in 2011:
1. The starting quarterback: While I must admit that Kevin Kolb continues to grow on me in Arizona, Sam Bradford gives the Rams far and away the NFC West's most solid situation under center. Bradford exceeded expectations by a wide margin in his rookie campaign, and I see nothing but steady progress for him moving forward. Bradford has made it clear, along with many of his teammates, how excited he is about an offensive scheme that is expected to be a great deal more wide open under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. Bradford seems to have gone out of his way to get a quick grip on the scheme's numerous nuances and is demonstrating strong leadership skills worthy of a savvy veteran in only his second season at the pro level.
2. The starting running back — and his new friends in the backfield: You can't ask for a more dependable offensive workhorse than Steven Jackson, who is coming off his third Pro Bowl berth and showing signs of filling a more well-rounded role this season under McDaniels. In 2006, Jackson was an All-World, all-purpose performer, rushing 346 times for 1,528 yards and 13 TDs and catching 90 passes for 806 yards and three TDs. While Jackson does not figure to come close to registering those kind of receiving numbers this season, 50 catches for 500-600 yards is a realistic projection in McDaniels' offense. And let's not forget to say hello to Jackson's not-so-little new friends in the backfield — free-agent additions Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. Both Williams and Norwood are proven veteran commodities who should provide quality depth behind Jackson for the first time in years.
3. The ultradependable slot machine: A poor man's version of New England's Wes Welker, Danny Amendola quietly has emerged as one of the league's most productive third-down receivers. Team insiders tell me it took no time at all for McDaniels to fall head over heels for Amendola, who enhances his value to the team with his kick-return skills. Amendola led the league in all-purpose yardage with 2,364 yards and was the only player in the league last season to lead his team in punt-return, kickoff-return and receiving yardage.
4. The underrated left tackle: Nobody expected 2010 second-round rookie Rodger Saffold to step right in as a rookie last season and do as good a job as he did protecting Bradford's blind side. A quick study with good leverage and excellent feet, Saffold looks like he could be a fixture as the Rams' left tackle for a long time to come.
5. The new starting right guard: After a relatively slow start in free agency this season, the Rams made up for lost time with 11 signings in a hectic 10-day span, including five projected starters. The most popular free-agent addition is ex-Falcon Harvey Dahl, who provides a major upgrade in the Rams' interior line with his rugged run-blocking skills and natural nasty streak, which the team hopes will be contagious, especially when it comes to starting ORT Jason Smith.
6. The workaholic middle linebacker: Entering his third season, James Laurinaitis has become the brains of the defense, demonstrating a 24/7 work ethic and considerable improvement in his coverage skills last season. Could a team have had better back-to-back second-round draft picks than Laurinaitis and Saffold? I think not.
7. Better depth on the defensive line: A D-line that made major strides last season with the addition of veteran ex-Giant Fred Robbins and the decision to keep former first-round draft pick Chris Long solely on the left edge looks even stronger this season. Start with first-round DE Robert Quinn, who is coming off a strong preseason effort against the Chiefs, registering his first sack and blocking a 21-yard field-goal attempt. Add free-agent additions Justin Bannan, the likely new starter inside next to Robbins, and Daniel Muir, who had his share of success with the Colts, at defensive tackle, and you get an impressive blend of youth and experience up front.
8. Much better depth at linebacker: With the veteran free-agent additions of Brady Poppinga, Ben Leber and Zac Diles, it's like night and day compared to 2010, when no less than four different players made starts on the weak side. Poppinga, who wasted no time making his mark with his balls-to-the-wall intensity, takes over on the strong side for Na'il Diggs, a decent player for the Rams last season whose release earlier this week attests to the unit's improved manpower.
9. The new starting free safety: It remains to be seen whether Quintin Mikell can do as good a job as O.J. Atogwe did before moving on to the Redskins. But the ex-Eagle is smart, steady and durable (only five missed games in his eight-year career), and he knows Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo's defensive system like the back of his hand. Spagnuolo was Mikell's DB coach during Mikell's rookie year in 2003, and word is Spags is feeling increasingly confident about his new last line of defense.
10. Kickers who put their best feet forward: A contending team needs to have its act together in all three facets of the game — offense, defense and special teams. In PK Josh Brown, who has a cannon for a leg and is unrivaled in terms of long-distance three-pointers, and steady P Donnie Jones, the Rams have as solid a kicking combo as there is in the league.