2011 team previews
About the Author
Recent posts by Dan Arkush
The Sam Bradford era could not have gotten off to a more encouraging start in St. Louis, as the first overall pick in the 2010 draft emphatically proved he could hold his own under center at the pro level while falling just short of directing the Rams into the playoffs.
With a few more high-powered weapons at his disposal, there's no telling what Bradford might be able to accomplish in his quest to keep the Rams relevant after last year's revival, which was preceded by a woeful 6-42 record the previous three seasons.
Increased firepower was a top draft priority for the Rams, whose overall offensive shortcomings were exposed in their season-ending loss in Seattle that cost them the NFC West title.
Pat Shurmur, who coordinated an attack that primarily featured a "small ball" passing game, was hired as the new head coach in Cleveland. He was replaced by Josh McDaniels, whose impressive track record in his three seasons as the Patriots' offensive coordinator (2006-08) would appear to bode well for the Rams' future.
The Rams' defense, meanwhile, improved a great deal last season, jumping from 31st to 12th in points allowed and registering 18 more sacks (43 total), which tied the Lions for the biggest sack increase in the NFL.
The Rams will be facing a tougher schedule in 2011, with games against Super Bowl participants Green Bay and Pittsburgh on the road, as well as four other playoff teams (Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle).
New Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will also serve as Sam Bradford's QB coach. Expect plenty of multi-WR sets and more deep balls in an offense that McDaniels promised shortly after his hiring would be balanced but aggressive.
Quarterbacks: It's a good thing Sam Bradford is extremely intelligent and a real student of the game, as he will be forced to learn his third offense in three years. Quelling concerns about his durability, Bradford played every snap, displaying great accuracy and field vision and off-the-charts intangibles. He proved to be much more athletic and mobile than the team was initially led to believe, and he has previously flourished in the kind of spread offense Josh McDaniels is expected to install. Bradford does need to improve his fourth-quarter passing efficiency and perform better in the red zone. With another year left on his contract, veteran backup A.J. Feeley is an excellent sounding board for Bradford with a solid grasp of the offense. But he has not thrown a regular-season pass since 2007.
Running backs: Workhorse Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson is a proven downhill runner who gets the hard yards. He does a great job hanging on to the ball and maintains the ability to break a big gain every time he touches it, both rushing and receiving. He is also Ram-tough, starting every game in 2010 despite a lingering early-season groin injury and a broken ring finger on his left hand for more than half the season. Jackson added to his own franchise record with his sixth straight 1,000-yard rushing season, the longest active streak in the NFL. Jackson has two proven, new backups in free-agent additions Cadillac Williams, a former first-rounder who was effective in spot duty for the Buccaneers last season, and Jerious Norwood, who has an eye-catching career yards-per-carry average (5.3) but played in only 12 games the past two seasons for the Falcons, missing time with injuries. Versatile Brit Miller, who can also play linebacker, shapes up as the fullback after having replaced the departed Mike Karney as the starter last season before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee in Week 15.
Receivers: The Rams wasted little time beefing up their WR arsenal, spending three of their top four draft picks on receivers (No. 2 TE Lance Kendricks, No. 3 WR Austin Pettis and No. 4 WR Greg Salas) and adding free-agent Mike Sims-Walker, a quality red-zone target who caught 14 TD passes the last two seasons with Jacksonville. Training camp opened with 12 contenders battling for six or seven WR spots. Sims-Walker's production tailed off last season. Donnie Avery missed the entire 2010 season with a knee injury. Avery, who has slimmed down to around 185 pounds, has top-end speed and big-play ability when healthy. Undersized but feisty Danny Amendola did a stellar job operating out of the slot last season, becoming one of the league's more productive third-down receivers. Described by teammate Steven Jackson as the toughest player pound-for-pound he had ever seen, Amendola ended up being the Rams' leading receiver, in addition to leading the league in all-purpose yardage (2,364). The Rams are hoping to get more mileage out of a pair of second-year wideouts — Danario Alexander and Mardy Gilyard. Alexander has excellent size and big-play ability (team-leading 15.3 yards per catch), but he has undergone five operations on his knee and must refine his routes. More was expected out of Gilyard as a rookie, but he had trouble learning the playbook and was limited by wrist and hamstring injuries. WR Brandon Gibson, who was an early standout in this year's training camp, lacks breakaway speed but has decent run-after-catch ability and a knack for making tough catches. Both Pettis and Salas were very productive in pro-style offenses in college (Boise State and Hawaii, respectively). The Rams are also well-stocked at tight end, with Kendricks joining sure-handed blocking specialist Billy Bajema and intriguing second-year pros Michael Hoomanawanui and converted basketball player Fendi Onobun. Kendricks has great hands and can stretch the seam. Hoomanawanui may have the best hands of any Rams pass catcher, as well as deceptive speed and the ability to pose a threat at fullback, which is also the case with Kendricks. Hoomanawanui had an instant connection with QB Sam Bradford last season, but injuries to both ankles forced him to miss eight games as a rookie.
Offensive linemen: 2010 second-round pick Rodger Saffold was a pleasant surprise, winning the OLT job in the preseason and starting all 16 games. Saffold has good leverage and athleticism and keeps his feet moving on blocks, which makes it tougher for defenders to disengage. Competitive and physical, Saffold is a better pass blocker than run blocker. Former first-round ORT Jason Smith is a better run blocker than pass blocker who plays with good effort, but he can get caught off-balance and experience occasional lapses in technique. The new right guard is free-agent addition Harvey Dahl, who excelled as Atlanta's right guard the last three seasons. Big, tenacious and perpetually nasty, Dahl is a very good run blocker who can get down the field and also hold his own in pass protection. C Jason Brown provides a large body capable of neutralizing nose tackles and has started 76 consecutive games, but he did not play as well last season as he did in '09. OLG Jacob Bell, who agreed to a pay cut, was the Rams' most consistent interior lineman last season, starting all 16 games for the second time in his career. But he has a tendency to get overpowered by bigger tackles. Adam Goldberg, who started at right guard last year, is a smart, tenacious veteran who is better-suited as a utility man. Other backups include versatile veteran Hank Fraley, who is better at center than guard, and OT Renardo Foster, who did a decent job replacing the injured Smith in the Week Eight win over Carolina last season.
In Steve Spagnuolo's second season, the defense came a lot closer to resembling the blitz-heavy Giants unit he so effectively coordinated before becoming the Rams' head coach. In addition to applying more pressure on opposing passers, the defense allowed only seven rushing TDs after giving up a combined 50 the previous two years.
Defensive linemen: Benefiting from staying put on the left side after previously bouncing around from side to side, former first-round DE Chris Long had a breakout year in his third season. Playing every snap like his life depended on it, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long had 8½ sacks (at least one sack in seven of his last 11 games) and a team-leading 21 QB hits and 16 QB pressures. On the right side, James Hall let it all hang out in his 11th season, posting a team-leading 10½ sacks (two sacks in three different games) and a career-high six forced fumbles. Arriving early and staying late for every practice, Hall set a tremendous example for the Rams' younger defenders and provided extremely valuable leadership in the locker room. He should be the perfect mentor for Robert Quinn, a potent natural pass rusher who unexpectedly fell into the Rams' laps in the first round. Quinn was slowed by a sprained knee early in training camp. Veteran free-agent addition Fred Robbins provided the line with some of its best interior play in years at left tackle. Robbins became the Rams' best run stuffer since Ryan Pickett and registered a career-high six sacks, providing a much-needed physical presence and cohesiveness. The starting right tackle is expected to be free-agent addition Justin Bannan, a no-nonsense, high-motor grinder who started every game for the Broncos last season. Bannan has a quick first step and good athleticism. C.J. Ah You (four sacks) and second-year pros George Selvie and Eugene Sims provide more depth on the edges. The primary backups inside figure to be ex-Colts run stuffer Daniel Muir and gritty Gary Gibson, who started opposite Robbins last year.
Linebackers: James Laurinaitis was born to be a middle linebacker. A workout regular at Rams Park with good range and superb instincts, Laurinaitis led the team in tackles for the second straight year. He improved in coverage and as a blitzer and savored his role as the brains of the defense. Before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in Week 13, free-agent addition Na'il Diggs provided strong play on the strong side, particularly against the run. Diggs will get challenged on the strong side by ex-Packer Brady Poppinga, a stout run defender with excellent size who has liabilities in coverage. Free-agent additions Ben Leber and Zac Diles and ex-Giant Bryan Kehl are currently battling it out on the weak side. Leber is a smart, solid run specialist who can play both on the strong and weak sides. Diles started 32 games over the past three years for the Texans. Holdover Chris Chamberlain could also figure in the mix on the flanks. Keep an eye on MLB Josh Hull, the last of three seventh-round picks in '10. Hull made a strong impression last year before suffering a season-ending torn knee ligament in a mid-September practice. Rookie Jabara Williams adds depth outside.
Defensive backs: Although he still had problems hanging on to interceptions, LCB Ron Bartell returned to form last season following a subpar 2009 campaign in which he was limited by a nagging thigh injury. A better-than-average corner with good size, speed and enough strength to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, Bartell led the Rams in '10 with 13 pass breakups in 15 games (13 starts) and frequently shadowed opponents' top receiver. He will take on more of a leadership role with longtime FS O.J. Atogwe having signed with the Redskins. RCB Bradley Fletcher, the Rams' third-round pick in the 2009 draft, made an impressive return from a rookie season cut short by a knee injury that required major surgery. Fletcher significantly improved his ball skills and awareness, making a team-high four interceptions and finishing third on the team in tackles with 91. He has the size and long arms that head coach Steve Spagnuolo prefers in his corners and plays hard all the time. Taking over at free safety is free-agent addition Quintin Mikell, a solid, durable run enforcer who led the Eagles with 111 tackles last season while also registering 14 breakups. Craig Dahl, who replaced James Butler as the starting strong safety the second half of last season, will again start at strong safety. An active, aggressive, hardworking performer with good range, Dahl finished the season as the second-leading tackler with 98 (five for loss) and made his share of big plays. But Dahl had some outings, most notably the season finale in Seattle, in which he missed tackles and took bad angles to the ball. Second-year backup S Darian Stewart is undersized but has good burst, instincts, athleticism and tackling ability. With Jerome Murphy breaking his ankle early in training camp and possibly being out for the season, the third corner role will be filled by either injury-prone fourth-year pro Justin King or gritty ex-Packer Al Harris, who can still get the job done when healthy. Harris knows Spagnuolo's Eagles-style defensive scheme inside and out. Veteran S James Butler and three third-day rookies (safeties Jermale Hines and Jonathan Nelson and CB Mikail Baker) add depth.
Strong-legged PK Josh Brown booted a career-high 33 field goals and scored 125 points, the third-best total in the NFC. Since entering the league in 2003, Brown has made 28 field goals from 50 yards and beyond, the most in the NFL in that span. Battling a calf injury much of the season, Donnie Jones remained one of the league's elite punters, ranking third in net punting. Danny Amendola is an elusive and effective punt returner. Jerious Norwood is expected to return kickoffs. Chris Chamberlain and Brit Miller spearhead the kick-coverage units.
With what looks like the most solid situation at quarterback in the NFC West with Sam Bradford directing signals, the Rams once again figure to be in the running for a division title right down to the wire.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.