With the first rookie training camp just around the corner, and the preseason soon after, it's time to start previewing the prospects for each NFL team. We begin with the St. Louis Rams, who finished the 2009 NFL season with a 1-15 record.
The Playbook: Last year, the Rams put out a pretty balanced pot of nothingness. They were less effective in the passing game than when they ran the ball, primarily because their three-headed quarterback monster of Marc Bulger(notes), Kyle Boller(notes), and Keith Null(notes) was absolutely horrible. Bulger was shell-shocked from too many hits and too few targets over the last few years, Null was asked to do too much in his rookie season, and Boller made Rex Grossman(notes) look like Joe Montana with some truly head-scratching interceptions. Running back Steven Jackson had an impressive year, considering that there were so few players around him for enemy defenses to focus on. Jackson also led the team in receptions with 51, which points to the overwhelming aerial issue - the team has few, if any, potential star receivers.Things will be different in 2010, one way or another. First overall pick Sam Bradford(notes) (pictured) is a shotgun quarterback through and through (he took precisely one snap under center in his abbreviated 2009 season), and 2009 first-round pick Jason Smith(notes) will move into the left tackle spot full-time. At Baylor, Smith was far more the new kind of spread-offense blocker - two-point stances and a lot of pass-blocking. He'll need to work on his drive-blocking going forward, but Bradford and Smith are the pointmen in what should be a more interesting and occasionally explosive offense. Consistency will have to come later. The Rams already ran a lot of three-wide, single-back sets last year, and they ranked 14th in percentage of offensive plays in which they used the shotgun last year (38.8%).
Impact Players: With Bulger now in Baltimore and Boller fighting off Charlie Frye(notes) for the Oakland Raiders' third-string quarterback slot, Bradford is the main man. Whether he starts in his first year depends on how the team wants to handle his development, but the Rams are going to give this kid about $50 million guaranteed, and it isn't as if there's anywhere to go but up. Jackson is the Rams player who is everything good about the NFL - even down the stretch, when his back hurt so badly that he couldn't practice, he refused to shut it down, and instead ran as hard as he always had. Tight end Daniel Fells(notes) was a rare bright spot in a dismal passing game. Receivers Laurent Robinson(notes), Danny Amendola(notes), and Donnie Avery(notes) might impress more with Bradford throwing them the ball, but this is an offense very much under construction.
The Playbook: The Rams played a pretty basic 4-3 for the most part; they rushed four defenders 65 percent of the time, one of the highest percentages in the league. One of the reasons there weren't too many exotic schemes despite the fact that first-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo was a disciple of the late Jim Johnson was that "Spags" understood the need for talent before anything else. And as it was on the offensive side of the ball, talent was hard to come by. The one homage Spagnuolo gave to his past as the Giants' defensive coordinator was a large increase in zone blitzes. The Rams would occasionally play a Cover-1 or Cover-3 shell as a safety came up into the box to reinforce the team's run-stopping abilities.
But a series of underwhelming draft picks designed to reinforce the defensive line really came home to roost in 2009. Tackle Adam Carriker(notes), who was always going to be a better fit in a 3-4 defense and is now in Washington playing in just such a system (maybe they should have traded him for Albert Haynesworth(notes)...), missed the entire 2009 season with a shoulder injury. End Chris Long(notes) is still known far more for being Howie's son than anything he's done on an NFL field. The Rams have a series of decent-but-anonymous players clogging up their front seven, and some pretty horrible players in their secondary. It's just going to take the front office longer than this one year to turn it all around.
Impact Players: Linebacker James Laurinaitis(notes) stepped in as a rookie and ran the defense as well as could be expected - the former Ohio State star has great potential, and with the addition of former Buckeye Bobby Carpenter(notes) in the linebacker corps, the Rams could have a solid intermediate defense for the first time in years. Cornerback Ronald Bartell is serviceable, but the best player on this defense is safety O.J. Atogwe (pictured), who finally got the major contract he deserved in early July.
New Blood: The Rams put together a very solid draft in 2010, with several players in the first four rounds as potential starters. Indiana tackle Rodger Saffold(notes) may go at right tackle, replacing Smith and the departed Alex Barron(notes). South Florida cornerback Jerome Murphy(notes) got a bit lost in all the hype over Jason Pierre-Paul(notes), but he is a good cover corner and a dynamic hitter. He may take a while to transition to playing off coverage. Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard(notes) has as good a chance as anyone in the Rams' mystery meat receiver corps.
2010 Projection: Going from three wins to two wins to one win in the past three years means that there is no more bottom for the Rams. That said, it will be a long road back to even the middle - this may be the least-talented team in the NFL right now. That's the bad news. The good news is that the team has elite potential at key positions (left tackle, quarterback, middle linebacker). Rams fans will have more to cheer for in 2010; but they'll need a bit more of the patience they've had in bunches over the last few seasons. Four to six wins is a realistic (and positive) projection for this team.