Shutdown Countdown: St. Louis Rams still one (important) piece away

Frank Schwab
July 20, 2014
(Yahoo Sports)
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(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

It had to be hard for the St. Louis Rams to pass on Robert Griffin III, especially when RG3 was setting the NFL on fire and winning offensive rookie of the year.

But that trade has helped set the foundation for what is suddenly a very good roster.

The defensive line might be the best in the NFL. They have two great playmaking linebackers in Alec Ogletree amd James Laurinaitis, who might pull a Luke Kuechly-Thomas Davis routine for years to come. The offensive line has improved tremendously and should be much better as No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson develops. The running game is in good shape, with a couple of interesting young backs. This is a surprisingly strong team, with just one question.

But that one question is a significant one: Is Sam Bradford good enough to take the Rams anywhere?

Sam Bradford (AP)
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Sam Bradford (AP)

There are two ways to build a winner in the NFL. You can hit the Drew Brees/Peyton Manning/Aaron Rodgers/Tom Brady Hall of Fame quarterback lottery. Having a quarterback like that covers up dozens of flaws. It's not essential though. Russell Wilson isn't the best quarterback in the NFL. He has a ring. Joe Flacco is average. He has a ring. Eli Manning is an interception machine, and he has two rings. But all of those guys are capable of streaks of greatness (and in Wilson's case, maybe he'll end up in that rare top tier), and had tremendous supporting casts.

The Rams have the supporting cast. But going into Bradford's fifth season, we're still not sure what he's capable of.

Bradford has had 1,760 NFL passes, which isn't a small sample size. He has not given anyone reason to believe he can be great. There isn't even a ton of evidence he can be good. But the hope is that last year was the start of a breakthrough.

Bradford made strides in many ways last year. Interceptions were way down, completion percentage was finally above 60 percent, his number of touchdowns per pass was at a career high and his rating was over 90. Most of his damage came against bad teams -- Jacksonville, Houston and Atlanta -- and he looked awful against a tough 49ers defense. So there are reasons for optimism and pessimism, but he showed some signs of hope, which was crucial last year. Then he blew out his ACL against Carolina and missed the last nine games.

The Rams went 7-9 with the unremarkable Kellen Clemens starting nine times, which tells you all you need to know about how good the Rams are outside of quarterback. St. Louis had a chance to start over at quarterback in this draft, with the last gifts from the RG3 trade. The Rams could have taken Blake Bortles second overall. They could have taken Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater with the 13th pick, or moved down a bit and still grabbed one of them. But they passed, showing a lot of faith in Bradford.

At times last year, Bradford showed he can be good enough to help this great supporting cast win. Sometimes quarterbacks need time to develop, and the team around Bradford was not very good his first few years. The Rams have come too far with the former first overall pick to turn back quite yet, especially after seven promising games in 2013. But now it's on Bradford. He's the last piece of the puzzle in St. Louis.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Rams weren't going anywhere with Clemens in the second half, but finishing 7-9 was not that bad of an outcome.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: There wasn't a ton gained or lost in free agency, although the weird re-signing of offensive lineman Rodger Saffold after the Raiders failed him on his physical was a nice bonus. When you have two of the top 13 picks of the draft, you don't need to go crazy in free agency (although, would it have killed them to sign a safety?). Robinson, a remarkably athletic lineman for his size, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a steal at the No. 13 pick, should make an immediate impact. That's enough to say the roster is better.

Best offseason acquisition: Robinson was drafted higher, but he'll serve an apprenticeship at guard while he works on his game. This year, Donald might have a bigger impact. The Rams have four starting defensive linemen who were taken in the first 14 picks of their respective drafts. Donald won't see a ton of double teams, and has the pass-rushing ability to post the type of numbers that could result in a defensive rookie of the year award.

Achilles heel: It's a cliche to criticize playcalling, but who hasn't watched Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's teams and groaned a bit? The team took a long time to figure out how to use multi-skilled rookie receiver Tavon Austin last year. Tight end Jared Cook, an expensive free-agent acquisition, disappeared for weeks at a time. None of the receivers, including some relatively high picks, did anything noteworthy. It's possible that the skill-position players just aren't good enough to have a dynamic offense, and Bradford's injury ruined any offensive momentum. But Bradford's progress isn't just his responsibility. It's also about the coaching staff being a little more creative and getting more out of the talent on hand.

Position in flux: The selection of Auburn running back Tre Mason early in the third round (75th overall) was curious. The team hit on Zac Stacy in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. He had 625 yards and seven touchdowns in the second half of the season. Investing a very valuable pick in another tailback was a surprise, but it does make sense. Mason is a heck of a player. If you need proof of that, go watch his 304-yard, four-touchdown performance in the SEC championship game. Stacy is solid but more of a grinder than a special back. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in the second half while compiling those numbers. The Rams didn't draft Mason 75th overall to give him only a few carries a game behind Stacy. They'll use both backs. How the workload is split among the two is tough to predict (you can easily make the case Mason is the more talented of the two), though between them, the Rams should be a pretty good running team.

Tavon Austin (USA Today Sports Images)
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Tavon Austin (USA Today Sports Images)

Ready to break out: 40 catches for 418 receiving yards and four touchdowns ... surely the eighth overall pick needs to produce more than that. But Austin had his moments. Against the Colts, he had a 98-yard punt return touchdown and touchdown catches of 81 and 57 yards. On St. Louis' third play against Chicago, he had a 65-yard run for a touchdown (and by the way, he had only two more touches the rest of that game ... I don't get the Rams sometimes). When the Rams don't use him as a standard slot receiver, Austin can be incredible. He's a dangerous returner and needs to get more than the nine rushing attempts he had last season. Presumably, the Rams have a plan for him this season. They didn't last year so maybe that's faulty logic, but Austin has a real chance to star as a sophomore. 

Stat fact: The Rams turned the second pick of the 2012 draft, which they traded to Washington (who drafted Griffin) into a total of eight players though some additional trades. Here are the eight players they got, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, running backs Isaiah Pead and Stacy, offensive linemen Robinson and Rokevious Watkins, linebacker Ogletree and wide receiver Stedman Bailey. Watkins was a wasted pick, and Pead probably is too. But the rest is an impressive haul that, along with some other good picks through the years, has transformed the Rams' roster.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Like Arizona, St. Louis' biggest problem is it plays in the NFC West, and partners with the AFC West for its non-conference games. The Rams have the third-hardest schedule in the NFL, based on 2013 records. That limits their upside for 2014.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Again, like Arizona, it's nearly impossible to believe the Rams will overtake Seattle and San Francisco to win the division, even in the most sunny of outlooks. But if Bradford is healthy and builds on his 2013 season, the rest of the team is absolutely good enough to get a wild-card spot, and put everyone on notice that the Rams are on the rise in the NFC.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: There are a lot of positives, but also some holes. Notably, in the passing game. Bradford has shown more bad than good in his career, and coming back strong off a torn ACL is no sure thing. St. Louis has drafted receiver and receiver and none of them have hit yet. It's a passing league, and no matter how good the front seven or running game is, having a toothless passing attack is a recipe for mediocrity. As much as the upside of the Rams is enticing, it's also easy to envision another losing season, especially with that schedule. And that might mean having to start over at quarterback, which can set a franchise back.

The crystal ball says: The Rams will be a good team and won't make the playoffs. The reality is that their schedule is a nightmare. But they'll be everyone's sleeper in 2015 because the defense is going to be very good and the offense should show some improvement. Bradford will never be great, but he can be good enough and he'll have a solid season. The Rams might be a year away from the playoffs, but nobody will want to play them in 2014.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!