COMMENTARY | What a difference a couple of years makes. It wasn't that long ago that in this very type of column, the questions I would be asking would be things along the lines of "Will the Rams win more than three games?" or "Will they hold any team under 25 points in any single game?"
Now, the questions are much more specific and way less depressing.
There are still questions, though. The Rams are still far from a finished product.
Going into the 2013 season, the following are my five burning questions for the St. Louis Rams.
Will Sam Bradford become a superstar?
To me, how this singular question is answered will have a bigger impact on the Rams' season than anything else.
As I covered in a piece just a couple of weeks ago, this has the feel of a pivotal season for Bradford.
In spite of the well-publicized turnover in the coaching staff and a real lack of playmakers around him on offense for most of his career, Bradford has developed into a perfectly serviceable, steady quarterback.
In order for the Rams to get where they want to go as a franchise, however, Bradford is going to have to be better than serviceable. When they say that it's a quarterback-driven league, that's not just a cliche. It's true. It's very, very difficult to succeed at the highest level without a marquee quarterback leading the way.
Will they be able to run the ball without Steven Jackson?
The Rams front office spent much of the offseason adding to their roster. They did a good job addressing needs in the draft and they brought in veterans to fill in some gaps.
The one notable subtraction was long-time face of the franchise Steven Jackson. After years and years of carrying the load on offense for some truly terrible teams, Jackson felt it was time to move on to a place where he had a chance to win a Super Bowl. The Rams agreed and that place ended up being Atlanta.
So now the Rams are charged with trying to find the next Steven Jackson. Or, more likely, finding a combination of players that can form a productive stable of backs.
In limited duty last season, Daryl Richardson proved to be more than capable. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and even though he had about two and a half times fewer carries than Jackson, he had just about as many (5 for Jackson to 4 for Richardson) carries of 20 yards or more.
And while he had a tough 2012 season, I'm bullish on the future of Isaiah Pead. I would be shocked if he doesn't play a huge role in the coming season.
If all things were equal, I'm sure the Rams and their fans would rather have another season of Steven Jackson, but I think there are pieces on the roster to have a successful season running the ball.
Who will emerge as Bradford's top target?
Wide receiver has long been a weak position for the Rams. Tons of players have been shuffled in and out since Bradford has been under center.
Some had elite skills or athleticism (Donnie Avery) but could never stay healthy or consistent. Others were steady (Laurent Robinson) but lacked explosive ability. Most of all, though, Bradford has yet to find that one receiver that he has great rapport with.
Danny Amendola was starting to get to that point, but he isn't with the team anymore. When it comes to true wide receivers, smart money is with Chris Givens or Brian Quick. Givens is coming off a season where he was the top big-play target on the team. He averaged 16.6 yards per catch and had ten catches of 20 yards or more.
Quick struggled through the 2012 season, but reports out of mini-camp are that Quick looks like a star in the making.
The top receiver for Bradford might not be a receiver at all, though. Tight end Jared Cook, a free agent acquisition from the Tennessee Titans, is a very capable receiver who I think has been a little bit underused in his career.
Is Jake Long the anchor the Rams offensive line needs?
The obvious answer is that they had better hope so. After all, the Rams spent $34 million on him in the offseason.
Like wide receiver, the offensive line has long been a bugaboo for the Rams. The Rams used high draft picks on offensive linemen and shuffled pieces around, but nothing really worked.
On paper, Long is a big upgrade. He has been to four Pro Bowls and up until 2011, he was just about as good as anyone in the league.
The other side of the coin is that his play slipped a little last season and as is so often the case with offensive linemen with some mileage on them, injuries have started to become a bigger issue.
Still, even a Jake Long that is somewhat less effective will be a huge upgrade for the Rams.
What is next for the defense?
One of the unsung parts of the Rams' improvement last season was the play of the defense. While they weren't a unit that was going to make anyone forget about the '85 Bears, they were solid.
They finished 15th in both passing and rushing yards against. Most importantly, they were able to get off the field in a timely manner so that the offense could get in a rhythm. That had been a serious issue in seasons past.
This season, with most of the pieces back from that defense, I'll be interested to see if they can take the next step and become more than just a solid defense.
The pieces are certainly there. Chris Long is well-established as an elite-level pass rusher and Robert Quinn is well on his way. Cortland Finnegan is a savvy veteran and Janoris Jenkins showed flashes of being a long-term answer at corner.
Then, of course, there is James Laurinaitis, who has been the type of leader you like to see at linebacker since they day he stepped on the field in a Rams uniform.
Add athletic linebacker Alec Ogletree from the University of Georgia and hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald from USC and you have a solid foundation.
I don't think this until will turn into a top-flight unit overnight, but don't be shocked if they slide closer to being a top-ten defense.
Joseph Healy lives in the St. Louis area. His work has been featured at BleacherReport.com, TheFanManifesto.com and Scout.com.
You can follow Joseph on Twitter @Joe_On_Sports.
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