COMMENTARY | Truth be told, just about everyone on the St. Louis Rams has a lot to prove this season.
Sam Bradford is looking to prove that he is an elite quarterback. No fewer than half a dozen running backs are fighting to prove they can handle the lion's share of carries. A bevy of unproven wide receivers are looking to prove that they can be Bradford's go-to target.
On defense, Robert Quinn is looking to prove that he is an elite pass rusher. Alec Ogletree is looking to prove he can be the next James Laurinaitis, in terms of being an impact rookie linebacker. Cortland Finnegan is working to prove that he has another year of solid play in him. Janoris Jenkins wants to prove that he is more like the player that showed flashes of being great last season and less like the knucklehead that ran into so much trouble in college. A whole host of safeties are battling to prove they can handle being the starter at their position.
But more than anyone else, offensive tackle Jake Long has something to prove.
First and foremost, he has to prove that his game isn't slipping. After being as consistent as any tackle in the league for the first four seasons of his career, he hit a speed bump last season.
He was shut down for good last December thanks to a triceps injury but even before that, you could argue he wasn't playing at quite as high a level as he had in the past.
I know it's not the be-all and end-all considering there are five guys on the line, but the Dolphins were a mediocre line last season. According to Football Outsiders, Miami ranked 21st in run blocking and 17th in pass protection.
Isolated by position, Dolphins left tackles ranked 11th in the league. Again, that takes into account the fill-in tackle after Long went down, but that ranking is primarily Long's handiwork. For the Rams to get good return on investment, Long will have to be better than he was in 2012.
Then, of course, there is the money. The Rams avoided throwing money around while they were working on building the team from the ground up, but now that they are in a better place and might be ready to contend for a postseason berth, they lured Long in with a four-year, $36 million deal.
Granted, in an NFL where left tackles don't command quite the money they used to, the Rams may have gotten a discount on Long. But that's still a ton of money, particularly from a franchise that can't afford to make many fiscal mistakes at this juncture.
If Long can get back to even 90% of where he was in 2008-2011, he will be worth every penny. But if injuries and in turn inconsistency become more of the norm for Long, it will hamstring the Rams' efforts to bring in other free agents in future years.
Most of all, Long has a lot to prove because he very well may be the key to the Rams success in 2013.
If Bradford is going to take the next step to elite, he is going to need help. Much has been made of his need for help from the skill positions, but the offensive line is just as big a need.
Whether they are fluke injuries or not, you can't really argue against the fact that Bradford has been somewhat injury-plagued in his career. If he doesn't get adequate protection, it's easy to see injuries becoming a real long-term problem for Bradford.
The running backs could use the help as well. For years, Steven Jackson toiled behind poor offensive lines. He had productive seasons in spite of that because he was Steven Jackson.
Now, Jackson is gone and the Rams are left trying to find answers at the position. If Long comes in and immediately makes the line better, it will be easier for those running backs to establish themselves.
He's just one of many players on the Rams roster that will come into the regular season hungry to prove his worth but with all that goes into his role on the team, there will be no one with more to prove than Jake Long.
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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