It's been a long time since the St. Louis Rams were playoff contenders, but it appears that they have finally turned a corner. With the team embarking on a new era under general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher, here are three questions facing the Rams as training camp heats up.
Can the Rams protect quarterback Sam Bradford?
This is a question that CNNSI's Jim Trotter wrote about earlier this week, and I agree with his belief that the team's running-based offense will help. Actually, I'm not entirely sold on the idea that the offensive line couldn't have protected Bradford last season.
The Rams moved away from an offense that relied on timing and releasing the ball quickly when they hired Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator. His play-calling required more vertical routes and deep passes than the previous offense, which meant that the offensive line had to protect Bradford longer on each play. This wouldn't have been a big deal if the Rams had had the speed receivers needed to get open, but they didn't. The offensive line simply wasn't able to hold on.
The new offense will rely on an established running game that is meant to open up the pass. The team is also expected to use some aspects of the West Coast Offense in the passing game. I think all of these changes will help the Rams protect Bradford for a full 16 games.
Who will step forward at wide receiver?
The Rams had a solid draft, but the one position they appeared to strike out on was wide receiver. However, appearances can be deceiving. Snead and Fisher were both wowed by Brian Quick during pre-draft workouts and felt comfortable picking him with the first pick of the second round. He's even drawn some comparisons to Terrell Owens, but without the baggage.
Several other receivers, such as Greg Salas, Danny Amendola and Danario Alexander, could also make a difference in 2012. Salas was starting to establish himself last season before he got injured; fans should keep an eye on him. Amendola has recovered from his injury, and he's already been tabbed as the team's punt returner. And of course, there is the vastly talented but always injured Alexander. There's little doubt that he has the potential to be a great receiver if he can only stay healthy.
However, I think Steve Smith is the real player to watch. Actually, I think the Rams may have made one of the best signings of the offseason when they signed Smith. Sure, he's been recovering from knee surgery for much of the past two years, but it appears that he's fully recovered. Smith has shown that he can play at a high level, and I wouldn't put it past him to do the same in 2012, especially in Brian Schottenheimer's offense.
Can the Rams stop the run?
Snead and Fisher worked hard to upgrade the defensive line this past offseason by drafting Michael Brockers and signing Kendall Langford and Trevor Laws. Brockers was selected to become the team's run stopper, while Langford is expected to give the Rams some versatility in the trenches.
There's no doubt that the Rams are more talented on the defensive line than they were last year, but no one knows how this unit will play together. Hopefully, we can get an idea of how well everything is coming along next weekend when the Rams open up the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts. I think we'll be pleasantly surprised at what we see out of the defensive line.
Derek Ciapala has been a Rams fan since he was a child and the team was in Los Angeles. His favorite Rams moments include Flipper Anderson's 336-yard receiving night against the Saints in 1989, and their miracle 1999 run to their first Super Bowl victory. You can follow him on Twitter @dciapala and Facebook.