Another year, another new offense for Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. He enters his third NFL season with his third coordinator.
Bradford had a promising rookie campaign in 2010 in Pat Shurmur's West Coast system, completing 60 percent of his throws for 3512 passing yards, but he took a backward step in 2011 under Josh McDaniels. He'll now look to bounce back in 2012, directing Brian Schottenheimer's version of the Coryell offense. Maybe next year he'll run the Wishbone.
Bradford's new head coach, Jeff Fisher, clearly isn't going to allow his team to dwell on the mistakes and low-lights of last season. He's hitting the re-set button and moving forward, as the team has turned over a significant percentage of the roster. If ever there was a year to simply bury and forget, it was the Rams' two-win train wreck of a season. Injuries devastated the Rams' receiving corps in 2011 — Danny Amendola (triceps) played just one game, Mark Clayton (knee) appeared in two, Greg Salas (broken leg) six, Danario Alexander (hamstring) ten — and Bradford himself was never really healthy following a Week 6 high ankle sprain.
Fantasy owners should be willing to give Bradford at least a partial mulligan on his sophomore season, considering that A) he was asked to learn a new offense in a locked-out year, B) all of his receivers broke, C) he was shuffling around on a peg leg, playing behind an offensive line that allowed a league-worst 55 sacks. We won't actually draft him in many non-dynasty formats this season anyway. Bradford's current ADP is 156.9, which makes him the No. 23 QB off the board. This year, all the NFC West quarterbacks will be found either in the final rounds of your league's draft, or in the free agent pool. It's basically a division full of bye-week options for fantasy owners.
The weapons surrounding Bradford weren't necessarily upgraded during the off-season — remember, the team lost Brandon Lloyd to the Pats via free agency — but his supporting cast did get a bit younger, and the new kids don't lack talent. Rookie second-rounder Brian Quick has generated the most pre-preseason buzz (here's a sample), and it's become apparent that the organization expects big things, soon. These were a few of Steven Jackson's thoughts after the first day of minicamp:
"Over the next six weeks, [Quick] is going to have to work real hard to be prepared for a long season, because we're going to lean on him, lean heavily on him. He's a high draft pick and we're going to need someone on the outside to make plays and I'm challenging him right now because we're going to need him to prepare himself over the next six weeks to be a standout on this team."
No pressure, kid.
Let's keep in mind that Quick is facing a steep learning curve, making the jump from Appalachian State to the pros. But this is a promising receiver with athleticism and excellent size (6-4, 220), and, as Jackson puts it, the team will be leaning on him. An optimist might say he's a bigger, more athletic, less-drinky version of Justin Blackmon; a pessimist would then point out that he's a small school wideout facing a huge quality-of-competition adjustment. At his current draft price (ADP 120.6), there's not much risk attached to the pick.
If the Rams can get Quick on the field with the oft-injured 6-foot-5 Alexander, they'll have a pair of play-makers with fantastic size on the outside. Brandon Gibson is back, Amendola returns for slot duty, and the lesser Steve Smith was added to the mix, too. Smith claims to be healthy, now 18 months removed from microfracture surgery. St. Louis also used the first pick in the fourth round of the draft on Chris Givens, a consistently productive three-year player at Wake Forest.
So the Rams have thrown quantity at their wide receiver problem, if not necessarily quality. Lance Kendricks is back at tight end following an ugly rookie season, full of drops. He caught just 28 balls on 58 targets; leave him alone in standard leagues.
The first St. Louis player selected in fantasy drafts this year — and, in many leagues, the only St. Louis player selected — will be Jackson, a spectacular running back who happens to have spent his peak seasons with a horrible team. He's strung together seven straight 1000-yard seasons for the Rams, but the lousy team context has obviously limited his fantasy contributions. S-Jax has visited the end zone just 16 times over the past three years, despite averaging 351 total touches per season. Such a waste of fantasy potential. Imagine what Jackson might have done in, say, New England or Indianapolis or ... well, almost anywhere else. He'll turn 29 in a month, so time is running out to build a competent offense around one of the best backs of this era.
Dynasty owners should note that the Rams used one of their three second-round selections in the 2011 draft on Isaiah Pead, a running back out of Cincinnati. Pead rushed for 1259 yards last season for the Bearcats and he caught 39 passes for 320. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry over his four-year college career, so you know he can run a little. You should expect him to have a situational role in the Rams offense this season; long-term, he's viewed as the successor to Jackson. By the time St. Louis is legitimately good, Pead will probably be the team's clear No. 1 RB.
An important fact to keep in mind about the Rams offense is that massive improvement is necessary just to make the leap from abysmal to ordinary. This bunch ranked last in the NFL in scoring last season (12.1 PPG), next-to-last in total yards (283.6 YPG), and they were the only team in the league that failed to reach double-digits in passing TDs. So there's a lot of work to do. And there's not much reason to think the O-line will be any better.
The Rams defense should improve in 2012, though perhaps not to the point where fantasy owners will care. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was a great add, obviously. He's one of four interesting IDPs in St. Louis, along with safety Quintin Mikell (91 tackles), linebacker James Laurinaitis (142 tackles) and defensive end Chris Long (13 sacks). Rookies Michael Brockers (DT, LSU) and Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama) are probably going to need to make impacts quickly if this D is going to make a leap.
2011 team stats: 12.1 PPG (NFL rank, 32), 104.2 rush YPG (23), 203.6 pass YPG (27), 23.1 yards/drive (31), .12 turnovers/drive (10)
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