July 15, 2009
The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. We're interested in yards and points here. We began at No. 32, the NFL's least useful franchise (Oakland), and we're working our way toward the elite teams. These ranks are astonishingly accurate and highly collectible. Please enjoy them responsibly.
30. St. Louis Rams
Let's make one fact clear from the beginning: Steven Jackson can win you a fantasy title. He's excellent. Jackson has been a strong finisher in each of the last three seasons, never failing to reach 100 total yards in Weeks 15 or 16. In the fantasy playoffs, he's the man.
But in recent years, there's been no need to actually draft Jackson in order to own him for the season-ending binge. Instead, he's the sort of player that title-winning managers acquire at a discount when he's ambiguously injured. Jackson has missed eight games over the past two seasons. Durability is the critical concern entering '09. He's also been a curiously slow starter; during his five-year career, Jackson has scored only one touchdown in Weeks 1-3 (2005, Week 2).
Of course if he remains healthy throughout the preseason -- no calf strains, no quad pulls, no hamstring tweaks -- then we'll all rank him among the top running backs for opening week, regardless of his history. On talent and projected workload, Jackson is a top-three fantasy pick. We only downgrade him because of injury worries. He'll get all the carries and targets he can handle in the run-heavy West Coast attack installed by new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Jackson's presence on the roster is the only reason St. Louis isn't ranked at the absolute bottom of the Index.
When you look beyond S-Jax, things get ugly in a hurry. Shurmur and head coach Steve Spagnuolo have not inherited a competent team. The Rams had the fewest red zone possessions in the NFL last year (29) and the lowest red zone TD percentage (34.5). They averaged just 14.5 points per game. And the defense stunk (29.1 PPG allowed). St. Louis excelled at turning the ball over (19 INTs, 12 fumbles) and little else.
In every year of Marc Bulger's(notes) career, the Rams have been among the NFL's six worst teams in terms of sacks allowed. The streak may not end in '09, either, since the O-line is under construction. (Jason Brown(notes) was a nice add; top-pick Jason Smith(notes) isn't yet signed). The beatings have clearly taken a toll on Bulger -- note the four-year decline in his completion percentage and his yards per attempt. He'll be throwing to young receivers and working in a new offense this season. It's not an ideal set-up. Thus, Bulger sits at the bottom of the Yahoo! preseason QB ranks.
Second-year receiver Donnie Avery(notes) showed all kinds of promise in '08, particularly in Week 8 at New England (6 for 163) and Week 11 at San Francisco (9 for 93). He played through a hip injury all year, too. Consider him a WR3 for fantasy purposes. Avery has plenty of upside -- he was the first receiver taken in his draft class -- but he'll need to adjust to being the clear No. 1 while also learning Shurmur's system. Torry Holt(notes) is now in Jacksonville, so Keenan Burton(notes) and Laurent Robinson(notes) are in the mix for receptions in St. Louis. Whoever emerges from their skirmish will have at least modest deep-league value. (How's that for a soft endorsement?) Burton missed offseason work with a hamstring injury; Robinson has excellent speed, but injuries have been an issue for him as well.
Tight end Randy McMichael(notes) missed 12 games last season after breaking his tibia in Week 4. Not for the first time, there's been some talk that he'll be a significant part of the offense. McMichael is really only a bye-week option in fantasy, however.
Other Rams notes: Spagnuolo is threatening to run a rough camp, so let's hope the Rams place Jackson in a protective bubble where he cannot be touched or harmed. His handcuffs -- because at some point, you'll need to know -- are Kenneth Darby(notes) and Antonio Pittman(notes), probably in that order. But neither would take over the role of offensive centerpiece if/when Jackson gets hurt. Seventh-round draft choice Chris Ogbonnaya(notes) will need to have an impressive preseason in order advance on the depth chart. ... Over the past five years, the Rams defense allowed 23.8 points per game in their best season ('06). They were atrocious in '08, but Big Ten rookies James Laurinaitis(notes) and Bradley Fletcher(notes) will help. Spagnuolo was, of course, a wildly successful defensive coordinator with the Giants. St. Louis should produce a few ownable IDPs, including MLB Laurinaitis, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe(notes) and WLB Will Witherspoon(notes). DE Chris Long(notes) didn't record a sack after Week 8 as a rookie, but he led the team in pressures and should be a force in his second pro season. ... Josh Brown(notes) keeps kickin'. He had a notably useful year in '08, considering the many failings of the offense (112 points, 6-for-8 beyond 50 yards).
Are we being too harsh on the '09 Rams here? Please comment. If the offensive line gels quickly and Bulger remains upright and Jackson stays healthy and the young receivers develop and the defense massively improves, then sure, St. Louis will be, um...less bad.
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