Football madness is beginning to stir as we inch closer and closer to March 12th, the beginning of free agency in the NFL. While there have already been some “sneak peaks” to what will happen when the clock strikes midnight, the beauty of free agency is that it is nearly impossible to foretell how a team will look at the end of it all. Last season the St. Louis Rams headed into the offseason with no head coach, essentially no front office, and countless holes on both the offense and defense, filled with a roster of overpaid, under-performing players. They came away with Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, William Hayes, and Kendall Longford; five immediate starters/rotation players that made a significant impact on the team in 2012 (at least when they were on the field). So, with a much-bolstered roster, how do the St. Louis Rams “needs” stack up his offseason? Well, although it may be difficult without knowing exactly who will be released and retain, we can still reasonably “project” what will happen. While there may be several needs that the team will have to address at some point before the start of the season, here are the two that need to be taken care of before the 2013 NFL Draft in April…
There were several weak points in the St. Louis Rams 2012 defense, but none was more prevalent than the gaping hole, sometimes literally, next to Quintin Mikell in the secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, Craig Dahl graded out at the 78th best overall safety, 7th worst among those that played at least 75% of the total defensive snaps. In that same grouping, Dahl had the 5th most missed tackles (16), and recorded a grand total of zero sacks, zero hits on the quarterback, and 1 hurry in 1063 plays. While Dahl’s performance on the field may have been to focal point of countless jokes throughout the season, his mistakes on the field were by no means something that should be taken lightly. Outside of him being a “heavy hitter,” he is weak in coverage, consistently taking poor pursuit angles, and was too-often drawn up by the threat of run, being out of position to help the corner over the top in his deep half.
Quintin Mikell, on the other hand, put up a Pro Bowl caliber season, at least in terms of effectiveness and efficiency on the field. In coverage, Mikell was one of only nine safeties in the NFL that did not allow a touchdown all season, which would be more than enough to check the season off as a success. However, he also recorded 95 combined tackles, 3 sacks (1st among safeties), 2 hits on the quarterback, and 9 hurries (1st). The bad news is that Mikell will count roughly $9 million against the salary cap this offseason, meaning that he will either need to drastically restructure his contract or will be getting his “walking papers” in the next couple of weeks. Mikell has expressed interest in renegotiating, and has explicitly stated that he would like to remain in St. Louis. If he does end up being a cap casualty, the St. Louis Rams will be looking for two new replacement players to man the back of, what should be, a dominate, Top 5 secondary in the league.
2. Offensive Tackle
Most in Rams Nation would likely argue that offensive tackle should be ranked ahead of safety. However, tackle is one of the few positions on the roster where their is, at least some, depth and potential talent. Hypothetically, if the St. Louis Rams maintained their current roster, they would have three offensive tackles with starting experience in the NFL to battle for the right tackle spot: Barry Richardson, Wayne Hunter, and Chris Williams. According to Pro Football Focus, Richardson graded out as the 41st best tackle in the league, with some impressively bad statistics to hang his hat on this season. Only one other player in the NFL allowed more hits on their quarterback (12) than Richardson, complimented by 7 allowed sacks and 25 hurries. While he did not have a historically bad season, the likes of Arizona’s Bobby Massie or D’Anthony Batiste, he definitely did not earn a solidified spot in the starting lineup in 2013.
Wayne Hunter, who played a majority of his 345 snaps on Bradford’s blindside, did an admirable job as a replacement for Rodger Saffold at the beginning of the season. The bulk of his playing time came in a 236 snap, four-game stretch between Week 2 and Week 5; a period in which the St. Louis Rams went 3-1, with wins over Washington and Seattle. In that frame, Hunter allowed only 1 sacks and 2 hits on Bradford, despite being matched up against three of the elite defensive ends in the league: Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, and Calais Campbell (although, he was ailing from an injury). During that time, Hunter was also nursing his own knee injury, sitting out a majority of each week during practice, but still suiting up for the game. At the peak of the injury, Hunter was forced into the lineup against the Miami Dolphins, going head-to-head against Cameron Wake, arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL last season (17 sacks, 23 hits, 46 hurries). Naturally, Wake destroyed him at the point of attack, racking up 3 sacks and 2 hits on Bradford. Subsequently, Hunter was benched, both as a result of performance and to recover from injury.
Chris Williams is a former 14th overall selection by the Chicago Bears, who had the displeasure of being “benching” in favor of the long-time, St. Louis Rams’ great, Orlando Pace following an injury-riddled rookie year. Williams career in the NFL has been nothing if not unstable, having had significant playing time at left guard and right tackle, as well as limited time left tackle and tight end in a “jumbo” package. You have to go back to 2009 to view Williams in a “full season,” when he started all 16 games for the Bears; mostly at right tackle, but switching to the blindside in Week 13, where he finished out the year. In that time, he game up 7 sacks, 9 hits, and 34 hurries on Jay Cutler. However, those number came at the foot of one of the worst Bears’ teams in nearly a decade offensively, with Jay Cutler tossing 26 interceptions while throwing to a receiving corps lead by Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, and Devin Hester. Williams would play a majority of the 2010 season at left guard, when the Bear made it the Conference Championship, allowing only 2 sacks and 9 hurries throughout the year. Injuries have plagued Williams throughout his career, leading to his eventual release from the Bears last season. If Hunter or Williams could maintain their health, both could be potential starters on the right side of the offensive line. Paul Boudreau is one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL, so if anyone could pull-out those players potential, it would be him. Still, if the St. Louis Rams have an opportunity to snag a top-tier free agent to fill the hole immediately, no one in Rams Nation would complain…