In years past, the the St. Louis Rams could throw a dart at their roster and likely hit a “position of need” in the NFL draft. Even spots with a solidified starter (i.e. Steven Jackson at running back), there was little-to-no depth. When Jeff Fisher and Les Snead took hold of the franchise, they gutted nearly the entire roster, “throwing away the trash” and filling the depth chart with “moldable,” young talent and experienced veterans. Now, heading into the 2014 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams finally appear to be in a position where a majority of the “holes” in the roster can actually be filled with top-tier talent. So, the next logical question is…. where are those areas of need?
Last year in April, the St. Louis Rams took a chance on a hard-hitting safety from USC, T.J. McDonald. The rookie had performed admirably to start the season, registering 19 tackles, 7 defensive stops, and allowing only six catches and eight total yards after the catch in coverage through four regular season games. However, a leg fracture sustained against the San Francisco 49ers effectively ended his season (although he is scheduled to return this year). Taking an optimistic stance on the situation, it may have been a blessing in disguise, allotting St. Louis the opportunity to test out of the rest of the safeties for an extended period of time. Darian Stewart has actually been rock solid since his mishap against Justin Blackmon in his first “start” of the season. In five games, he has allowed only 3 catches for 17 yards and has made a handful of notable plays. McLeod has been less impressive, especially against the run, although he has put up respectable numbers in coverage, including an interception against the Tennessee Titans. While both Stewart and McLeod have played admirably in the secondary, they both possess three major flaws: 1) neither are stout against the run, 2) neither are “playmakers” and 3) neither can consistently match up man-to-man or be trusted as a “single-deep” safety. Expect the safety position to be address in the 1st round.
2. Defensive Tackle
Michael Brockers is “the truth” on the interior of the defensive line this season, consistently demanding a double-team as a pass rusher and putting up a stone wall against the run on his side of the line; not surprisingly, he is ranked 8th among defensive tackles in defensive stops this season. Kendall Langford, on the other hand, has been average, at best, for a majority of the last two seasons in St. Louis. Typically, “average” is not a damning criticism in the NFL. However, when your average performance is paired with a massive contact, a problem quickly arises. The St. Louis Rams will undoubtedly look at ways of “restructuring” Langford this offseason to deflate his impact on the cap number in 2014. They will also likely be looking for an upgrade on the interior of the defensive line, with the St. Louis Rams continuing to be “inconsistent” (to be generous) against the run this season. It is not surprise that when the opposing interior offensive linemen are stout, the Rams run defense suffers. The conversion from 3-4 DE to 4-3 DT has obviously not worked for Langford. Sometimes, it’s better to admit your mistake and move on…
The entire offensive line is a mystery at this point in the season… but a good mystery, to some extent. The Rams offensive line is currently ranked 11th overall in the league in pass blocking efficiency as a unit; an obvious upgrade from 19th in 2012 and 25th in 2011. Potentially more impressive is that a number of individual players that are ranked among the tops in the league at their positions, including: Scott Wells (1st overall in pass blocking efficiency), Jake Long (7th overall among OT; 3rd in run blocking), and Joe Barksdale (7th in pass blocking among RT). Obviously, there were no guards on that list…
Chris Williams has been understandably hot-and-cold in his first season on the interior of the offensive line, but did struggle earlier in the season, especially in that horrendous two-game stretch against the Cowboys and 49ers. However, he hasn’t allowed a sack in six games, and has been consistently “adequate” next to Jake Long in the run game. Harvey Dahl has been a force in run blocking, but has never excelled in pass blocking as a pro and hasn’t played a “full” season since moving to St. Louis from Atlanta. Moreover, he is owed a fairly large chuck of money next season, and with the salary cap looming at the forefront this offseason, he may be the first cap casualty of 2014.
The real “mystery” boils down to Rodger Saffold. Since being demoted from left tackle to right tackle… then from right tackle to backup, Saffold may have found his home on the interior of the St. Louis Rams offensive line. Assuming he doesn’t implode at some point this season, Saffold should get the start for the remainder of the season at right guard. If he can competently fill that void on the interior, the St. Louis Rams should be more apt to sign him to a semi-lucrative contract at the end of the season. In that scenario, the Rams would have Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, Rodger Saffold, and Barrett Jones on the depth chart in 2014 as “guards/interior linemen.” Not too bad…
4. Outside Linebacker
From Week 1 to Week 4, without Jo-Lonn Dunbar in the lineup, the glaring hole at outside linebacker was revealed, with the St. Louis Rams getting gashed by every team with any semblance of a running game. However, even with the return of Dunbar to the roster, the Rams have been hot-and-cold versus the run, with Jo-Lonn bringing little to the table aside from his toughness and attitude. Sadly, psychological attributes do not necessarily translate to performance on the field, with Dunbar currently sporting a negative grade in all three phases of the game (pass rush, run, coverage), and registering only 20 total tackles and 7 defensive stops in six games this season. He has allowed a catch every time he has been targeted in coverage (i.e. 100% catch rate) and has zero hits on the quarterback this season. That should be enough to convince anyone that it is time for an upgrade at the position, especially if the St. Louis Rams plan on being consistently competitive on defense. With a handful of outside linebacker prospects being pegged with Top 10 grades, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this need get filled ahead of the rest of the positions on his list.
5. Offensive Tackle
Joe Barksdale will have the rest of the season to show his wares as a starting offensive tackle in the NFL. If he fails to “show out,” the offensive tackle position will obviously skyrocket up the “needs” chart. However, to this point, Barksdale has been effective on the right side of the offensive line, ranking 16th overall among tackles in pass blocking efficiency this season. Moreover, among offensive tackles that have played in at least 10 games this season: only four players have allowed fewer sacks, only four have allowed fewer hits on the quarterback, only one has allowed fewer hurries, and none have allowed fewer total pressures! More importantly, Joe Barksdale is one of only seven offensive linemen in the NFL that has played more than 500 snaps and not committed a penalty this season. To put that in perspective, Rodger Saffold, with nearly an identical number of snaps, had seven penalties in 2012 and an astounding 10 penalties in 2011.
The point is, for now, Barksdale appears to be “the answer” at right tackle. Should Rodger Saffold be sustained as an interior lineman, the St. Louis Rams should have plenty of depth at tackle. In that scenario, both Chris Williams and Rodger Saffold would be able to kick out to right tackle, should Barksdale or Jake Long get injured, giving more credence to the “need” for a guard over an offensive tackle. However, all of this will hinge on the play of Joe Barksdale and Rodger Saffold at their “new starting positions,” and on what the St. Louis Rams do with the contracts of Harvey Dahl and Saffold prior to the 2014 NFL Draft.
6. Tight End
Mike McNeill will be gone at the end of the season, leaving the St. Louis Rams with only three tight ends on the roster. However, with the Rams using their tight ends as fullback, the Rams will need to find another player who can fill the No.4 spot on the depth chart and add some “power” to St. Louis’ new-found power running game. While Jared Cook has improved, somewhat, as an in-line blocker, he is still essentially a big-bodied wide receiver that is more apt to “get in the way” than clear any holes for Zac Stacy out of the backfield. Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey are both capable blockers, but one of the two seems to perpetually be listed on the injury report. We do not need Shelley Smith lining up at tight end…
Sam Bradford is the starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams in 2014. Period.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Rams will not look for a young quarterback that they can “groom” into a competent backup or, if worse comes to worse, eventually replacement starter. Kellen Clemens will likely remain on the roster until Brian Schottenheimer gets promoted or fired, but with more and more quarterbacks falling prey to injury, the presence of a “near starting-caliber” backup on your roster is becoming more and more important.
The Curious Case of Cortland Finnegan might be the headline of the St. Louis Rams offseason, with the one-time Tennessee star now being reduced to a nickelback role, behind Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson on the depth chart. Finnegan is currently ranked 107th out of 107 qualifying cornerbacks this season… but, is due to count $10 million against the cap next season. Sadly, the obviously-aged corner is guaranteed $24 million of his original 5-year, $50 million contract. However, that doesn’t mean it will not get “re-worked” this offseason…
Regardless, the St. Louis Rams will undoubtedly need to look to the future at corner, with last year’s 5th-rounder, Brandon McGee, being the only other field-worthy backer on the roster. It would be hard to imagine the Rams using anything higher than a 6th round selection on a cornerback in the ’14 Draft, but it will certainly be something to keep an eye.