The sun has pretty much set on the St Louis Ram’s off-season and, apart from a few low-profile, last-minute additions to beef up the depth chart, it is unlikely that the front office will be adding more players to the current squad. In fact, as OTA’s, and then training camp and the pre-season, start taking their toll, the roster will be pruned until we are left with the final 53 who will form the 2014 St Louis Rams. The team may keep its eyes open for surprise cuts from other franchises during this time, but we are in a good position already to see what the team that will face the Minnesota Vikings on the 7th September will look like.
So, while there is little doubt that, on paper at least, these off-season additions have helped strengthened the team as a whole, which specific players or units will reap the main benefits of these recruits? And, for that matter, whose place in the team is now devalued by the arrival of new upstarts?
Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
Black Lightning and White Thunder must be rubbing their hands with glee. After accumulating 27.5 sacks last season, one of the strongest pass-rushing duos in the NFL is likely to get better with the arrival of rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald. An upgrade over Kendall Langford, last year’s incumbent, Donald will terrorise opposing offensive-lines with this athleticism and plethora of moves. When combined with the penetrating Michael Brockers, fearful quarterbacks will be forced to move to the outside where…you guessed it: Quinn and Long will be waiting, teeth bared. Quinn is also likely to experience some natural progression as a player, and the addition of Donald means that he could surpass last year’s sack total, with him and Long exceeding thirty sacks – an overwhelming number considering the other pass-rushing forces on the Rams’ roster.
If Zac Stacy will be expected to carry the Rams offense in the style of Steven Jackson, he will be a broken man come 2015. Stacy had a few durability issues, largely as a result of both inconsistent offensive line play and no viable backups. The Rams have addressed both these issues in the off-season with the drafting of Greg Robinson and Tre Mason. Robinson is expected to man the left guard position, and Stacy will benefit from having this mauling juggernaut bulldoze his way through opposing linemen, carving clear paths for the running back to take. The retention of Roger Saffold – who should now find himself at right guard from the start of the season – will add to this improvement in run-blocking among the interior line. And while the jury is still out on how exactly Mason will contribute to the Rams’ running game, it is hoped that he will provide Stacy with opportunities of valuable respite with, ideally, no impact on the running game. Sharing the load will lengthen Stacy’s longevity, and this can only be a good thing for both the franchise and for its featured back.
The Rams Defense
Yes, we have discussed how the drafting of Aaron Donald will help Quinn and Long specifically, but the acquisition of defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams – to my mind the Rams’ strongest addition of the off-season – should turn an already good defense into a formidable one. Williams will enjoy exploiting the many tools available to him – from the rotating defensive line to James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree and the hard-hitting T. J. McDonald – to run his blitz-happy defensive plan, while his coverage schemes should bring the best out of the Rams’ cornerbacks. Moreover, his influence should result in a change of philosophy that will turn this defense into a mean and aggressive, but disciplined, unit that will strike fear into the hearts of any opponent.
The Receiving Corps
Sometimes players can benefit from no addition at all. Some commentators expected the Rams to draft wide receivers Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans in last May’s draft, but the team’s decision to not do so reflects confidence in the crop of receivers currently on the roster. Even the addition of free agent Kenny Britt is a low-risk/high-reward venture which will benefit the current players by taking attention away from potential game-changers such as Tavon Austin or Jared Cook. If nothing else, Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis should have a job for a while longer, but they need to see this reprieve as an opportunity to step up their game and reward the team’s confidence in them. Otherwise, they will be on the other half of this analysis next season.
Oh dear. It was all going so well. While Bailey failed to make much noise last season, he nonetheless demonstrated a route-running ability that made many see him unseat Pettis as the team’s possession and end-zone receiver. Now, Bailey will spend the first four games of his sophomore season suspended for violating the League’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. By the time he returns to the team, it may be too late for him to deliver on this potential. Pettis has a good relationship with quarterback Sam Bradford, and Bailey could easily end up being the forgotten man in a crowded receiving corps. Bailey’s main hope is that the passing game is struggling when his suspension his lifted, and that is a wish which Rams fans cannot even contemplate.
Poor Kendall Langford. The defensive tackle has had two good years of service as a St Louis Ram, even picking up five sacks last season. Aaron Donald’s arrival, however, is likely to push him out of the starting rotation, and, as effective a backup as Langford could be in such a unit, his salary could lead him to be a cut, even as early as training camp.
McLeod fell into the starting free safety pretty much by default last season and was, at best, mediocre in his contributions to a secondary that gave up significant yardage throughout the course of the season. The drafting of LaMarcus Joyner will probably lead to McLeod becoming a backup, which is far more appropriate to his abilities, and, injuries apart, he will unlikely be a starter again in his NFL career. On the other hand, the Rams will now count with a useful backup with valuable starting experience in the backfield, and this may also bring the best out of a player who found himself considerably out of his depth last year.