If the St Louis Rams are going to take the next step in their development as a re-building franchise, it is going to need the type of individual contribution you would find in genuine championship contenders: a 4,000-yard passer, or a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver, or a double-digit sack machine, or a take-away creating game-changer. Apart from defensive end Robert Quinn’s 19 sacks, the 2013 Rams lacked any of these, which went some way towards explaining the 7-9 record. With the roster reaching the end, one hopes, of this lengthy overhaul, it is time to see who is going to lead the franchise in the main statistical categories, preferably in a manner that takes the team out of this era of mediocrity.
Passing: Sam Bradford
It really is this simple: if Sam Bradford does not lead the team in passing, be it through injury or poor performance, it will mean the end of his career as a starting quarterback for the St Louis Rams. More importantly, and unless one of his backups posts unexpected figures, it will likely also represent another disappointing season for the team and the frustrating search for a new quarterback, a search that, if unsuccessful, will render the rebuilding program a failure. With a strong rushing game and a stifling defense, Bradford could afford to just post good numbers this season, but if he really wants to silence his many critics he will need to give the season-long performance that he threatened last year, breaking the 4,000-yard mark for the first time and improving on his career-high 21 touchdown passes for the season.
Rushing: Zac Stacy
Stacy got agonizingly close to the 1,000-yard barrier in his injury-shortened rookie season. As the likely starter from Week One, and with a full commitment to the running game in the form of a strengthened offensive line, one could not be blamed for predicting that Stacy will go further next season. However, the unknown quantity is Tre Mason and what his role will be in the Rams offense. While sharing carries with Stacy will protect the latter from further injury, it would also affect his individual stats. Stacy will lead the team in rushing yards, but I predict he will post similar figures to last year because of Mason’s role, falling short of 1,000 yards again, and with 6-8 touchdowns. The difference, however, is that his backup will have over 400 yards and, as a team, the collective rushing yardage will increase.
Receiving: Jared Cook (yardage) / Kenny Britt (touchdowns)
The situation at receiver is hard to predict. There is a great deal of unrealized potential among the Rams’ receiving corps, and individual performances are so inconsistent that it is hard to envisage who will dominate. Jared Cook led the team in receptions and yardage, and I expect him to do the same in 2014, though I think the team will still be searching for its first 1,000-yard receiver since 2007. On the other hand, I feel that there is potential for four receivers – Cook, Britt, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens – to exceed 600 yards, and even an apparently rejuvenated Brian Quick could also form part of this club. That would be an impressive achievement for this young corps. Britt will not see the ball much, but he will lead the position in scoring with 8 touchdowns.
All-purpose yardage: Tavon Austin
The Indianapolis game last season demonstrated Austin’s potential as a triple threat force in the franchise, and he will likely benefit from Britt’s downfield speed. With (hopefully) so many offensive targets to focus on, the distracted defense could be caught off-guard with Austin’s game-changing trickery as a rusher, receiver or returner. Austin scored six times last year and gained almost 1,250 yards in total; barring injury, he will exceed both next season, even if his role as a kick returner is reduced.
Tackles: Alec Ogletree
Ogletree led the team in tackling as a rookie last season, and will continue to do the same for a while. As his awareness increases, his obvious athleticism will see him near the ball on each play. Often overlooked is the fact that Ogletree also forced seven turnovers in 2013; with improvements in his coverage abilities, expect him to post similar figures in another impressive season for the young linebacker. Conversely, James Laurinaitis’ tackling statistics will drop – though he will still be second on the team – but T. J. McDonald’s will increase as the situation alongside him improves.
Sacks: Robert Quinn
This prediction is the easiest to make. Quinn will lead the team in sacks, albeit with a reduced number as teams pay him more attention. The good news, however, is that this will benefit the other players on the defensive line – Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald, Kendall Langford (maybe) and William Hayes. The real question, therefore, is not who will lead the team in sacks, but whether the defensive line alone will exceed 45 sacks. Or maybe even 50.
Interceptions: Trumaine Johnson
Johnson led the team in interceptions last year, but will add to his total of 3 in 2014. Likewise, Janoris Jenkins’ total will increase too. In fact, I expect the team as a whole to post more than last year’s sum of 14, mainly as a result of the pass rush and improved coverage schemes. Jenkins’ athleticism and instincts, however, will see him lead the team in defensive touchdowns as he did as a rookie.