When news filtered through recently that some key Rams starters – Roger Saffold, Michael Brockers, James Laurinaitis – had been kept away from practice due to injury, it immediately sent shivers down the spines of fans of the blue-and-gold. Luckily, many of these were minor soft-tissue niggles and the predictable result of a long period away from the field. The team holding back those individuals as a mostly precautionary measure highlights how easily an unfortunate series of circumstances could significantly set back a starting unit that, on paper at least, looks impressive. And, with the full knowledge that injuries are inevitable and some of these starters will have to spend some games (and, hopefully, not much more) on the bench, we look at how the team could respond through its back-ups, starting with the offense.
Shaun Hill is a backup quarterback. Yes, he may have flirted with starter status on odd seasons in San Francisco and Detroit, but, after eight years in the League, he is firmly entrenched as one of the NFL’s better reserves. But, yes, his job is, ultimately, to hold a clipboard, advise on offensive strategy, and carry out some mop-up duty. Ideally, he will go the whole season without throwing the football in anger.
But, Sam Bradford, the starter ahead of him, is coming back from a season-ending ACL injury and has only completed two of his four seasons as an NFL quarterback, to say nothing of his injury troubles in college. This may say more about poor protection than about Bradford’s durability (and one needs to just look at Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson as examples of how successfully a player can return from such an injury), but the franchise cannot afford to take such a risk. Hill is an effective game-manager, similar to Kellen Clemens, and may succeed in keeping the offense ticking over, but the Rams needs far more than this. Rookie Garrett Gilbert and third-year man Austin Davis are completely unproven commodities as NFL starters, and the latter may be out of St Louis by the time the season starts.
Verdict: Worrying. As divided as opinion may be on Bradford, he is clearly the most talented quarterback on the roster.
In terms of depth, the versatility of the Rams’ linemen is a tremendous strength, with the interior linemen effectively backing up those on the outside. Should Jake Long or Joe Barksdale miss games through injury, for example, then Roger Saffold or Greg Robinson – both experienced tackles – could easily step outwards and fill the void. For their part, Davin Joseph and Barrett Jones would provide backup for the interior line. While the latter is recovering from injury and effectively a rookie, the former is reportedly performing strongly in training camp and is a veteran presence. Tim Barnes stepped in for Scott Wells at center last season and did a capable job and could find himself doing the same next season. This depth is important when you consider the fragility of players like Long or Saffold, and the unit seems well placed to cover each other should the situation warrant it.
Verdict: Good. The team coped well with a patchwork O-line at various times last year, and, this time round, it seems the depth has been solidified further should it be necessary to call the next man up.
When you carry the load of an offense on your shoulders, you are going to get hurt, and that is exactly what happened to Zac Stacy when he eventually solidified his starting spot on the Rams offense. Stacy may have led the team with 973 yards and was the most productive running back in the League over a certain period, but, towards the end of the season, his numbers dropped as he struggled with knocks. The foot and concussion issues that plagued Stacy’s season slowed him down, and there was no viable backup to run the ball to the same extent.
Perhaps aware of the danger of placing such an offensive load on young shoulders, the Rams drafted Tre Mason and, while playing lip service to Stacy’s status as a starter, it is clear that both backs are competing for that role. More likely, however, the Rams will share the load, protecting both from the injuries that develop over repeated hits. In addition, either player could prove to be a competent replacement should the other go down. With last-chance Isaiah Pead and crowd favorite Benny Cunningham on the roster, the situation at running back seems more secure than it did last season.
Verdict: Not bad. A running back-by-committee approach with Stacy and Mason may keep both healthy, and either could shoulder the load on his own. This should prevent the team’s offense hanging on the thread of a player’s health as it did last year.
The fudged picture of the team’s starters at receiver makes analyzing the position difficult. However, it is generally accepted that the Rams’ receiving corps is made up of good backups (and no dominant starters), which means that the franchise seems well-equipped to provide viable back up should a player go down. Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin are likely to start (with perhaps a resurgent Brian Quick on multiple receiver packages), and the depth behind them is solid: Chris Givens, Stedman Bailey, Austin Pettis, etc. The likelihood, however, is that the team’s receivers are unlikely to follow a clear starter / backup pattern. Instead, I see Sam Bradford distributing the ball quite evenly, in a receiver-by-committee style, if such a thing exists. If this is the case, then the position is healthy. If, however, one player emerges as the dominant threat the Rams have lacked since Torry Holt left (enter Kenny Britt?), then I do not see anyone able to take their place should that person end up injured.
Verdict: Good. The advantage of having a receiving corps of backups is that one could easily slot a replacement should it be necessary. Not that the lack of a star receiver is a good thing, of course. This will depend a great deal on how the Rams pass the ball next season.
Lance Kendricks is a good tight end; he is, simply, not a first tight end. This was confirmed by the signing of Jared Cook in free agency last season, and Kendricks seemed comfortable in his role as the second tight end, emerging more as a blocker than the dynamic playmaker that Cook is capable of being. But, while Cook had a healthy 2013, he spent a great deal of 2012 on Injured Reserve, and this could be a cause for concern for the franchise. On the other hand, with so many receivers and a strong offensive line, tight end might not be as vital a component of the Rams’ offense should Cook go down with injury, and the team could make do with Kendricks and, of course, cult hero Corey Harkey.
Verdict: Adequate. Kendricks is by no means Jared Cook, but he is a capable tight end and, with offensive re-adjustments, the starter’s absence could go largely unnoticed.
Overall verdict: The situation is quite encouraging in many aspects of the offense, most notably the offensive line. However, this does not matter: the most glaring area of weakness is also the most important. The Rams simply cannot afford to lose Sam Bradford this season and rely on Shaun Hill. Alongside scoring points and gaining yardage, one of the offense’s main priorities is clear: make sure Number 8 does not get hurt.