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Football.com's Big, Bad NFL Preview Series: NFC West

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In arguably the league’s toughest division, Sam Bradford will finally need to play like a franchise quarterback for the Rams to make a playoff run. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.
In arguably the league’s toughest division, Sam Bradford will finally need to play like a franchise quarterback for the Rams to make a playoff run. Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.

Two seasons ago, the St. Louis Rams entered Sam Bradford’s second NFL season with great optimism. Bradford had put together a solid rookie campaign and a young defense made quick improvements, so many in Rams’ camp believed that this team had playoff aspirations. However, the Rams struggled mightily and ended up once again landing a high first round choice. Many called for the Rams to trade Bradford and select Robert Griffin III, but new coach Jeff Fisher opted to keep Bradford and traded the second-overall pick to Washington.

Fisher led the Rams to a 7-8-1 record in his first season, and this team now enters 2013 with the same optimism it had two years ago after finishing 4-1-1 within the tough NFC West last year. Top draft pick Tavon Austin gives Bradford the big play receiver he’s yearned for, while the team also added LT Jake Long to bolster the line. After several years without weapons around him and a poor line, Bradford has no excuse now: it’s time to live up to the hype that made him worth the top pick for the Rams.

OFFENSE: C+

Throughout his tenure as starting quarterback for the Rams, Bradford has battled injuries and inconsistency while working with an offensive unit that lacked playmakers and had major issues along the offensive line. Even with Steven Jackson running behind him, Bradford hadn’t established himself as a high-quality quarterback, which was why some criticized the Rams for not selecting Griffin last season. Fisher has fully supported Bradford since coming on board, but this could be a make-or break year for the former Oklahoma standout.

St. Louis knew that adding an explosive receiving option was the team’s biggest need, so the team did not hesitate to trade up when Austin remained on the board after the first few picks. Austin is undersized, but he plays bigger than he actually is and has the elusiveness to prevent opponents from landing big hits on him. Bradford hasn’t had many quality targets since he arrived in St. Louis, so he will enjoy Austin teaming up with Chris Givens to give the receiving corps a nice 1-2 punch. Drafting Austin more than offset the fact that Danny Amendola fled for New England as a free agent, and the team also has high hopes for rookie WR Stedman Bailey, who played with Austin at West Virginia. The wild card in the receiving corps could be athletic TE Jared Cook, who the Rams brought in from Tennessee to give the team a solid receiving threat at the position.

While the receiving corps has received major upgrades, the Rams will have major question marks in the backfield for the first time in over a decade. Jackson never had the chance to play for good teams during his time in St. Louis, but he stood as the face of the franchise and finding a worthy replacement could be difficult. With Jackson going to Atlanta, the team will count on Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead to fill the void left by his departure. Richardson showed signs last season that he can be a feature back, but the team certainly looks worse in this area than it did last season. With depth in the backfield being thin, rookie Zac Stacy could also see carries during the course of the season.

The offensive line has been in shambles for the past several seasons, and several high draft picks along the line haven’t panned out for the Rams, so the team opted to use free agency to try to fix blocking issues. Rodger Saffold has proven to be a quality right tackle when healthy, but the Rams knew they needed major upgrades along the rest of the line. Fisher and upper management aggressively pursued several top tackles on the market and ended up landing Long, a former No. 1 pick who has seen his level of play decline in recent seasons due to injury concerns. Long has plenty left in the tank, but many teams were scared to sign him because of his injury history and the amount of money he was asking for. The Rams gave Long a big pay day, and while many criticized the team for the move, he will be worth the big bucks if he rebounds from a sub-par 2012 season.

DEFENSE: B+

St. Louis struggled on offense for much of the 2012 season, but the defense emerged as one of the NFC’s most improved under Fisher. Chris Long has been one of the conference’s top defensive ends in recent seasons after a rough start to his career, but up until ’12, he had no help along the defensive front. With an excellent draft, the Rams were able to bring in valuable instant contributors to the defense, including DE Robert Quinn and DT Michael Brockers. Brockers battled injuries throughout the season, but Quinn overcame a slow start and provided another strong pass rushing presence across from Long.

While the front line looks set for years to come, the Rams failed to find help in the linebacker core last offseason. James Laurinaitis had a strong college career at Ohio State, but his stock plummeted at the combine. Only a few years into his career, Laurinaitis has become an anchor and the team’s unsung leader for a defense that ranked 15th in the NFL in both passing and rushing yardage per game last season. LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar put together a strong breakout season in his first year with the Rams, making 115 tackles and gave the team another pass rushing presence. Away from Laurinaitis and Dunbar, however, the rest of the linebacker core has struggled, which led Fisher to use one of the team’s first round picks on LB Alec Ogletree from Georgia. Ogletree is an impressive athlete who should provide much more production for the Rams in the middle of the defense.

Meanwhile, the back of the defense should be less of a concern. The Rams secondary was depleted just two seasons ago, but former Titans standout Cortland Finnegan provided a strong veteran presence and CB Janoris Jenkins put together an outstanding rookie season. Jenkins always had great upside, but trouble with the law led to his dismissal from Florida in college and he had to reinvent himself at tiny North Alabama. Fisher and his staff took a shot on him, and he awarded the Rams by recording over 70 tackles and grabbing four interceptions. With Finnegan and Jenkins teaming up with Trumaine Johnson, St. Louis should boast one of the best secondary units in the NFC.

In a division built around strong defenses, St. Louis will need to continue to grow as a unit on the defensive side of the ball to have a shot at competing with the Seahawks and 49ers for a playoff spot. The front line and secondary have the pieces in place to allow the Rams to compete with other elite teams, but Ogletree will need to be an instant contributor to provide support for Laurinaitis, especially considering Dunbar will miss the first four games due to suspension. Steady growth from Brockers and Quinn would also be beneficial and take pressure off of Long on the outside. With Jeff Fisher’s guidance and plenty of young talent on the roster, this squad could make the improvements necessary to jump into playoff contention.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

St. Louis hasn’t had a true threat returning kicks in recent seasons, but the team got a huge lift on special teams last season when rookie K Greg Zuerlein burst onto the scene. Zuerlein, a sixth-round pick from Missouri Western State, booted seven field goals from 50+ yards and provided most of the Rams’ offensive output in several games. While the offense struggled to score touchdowns, Zuerlein’s cannon leg kept the team in most games and won several others.

Zuerlein once again figures to be a prominent contributor to the team’s offense, but the team will need to address issues in the return game that caused plenty of problems last season. Givens returned most of the kicks last season, while Pead also had opportunities, but neither showed much as a special team threat. The Rams made a small play for standout returner Leon Washington, but he ended up signing with the Patriots instead. Givens should continue to be the primary return man, but Pead could get more chances and it wouldn't be out of the question for a role player like Bailey to get an opportunity.

Johnny Hekker returns to take care of the punting duties, and provides a nice trick-play option, as he threw a touchdown pass and completed all three pass attempts a year ago.

PROGNOSIS: BEST/WORST POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

Best Case Scenario — 10 Wins If ...

  • Seattle and/or San Francisco underachieve, and the Rams are able to steal at least one divisional game from both teams while also taking advantage of an easier schedule out of division
  • Sam Bradford finally emerges as an elite quarterback and shows great chemistry with Tavon Austin, as St. Louis brings back memories of the "Greatest Show on Turf" teams from the early 2000s and lands a wild card playoff berth

Worst Case Scenario — 6 Wins If ...

  • Bradford continues to struggle, and while much improved on defense a year ago, the Rams defense has issues containing young talents like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and the team finishes below .500 within the division
  • Tavon Austin has major chemistry issues with Bradford, Jake Long battles injuries all season, and the lack of a running attack dooms the offense, preventing the Rams from competing in most games

Football.com Prediction ... 8-8, 3rd NFC West

  • St. Louis improved more than any team in 2012, so many experts believe the Rams have a shot to compete for a playoff spot despite playing in the same division as the 49ers and Seahawks. Bradford has yet to prove he was worth taking No. 1 overall, but Austin's presence may allow him to finally have a breakout season. If Bradford finally reaches his potential, St. Louis could contend, but Seattle and San Francisco are simply better teams. Come 2014, this Rams team could be dangerous.