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The Pulse And Spirit Of St. Louis

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Tavon Austin's presence only increases the pressure on Sam Bradford Al Bello/Getty Images.
Tavon Austin's presence only increases the pressure on Sam Bradford Al Bello/Getty Images.

Any sports fan knows what it’s like to be cautiously optimistic — that brand of optimism tends to ripen around training camp.

There are no losses to speak of. Player injuries are on the mend. Free agents are learning their niche. There’s ample time to gel. While baseball has traditionally bred the lengthiest of grace periods in which to bask in the safety of optimism, with its red carpet rollout for pitchers and catchers to its number of spring training exhibitions, the NFL is doing what it can to help fans move away from past seasons more quickly and begin to establish their future expectations well before the scheduled preseason begins.

The NFL draft is now a three-day event held in May. There are more mock drafts to read, more evaluations to consider and more time to stew or revel in selections as they occur. In St. Louis, the results of the 2013 NFL Draft have the collective fan base exercising its optimism cautiously enough, yet with an edge that has many believing that a run to the playoffs should be the benchmark for success. This, despite the team having seen the departure of both its top receiver (Danny Amendola) and three-time Pro Bowl running back (Steven Jackson).

Still, it seems about right for a city that can still vividly remember enjoying two Super Bowl trips over a three-year span, yet hasn’t seen its team win more than eight games since 2004.

In the always quirky NFC West, mediocrity has kept teams in the conversation for a division championship over the better part of the last decade. Since 2004, division winners have been crowned four times after winning nine games or fewer in each respective season (Seahawks in ’04, ’06, and ’10; Cardinals in ‘08). Sure, Seattle and San Francisco appear to have vaulted themselves into more dominant forces that should establish a prerequisite of double-digit victories being needed to win the West moving forward, but we’re talking about a Rams team that capitalized on a seven-win season as best you can in 2012 by beating each division foe at least once (including a win and a tie against the eventual NFC Conference champion 49ers). The Rams' 4-1-1 showing in the West proved new head coach Jeff Fisher had enough existing parts to contend. With the draft yielding mostly positive reviews from analysts, the fan base is taking the bait and is ready to believe contention wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Reloading With Receivers

Generating the most positive buzz are first-round pick Tavon Austin (West Virginia; 8th overall) and Stedman Bailey (West Virginia, 92nd overall), who appear slated to make immediate impacts. Chris Givens and Austin Pettis don't have anyone looking for the keys to the Canton bust this early in their careers, but they should be able to stretch the field and be a threat to score through the air. As a rookie in 2012, Givens averaged nearly 17 yards per catch and should see his value and workload increase. The team also signed local Lindenwood University product Andrew Helmick to an undrafted free agent deal after a seven-play tryout, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree is also generating positive vibes despite his recent DUI that, coupled with a four-game suspension in 2012 for violating his school’s drug policy, caused him to drop into the draft’s second round. Ogletree was rated as arguably the draft’s top linebacker at one point. For a team that ranked near the middle of the pack in both passing and rushing yardage allowed per game (18th in both) it’s a good gamble to take. The Rams' true area of need was addressed with third-round selection T.J. McDonald, at safety, who projects to top the depth chart at this point and cornerback Brandon McGee adds depth to the backfield.

Greatest Show 2.0?

Of course, the biggest concern and question to be raised in St. Louis as the 2013 campaign draws closer will be whether Sam Bradford really can be counted on as a franchise quarterback. It’s probably fair to chalk up 2011 as a sophomore hiccup, partly to blame on injury, after a 2012 season that saw him complete nearly 60-percent of his passes while collecting more than 3,700 yards and 22 touchdowns (one rushing) versus 13 interceptions.

But the expectations are legitimately being cranked up a notch for the former first-overall pick. The receiving talent has been upgraded on paper, even with the loss of Amendola. Making matters more difficult will be the uncertainty in the running game. Steven Jackson has departed for Atlanta, taking with him the reliability of more than 1,000 yards per season, as well as a pass-catching option out of the backfield (average of 45 catches per season). In his wake will be second-year back Daryl Richardson, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2012 while playing in all 16 games. However, he didn’t get more than 15 carries in any one game. So durability will remain a question mark.

Fellow 2012 draft pick Isaiah Pead hardly saw the field last season and will be off to a similar start in 2013 with a one-game drug suspension looming. This will likely put more heat on Bradford, who may be the one guy who will not get the benefit of cautious optimism should the Rams struggle early during the “real” season. Them the brakes for quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall coming off career highs in passing yards, the benefit of a stable offensive coaching regime and newly-plucked free agent tight end Jared Cook.

What Rams Are Saying Online

“I think we will win some games that people would most likely think we shouldn’t, like against the 49ers last year. I expect at least a 9-7 record because we are a young, uprising team. I expect the whole offense to be better than last year with the addition of Austin, Cook and Bailey. Defensively, we will also improve since [the unit] won’t be called upon as much compared to last year’s dreadful offense.”

—Darwin Menchu, via Facebook

“I think seven wins is our floor if we stay relatively healthy. Only offensive line or quarterback injuries would derail us from getting to that total. We won seven last year, and I think we got better on defense by adding Ogletree over Rocky McIntosh and I think safety is a wash (Darian Stewart and McDonald versus Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell); so, to me our D improved, especially when factoring in another year in the system/comfort level and last year’s rookies should be better.”

— tbux, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch