Camp Battles and Questions Abound for New Look Rams
By Gene Glass @geneglass24
As the 2013 season rolls around, here in St. Louis, there are a lot of questions about the transformation of the offense. With the top receiving options gone, and Steven Jackson taking his services to Atlanta, the offense is wide open to some new faces. I will try and sort them out as training camp opens.
Last season, the 7-8-1 Rams really over achieved under new head coach Jeff Fisher. Somehow, the Rams managed to go 4-1-1 in the division, splitting with the Seahawks and winning the series against the NFC champ 49ers. You scratched your head watching them beat teams like that, while getting blasted by inferior teams like the Jets and Vikings. The offense sputtered at times, and the defense seemed to sometimes disappear while stopping the run. All in all, though, I think the 7-9 record was a much better outcome than most expected.
Coming into this season, the known are far fewer than the unknowns. We will start with what we do know the Rams have to offer.
Head coach Jeff Fisher has proven to be one of the best coaches in the league. This team had no business beating the 49ers and Seahawks, but his game-planning will keep the Rams in most games. In a division with Pete Carrol and John Harbaugh, I think Fisher is nonetheless easily the best coach and game manager of the group. He will figure out a way to keep his teams in games this year, even not knowing where the offense is going to come from.
Sam Bradford put up pretty solid numbers last year – 3700 yards and 21 TDs is not a bad number to build on for the upcoming year. One of the things that has plagued Bradford is staying upright behind the Rams offensive line. This year, the line will be much improved with the addition of left tackle Jake Long, allowing Rodger Saffold to slide over to the right tackle. I think you could see Bradford’s numbers go up to 4000 yards passing and the touchdowns to get closer to 30 than 20.
The Rams Defense as a team last year was a pretty strong unit. They were tied with the Broncos with a league high 52 sacks. This will continue to be the strength of the Rams team. They were a Top 10 fantasy defense last year with a very limited number of turnovers. With Long and Quinn coming from both ends, each with double digit stats last year, a healthy Michael Brockers to stuff the middle, and the addition of Alec Ogletree at linebacker to go with James Laurenitis, this will be one of the strongest defensive fronts in the league. Add Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, both above average cornerbacks, they are going to again be one of the top defenses to own in the league.
That is about where the known quantity ends for the Rams. Questions at every skill position on offense will have to be settled, and I don’t see it happening until well into the season.
Lets start at running back. It has been a long time since the Rams have had a question here. From Marshall Faulk, to Stephen Jackson, the Rams have had a guy that could carry a team since 1999. This year will be the complete opposite. Three guys with little experience will battle for carries in the new look Rams offense.
The guy atop the depth chart as camp opens is Daryl Richardson. Richardson came out of nowhere last year to beat out 2nd-round pick Isaiah Pead for the #2 running back duties. Richardson started very well. In the first 11 games last year, he put up 451 yards and a 5.5 yards per carry, but it seems that teams adjusted after getting some tape on him. In his last 5 games, Richardson gained a total of 24 yards, at a 1.5 yard per carry pace. Richardson though is very good in space. If you can get him to the second level, he can do some damage to a defense. The problem will be getting him there. He is not good between the tackles, and teams with speed on the outside can cut him off from getting to the edge. I think you will see him used more in the 3rd down role by the half way point of the season.
Isaiah Pead is the guy Fisher likes. Picked in the 2nd round last year, he was supposed to be groomed as the next starter. A slow start last year, and problems with learning the playbook, basically wasted his entire rookie year. This year, he will miss the first game with a one game suspension. When he comes back, I expect Pead to be given the majority of the carries. Whether he can handle that is yet to be seen. Fisher is not scared to use a smaller back. Chris Johnson routinely got over 200 carries a year while in Tennessee.
Last is the rookie Zac Stacy. Drafted in the 5th round, Stacy is a hammer. He should be the best between the tackle running back on the roster. His problem will be what he does after he hits the line. I expect him to get most of the short yardage and goal line runs.
If I had to guess, I am not sure any of the running backs on the roster will get over 200 carries this year unless one just shows he is head and shoulders better than the others. I would look at Pead being the best back to own this year, with Stacy being behind him. With that said, it is completely open, and any of these running backs could end up as the top option. Fantasy wise, I don’t see any of them as being any better than a running back 3 or 4 at best.
Wide receiver may be worse than the running backs when it comes to guessing who will produce. Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson are gone, and they took the majority of the receiving yards last year with them. In are rookies Tevon Austin and Stedman Bailey, plus second year wideouts Chris Givens and Brian Quick, and the so called vet of the group Austin Pettis.
Chris Givens may be the best and most known of the group coming into this year. He has the speed to get past the defense, and his route running is pretty sharp. I would expect him to hold down one starting spot and put up decent numbers.
Austin Pettis is a slower possession receiver. Until Brian Quick or Tavon Austin gets adjusted to the speed of the NFL game, I would expect Pettis to at least begin the season as a starter. I don’t think you will see much production out of him however even as a starter.
Brian Quick is an enigma. He has all the measurables to be a top WR in the league. Last year, however, he really struggled learning the playbook, and failed to get separation. He is still a big target, and needs to be used as a red zone threat. If he can learn the system and run crisper routes, he could easily take over a starting spot.
Tavon Austin is fast. Real fast. A smaller receiver, he will see most of the time out of the slot. I would expect a lot of quick slants and screens. Anything to get his hands on the ball. The most dynamic player on the offense, he needs to be involved every week. He is a rookie, however, so you need to restrain your thinking this guy can go out and help your fantasy squad right away. Most rookies are a WR4 at best in the fantasy world.
Stedman Bailey will be a project. While I like him, I think he was drafted as a replacement for Brian Quick if he doesn’t work out. I think Bailey will eventually be a starter in this league, but you are looking at 3 to 4 years down the road.
At tight end, there is only one name, Jared Cook. He has under-achieved since coming to the league. He flashed what he could be while in Tennessee, but the consistency was never there. In his first year with the Rams, I expect him to be the focal point of the Rams passing game. His size and speed make him a match-up nightmare. Look for Bradford to key on him going up the middle, and in the redzone, where his size should make him the #1 target. If you are looking for one player from the Rams offense to be a #1 fantasy player, I think this is your guy. I am not sure any wide receiver will get over 50 catches in this offense, but Cook could very well push 70 to 80 receptions.
Along with Minnesota’s Blair Walsh, Greg Zuerlein has a chance to somewhat revolutionize kicking in the NFL as they both have next-generation legs. Zuerlein can easily nail 50-yarders and his range no doubt extends into 60+-yard FGs. Zuerlein nailed FGs of 56, 58 and 60 yards as a rookie. His accuracy dimmed down the stretch of his rookie year missing eight of his last 18 FG attempts, but six of those were from 50+ yards. Zuerlein had a league-leading 13 attempts from 50+ yards last year and should have free reign to swing away. As an added bonus, the Rams play 12 games this year in a dome.
2013 SCHEDULE (all times ET)
Sep. 8 vs. Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m.
Sep. 15 at Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m
Sep. 22 at Dallas Cowboys 1 p.m.
Sep. 26 vs. San Francisco 49ers 8:25 p.m.
Oct. 6 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m.
Oct. 13 at Houston Texans 1 p.m.
Oct. 20 at Carolina Panthers 1 p.m.
Oct. 28 Seattle Seahawks (Mon) 8:40 p.m.
Nov. 3 vs. Tennessee Titans 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Indianapolis Colts 1 p.m.
Nov. 24 vs. Chicago Bears 1 p.m.
Dec. 1 at San Francisco 49ers 4:05 p.m.
Dec. 8 at Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m.
Dec. 15 vs. New Orleans Saints 1 p.m.
Dec. 22 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m.
Dec. 29 at Seattle Seahawks 4:25 p.m
Schedule Analysis: While not a brutal schedule, it is pretty tough. The winnable games are both the Cardinal games, Dallas, the home games against the 49ers and Seahawks, Carolina, Titans, Bears, and Buccaneers. If they could win these games and maybe steal another one, I think they will make the playoffs. With that said, I think there are way too many questions for this team to put everything together this year. Give them a year and see where they are at.
End of Season Prediction: If this team can get the young offense to come together, they could push for a playoff spot. Looking at their schedule, I think you can circle 11 games as winnable. Getting a young team to pull it together and win consistently, however, is very tough. I like them to win 9 games, and be a fringe playoff team.