By Russ Lande
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Although general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher have done an excellent job of upgrading the Rams' overall talent level since taking over the franchise, they're stuck in a division with what many consider to be the two best teams in the NFL -- the Seahawks and the 49ers -- and therefore are faced with potentially never making the playoffs. As the saying goes, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," and many believe this is what the Rams are doing by counting on Sam Bradford to not only stay healthy for an entire season -- something he's only been able to do in two of his four seasons -- but to also play at a consistently-high-enough level for the Rams to win. For all the talent and potential the Rams have, the reality is that the biggest story during training camp will be whether Michael Sam does enough to make their roster.
Biggest Offseason Move: Selecting Aaron Donald in the first round
While many will point to the Rams' selection of Michael Sam as their biggest move of the offseason, I believe it's clearly the addition of Donald. On a defensive line with three other first-round picks, Donald steps into a great spot and has the potential to make an immediate impact. With his rare first-step quickness, underrated strength, excellent hand use and uncommon ability to get skinny, Donald will be able to blow up plays behind the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback. He'll make it even harder for offenses to block defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long effectively. And playing next to massive defensive tackle Michael Brockers should help both of them, as their styles complement each other -- Brockers is a powerful, two-gap defensive tackle who can control one-on-one blocks (and make it look easy) and can even anchor against double teams.
In a division with Seattle and San Francisco, who try to control the game by dominating the line of scrimmage and wearing down their opponents, the Rams' defensive line could force both teams to adjust their offensive game plans when they meet. As those teams have proven in recent years, an elite defense can be enough to carry a solid offensive team to the playoffs; adding Donald to their defensive line shows that the Rams feel that is their best chance to challenge for the division.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Banking on Bradford
If you only looked at stats, you'd feel confident that QB Sam Bradford has made big strides throughout his career and is on the verge of becoming a frontline starter in the NFL. However, when evaluating him on film, it seems clear that some of Bradford's biggest faults are still an issue. For a quarterback with his physical talent, he does not play with the confidence I would expect. He often seems hesitant to pull the trigger quickly and doesn't stride into his throws aggressively or decisively, and this leads to his passes lacking consistency both in zip and accuracy. Additionally, the sign of a top quarterback is his ability to raise the level of performance of his receivers -- there's an old saying that good quarterbacks make average receivers good and good receivers great -- but Bradford has not been able to do this. He seems to be much more of a throw-to-an-open-receiver quarterback than one who can lead his receivers open and excel on quick-hitting timing routes.
Although Bradford is a better athlete than he gets credit for, he is clearly more of a classic pocket passer who struggles when he has to adjust within the pocket. This has been a major issue in recent years due to the Rams' offensive line struggles. Unfortunately, I'm not sure their line will be significantly better this year. Having Jake Long back at left tackle is definitely good, but after his knee injury late last season, he likely won't be back to his old form until halfway through this season. Left guard Greg Robinson is a huge man who dominated as a run blocker at Auburn, but his pass protection needs work. While I believe he'll eventually be a good pass blocker, his struggles as a rookie will likely lead to Bradford being pressured from the inside more often than is acceptable. Rodger Saffold is also returning from injury and will be playing right guard next to Joe Barksdale, who struggled mightily with consistency in 2013. I'm confident that the Rams offensive line will be much better in 2015, after they've had a year to work together and get their injured players back to peak form -- but the same unit will struggle more than expected this season.
Biggest 2014 Question: Do the Rams have enough receiving weapons?
Tight end Jared Cook was the Rams best receiving weapon in 2013 -- but he wasn't a dominant game-changer who upgraded their entire passing attack. I believe he has what it takes to be a 70-catch-per-season weapon, but if he's their only quality receiving option, then their offense will not be proficient throwing the ball. The diminutive Tavon Austin was too often a non-factor during the season despite possessing elite physical talent. His development will not only be key for their offense and big play ability, but will also show us whether Rams' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer can figure out how to incorporate him into their offense correctly. I spoke with numerous people around the NFL this offseason, and they pointed out that with players like Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson, it's the job of the offensive coordinator to figure out a way to get the ball in their hands regularly, regardless of what issues they may have that limit their ability to fit into the offense traditionally.
While the Rams want to see Chris Givens rebound and play at the level he played in 2012 -- and hope that Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey continue to develop -- the receiver who could have the biggest impact on the Rams is Kenny Britt. Few receivers match Britt's size and athleticism, and when he's focused -- competing hard and taking care of his business off the field -- he has shown the talent to be a frontline, No. 1 receiver in the NFL. His natural hands, body control and size enable him to easily make highlight-reel catches seem routine. With his size, strength, quick acceleration and playing speed, he can turn short passes into long gains with shocking ease. While I would never bet on a player with Britt's background to turn things around, his signing was a great bargain-basement move and could turn out to be one of the best value moves in 2014 if he stays on the straight and narrow.
With the selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson -- who was the most dominating run-blocking offensive linemen in the 2014 NFL draft -- and running back Tre' Mason, there is no doubt in my mind that the Rams plan on running the ball a ton in 2014. With the combination of Mason, Zac Stacy and the unheralded Benny Cunningham, the Rams have three runners who are decisive, instinctive and aggressive. They all are comfortable running between the tackles, keep their legs churning after being hit and consistently gain yards after contact, which will help them to wear down opposing defenses. I believe the Rams see the example set by the Seahawks and 49ers and have built their team around a great defense and strong rushing attack. I boldly predict that the Rams will league the NFL in rushing attempts and yards. If they are able to lead the league in rushing yards, then I'm confident they will win games many don't expect them to win and challenge to win ten or eleven games, which would be enough to make the playoffs.