The cyrstal ball on this year's Rams team is awful cloudy. I am pretty sure that this isn't a Super Bowl team, and I'm fairly confident that we won't earn a top-five pick in the draft this year (unless it's the Redskins'). Beyond that, while I have certain expectations that I call "realistic," I'm not willing to count anything out.
Three things are clear: this is a very new team, a very green team, and a very young team. Those might all sounds like the same thing, but they're not.
Let's start with the obvious: this is not anything close to the same team that the Rams fielded a year ago, from top to bottom. Stan Kroenke cleaned house after his first season as full owner of the Rams, and wooed Jeff Fisher by promising to stay out of his way while he hired a coaching staff and general manager that fit his vision.
In fact, the Rams are almost a mirror image in 2012 of their 2011 squad.
2011: we had a pretty old roster coached by a very inexperienced coaching staff entering a season filled with playoff expectations.
2012: we have a very young roster coached by an extremely experienced staff playing with almost no expectations at all. (Except for a certain quarterback, perhaps...)
One of the marked differences between the 2011 and 2012 versions of the Rams is in their offensive approach. We are transitioning from Josh McDaniels' supposed mad genius (we got the "mad" part) to a ground-and-pound philosophy coordinated by Brian Schottenheimer. In a way, we're waging an AFC East rivalry in our backyard, pitting the Patriots against the Jets in a sort of fantasy role-playing game.
And the Rams have fully embraced their Jets' role in this game, injecting a lot of green into the blue and gold offense. Even pariahs like Wayne Hunter can find a trade here, peddling their knowledge of the offense for the time being.
However, even among the seemingly favored free agent acquisitions, youth is pushing age of the roster. You need look no further than the decision to release former Jet Kellen Clemens, a de facto second quarterback coach for Bradford, and go into the season with only undrafted rookie Austin Davis in the backup job.
Let's look further at the shocking youth of this team - the Rams have transformed from one of the oldest to the very youngest roster in the NFL. 16 rookies are on this team, five of them slated as full time starters (counting special teams) and six more slated for a heavy workload. And of the "veterans" on this team, many are still playing on their rookie contracts.
Rams on Offense
Note: green-highlighted players are former Jets.
The amount of turnover here is stunning, but there is a triangle of core talent that is at least familiar: cornerstone quarterback Sam Bradford, franchise running back Steven Jackson, and go-to receiver Danny Amendola. Add in Harvey Dahl as a rock of consistency, counting for the 1/5 of this offensive line that we can be completely comfortable with.
Of course, just because we have new faces does not mean that all problems are solved. Barry Richardson is filling, rather than solving, a problem at right tackle. (Side note: his girlfriend sat behind me at the Rams' preseason home opener. When he was announced, she said "That's my Boo." He's a lot of people's boo, I thought to myself.)
But where we see another team's reject, experienced coaches like Paul Boudreau may see a useful role player. The coach focuses on getting mismatched guard-tackle pairs to play in synchrony. On each side, he's paired a stronger player with a weaker one.
Richardson's best quality this preseason has been staying nailed to Harvey Dahl's side. And bull-like rookie Rokevious Watkins has just earned the starting job at left guard, providing an ideal complement of bulk and strength to Saffold's finesse-oriented play at left tackle.
Rookies will be contributing at the skill positions, too, and their play will determine just how much progress this offense can make.
Brian Quick and Chris Givens offer a bookended combination of size (Quick) and speed (Givens) that, as they mature, should threaten the end zone with regularity. Daryl Richardson (one-cut extraordinaire) and Isaiah Pead (home-run hitter) provide a pair of intriguing complements to Steven Jackson in the run game as well.
Rams on Defense
Note: blue-highlighted players are former Titans.
Youth is being served in a big way on defense and special teams, with Janoris Jenkins the Rams' headline candidate for "Rookie of the Year" honors. The corner will start opposite Cortland Finnegan and will get targeted often, which is fine by me. The kid from Florida / North Alabama has as much natural talent as I've seen in a Rams uniform in a long, long time. You might have to go back to Torry Holt to find a young Rams player who electrified the field with his potential just by his very presence.
Michael Brockers will also be a force for this defense on two fronts, based on how opposing offenses play him - singled up, he collapses the pocket anc crushes running lanes. Doubled, he opens the EZ-Pass lane for Robert Quinn, the Rams' emerging terror at defensive end. Quinn is in line for a monster year if Brockers (ankle sprain) can stay on the field next to him.
However, much of this defense's middle remains unimproved. James Laurinaitis is solid but unspectacular, and he is flanked by a new pair of veterans who may or may not be better than last year's pair of veterans.
Behind him, the Rams' safety positions have not been improved, just shuffled with Quintin Mikell switched to a box-safety role, and Darian Stewart/Craig Dahl patrolling the deep middle. If Mikell morphs into a younger Roman Harper, we'll call this experiment a success. If not, the deep middle could be a very large and inviting achilles heel for opponents.
If there's an advantage to going this young with your team, and putting so many of them in impact positions, it's that they don't know why they shouldn't go out and win the battles, or get the bounces, that lead to winning games. There has been no pressure, no burden of expectation in Rams camp, just a constant focus on competition and little skills that lead to bigger things.
Jeff Fisher has instigated a massive culture shock to this franchise - exactly what Stan Kroenke was hoping for when he handed over the keys to the franchise. Now that Fisher has them running, how far can they go?
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