It's ok to start thinking football !!
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
You can talk all you want about coaching, schemes and strategy, but on Sunday afternoons it's all about players making plays.
Plain and simple. More often than not, the teams with the difference-makers at key positions are the teams that win. The Rams have several potential difference-makers on their roster, and several past Pro Bowlers.
But will they come through in 2008? If they do, the club will improve markedly on the 3-13 train wreck of a year ago. If they don't? Well, cover your eyes and duck.
As the team convenes for the start of training camp, there are at least eight players who must be elite — or close to it — for the club to succeed this fall.
QB Marc Bulger
It's almost impossible to win in the NFL without solid quarterback play. After a career-best year in '06, Bulger suffered through a career-worst campaign in '07. Under siege constantly behind a patchwork offensive line, Bulger's mechanics and footwork deteriorated over the course of last season. He forced too many passes. But when given time, Bulger remains one of the game's most accurate pocket passers. With better protection, and a more sophisticated offense under new coordinator Al Saunders, Bulger could flourish once again. If Bulger combines his stats of '06 with his comeback victories of '03, the Rams could be back in the playoffs.
LT Orlando Pace
The longest-tenured Ram enters his 12th season with the club. After missing all but two quarters of the '07 season and more than half of the '06 season with injuries, Pace seems determined to close out his career in style. The "Big O" would like nothing better than to add a couple more Pro Bowl berths and playoff appearances to his Hall of Fame résumé. Still one of the game's top pass blockers and an underrated run blocker, a healthy, productive Pace is a necessity for the Rams to return to respectability. The club will err on the side of caution in terms of his training camp availability.
RB Steven Jackson
With the possible exception of Orlando Pace, Jackson remains the one player the team can least afford to lose. After missing four games entirely and most of a fifth with groin and back problems in '07, Jackson simply has to stay on the field for the Rams to be successful in '08. If he does, he will be the centerpiece of the Saunders offense. Minus Jackson, the falloff is considerable. Second-year pros Antonio Pittman and Brian Leonard are far from proven commodities as ballcarriers. At his best, Jackson is a scary combination of power and speed, capable of pushing the pile, breaking tackles, and outrunning defenders in the open field.
DE Leonard Little
One of the most pleasant developments of the spring was Little's strong recovery from season-ending toe surgery. If Little can even approach his pass-rushing ways of years gone by, the defense will be markedly better. Little missed nine games a year ago because of the injury and was slowed considerably in the seven he played. After averaging 11 1/2 sacks from 2001-06, Little had only one sack a year ago — which in large part explains why Rams defensive ends had a paltry group total of 5 1/2 sacks. A revived Little at left end will make things that much easier at right end for rookie Chris Long.
DE Chris Long
Long is an instant starter and must play up to the expectations that come with being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. There's no doubt Long has the desire and the smarts to be a successful NFL player. He's probably underrated in terms of athleticism. But can he get to the passer? That's the No. 1 reason the team drafted him ahead of defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. With Dorsey just across the state in Kansas City, the comparisons will be inevitable. Long will be under a lot of pressure to produce. He'll be going up against left tackles every week — in theory, the opposing team's best pass blocker. Good luck.
WR Drew Bennett
Bennett was lured to St. Louis from Tennessee with a $30 million free-agent contract in 2007 with basically the promise that he would someday replace the great Isaac Bruce. Well, that day is at hand. Bruce was released unceremoniously in February (and quickly signed by division rival San Francisco). Bennett is now a starter, meaning for the first time since 1998, someone other than Bruce and Torry Holt will be the team's primary starting wide receivers. Bennett has a lot to prove after a disappointing debut season in St. Louis in which he was slowed by nagging injuries and failed to produce as expected.
K Josh Brown
Kickers are easy to take for granted. But for 11 seasons Jeff Wilkins was about as close to automatic as it gets for the position. He was very accurate, had a penchant for 50-yarders, and made his share of clutch kicks. Wilkins' quick and somewhat unexpected retirement decision led to a just-as-quick move to replace him. Brown agreed to terms with St. Louis late on the first day of the free agency period. Better yet, the Rams snatched him from division rival Seattle. Brown has a stronger leg at this point in his career than Wilkins, which should help on kickoff coverage. The Rams have seen first-hand Brown's ability to make game-winning kicks. But Wilkins will be a tough act to follow.
LB Pisa Tinoisamoa
Fast and fearless, Tinoisamoa led the Rams in tackles in each of his first three NFL seasons. Then, injuries caught up with him. He has missed 12 of 32 games over the past two seasons because of a variety of ailments, and has been slowed in several other contests. The Rams' linebacking corps isn't the same without him in the lineup. With Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon both up and running, the Rams have a pair of heat-seeking missiles in their front seven. Tinoisamoa isn't afraid to take on blockers, but despite his aggressive style he is also a calming influence. A full 16 games from him would be a huge plus.
Re: It's ok to start thinking football !!
CB Tye Hill
Since being the Rams' first round draft pick in 2006, Hill has mostly underwhelmed Rams fans. This is his third year in the league and the year that Hill needs to step up and prove that he will be a top talent in the league. With Fakhir Brown on the other side the two can form an above average to good secondary along with FS Atogwe covering the middle and SS Chavous playing closer to the line. Five or more interceptions this year is a good over/under line for him.