By Nick Wagoner
June 13th

Offered the opportunity to choose a young teammate or two who has impressed him in the past month of Organized Team Activities and this week’s full squad minicamp, Rams running back Steven Jackson paused for a moment and considered the possibilities.

While qualifying his answer with the caveat that he’d be better equipped to answer the question in August or September after the Rams have gone through some padded practices and training camp, Jackson eventually tabbed one young teammate he believes could be poised for a breakthrough season.

“Who I’m looking forward to watching this year is Robert Quinn,” Jackson said. “I think he’s a natural pass rusher. I think working on the opposite side of Chris Long, and the coaching that he’s receiving right now. I’m really looking forward for him to have a breakout season. If there’s anyone I’d tell our fans to look for, it’d be Robert.”

It’s a sentiment that Jackson shares with a fair number of other people both inside and out of the Rams locker room. As the most tenured veteran on the team, Jackson might be the most qualified to identify which of his returning young teammates is ready to take the next step.

But Quinn’s potential ascent is also evident to those who are just settling into St. Louis such as free agent addition Kendall Langford, who lines up at defensive tackle alongside the Rams’ second-year defensive end.

“To me, Robert is a speed guy with explosion,” Langford said. “He has anchor, he has power. If you look at him, he is giving these offensive linemen fits. It’s good to see a young guy like that who is working to get better. He’s going out and improving every day. He looks great out here. He works hard…I just don’t see a chink in his armor.”

The proposition of a much-improved Quinn could prove dangerous for opposing quarterbacks considering that Quinn enters his second NFL season not only just scratching the surface of his immense potential but also lining up opposite Chris Long, who is a more established pass rushing nightmare in his own right.

For Quinn, though, this season will be his first to truly show what he can do after the Rams used the 14th overall pick on him in the 2011 NFL Draft out of North Carolina.

When the Rams made the selection, there was little doubting Quinn’s athleticism but there were plenty of questions about what he could produce considering he had sat out the 2010 season for the Tar Heels because he received illegal benefits.

That missed year not only cost Quinn a full season to refine and develop his skills but also made him something of an unknown commodity.
“I think, not for myself, I think for a lot of fans when we drafted him, a lot of people were, ‘Who is that guy?’ He didn’t have a chance to play,” Jackson said. “With him having a year off and then having a rookie season last year…coming off a year where he did play, I think his natural, raw talent, being a pass rusher, being a high draft pick, what everyone projected him to be the year before he had that year off, that you were seeing that on the football field. I just think the sky’s the limit. He has a lot of untapped talent that I think he will tap into in these next coming years.”

Quinn flashed glimpses of the promise to which Jackson is referring in his rookie season as he posted 20 tackles and five sacks to go with three blocked or deflected punts while serving as the primary backup to veteran James Hall.

When Hall hit free agency this offseason, the Rams made no effort to re-sign him, effectively handing the job over to Quinn in his second season.

“I’m definitely excited,” Quinn said. “I am trying to make the most of my opportunities. You don’t get to play this game too long so while you are in it, make the most out of it. Not just me, but especially our whole D line, we are excited about the coaching staff and amped up about this year.”

For Quinn to make the type of impact that the likes of Jackson and Langford believe he’s capable of making, he’s still going to have to make some big strides in his second year.

Known for his athletic ability coming off the edge, Quinn’s pass rush skills made him one of the most coveted players in his draft class. During this, his first NFL offseason, Quinn said he made it a point to drop about 5 pounds from his 265-pound frame in an effort to become quicker.

The slimmed-down Quinn is checking in at about 260 pounds these days which should help him as a pass rusher but isn’t necessarily ideal for being a three-down player capable of stopping the run.

But Quinn believes that there’s more to being a good run defender than weight.

“I don’t want to get too skinny, they might move me to linebacker or something,” Quinn said, laughing. “But no, it’s just a couple pounds. I actually feel a lot better by losing those 4 or 5 pounds…I’d say it’s your mentality. If you are thinking you’re small and allowing them to come up on you then it will happen. But I have the mentality if you are attacking and you are lower than your opponent, they can’t do much. Leverage wins.”

Therein lies the rub for Quinn’s entire offseason focus. With Jeff Fisher taking over as head coach and the experienced Mike Waufle taking over as line coach, Quinn has been getting a crash course in an entirely new defensive scheme as well as the finer points and details of playing his position.

Without the benefits of an offseason to get accustomed to the defense in 2011, Quinn had to learn as he goes in a sense and try to catch up to his teammates who had previously been in the system.

This year, Quinn is learning along with his teammates and a big part of that learning process has been zeroing in on playing better run defense. The Rams finished near the bottom of the league in that category in 2011 and for Quinn to be the complete end they hope he can, he’ll have to be able to pick up on the various run schemes and techniques that Fisher and Waufle stress daily.

“That’s been an area of emphasis up front on the defensive line thus far this offseason, is run techniques,” Fisher said. “It’s hard to do it without pads on. He’s really come on. His strength has really improved significantly and he’s going to be what they drafted him to be. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Fisher’s defensive scheme is one that seemingly would play right into the talents of a player like Quinn. This defense doesn’t feature much read and react principles. Instead, it’s a system predicated on attacking the guy with the ball and trying to force turnovers, especially for the defensive linemen.

Armed with Long as a bookend and talented young tackles like Langford and rookie Michael Brockers inside, Quinn hopes that there will be plenty of opportunities to make those types of game changing plays on every snap.

Having a full NFL season under his belt and now nearly a full offseason program to work on his game will only help expedite that process.

“Now with the new coaching staff and learning a new playbook, it definitely helps out a lot,” Quinn said. “It’s repetition day in and day out to make it become second nature. It’s definitely a plus for me.”