Rams in depth: Will Sam Bradford take next step with Josh McDaniels?
By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY
St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo made a simple yet prophetic statement soon after selecting quarterback Sam Bradford first overall in the 2010 NFL draft.
"I told Sam, 'Hey, we're joined at the hip now,''' Spagnuolo told the rookie then cast as the energizing face of a reeling franchise coming off a one-win season.
The Rams reaped the first-year fruits of that symbiotic, young coach-quarterback relationship. Their dramatic, 7-9 resurgence served notice that the Rams could be a tough team to beat for years to come given Bradford's Offensive Rookie of the Year performance complemented by a sharp, defensive coaching mind who schemed creative ways to pressure the opposing passer.
The Rams rose from 1-15 doormat to come within a final-game loss against Seattle of winning the NFC West title and clinching a playoff berth. Only the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers experienced a greater turnaround with seven more wins from 2009 to 2010.
Bradford said his Tuesday night game strategy sessions with Spagnuolo concerning upcoming opponents proved invaluable, accelerating the growth of an up-and-coming quarterback whose 3,512 passing yards were second most by a rookie in NFL history, trailing only Peyton Manning's 3,739 passing yards in 1998.
During the lockout, Bradford has reminded of Manning in a new way. The 2008 Heisman Trophy winner housed a couple of his rookie teammates during workouts he helped organize along with cornerback Ron Bartell and defensive leader James Laurinaitis.
"Sam obviously did a terrific job, especially in the fact that it's a demanding position for a guy to come in and play, yet he seemed to make it look easy at times,'' Spagnuolo said in a season-ending news conference. "But I'm sure if you asked Sam, he'd probably tell you he wished he played better in a number of games. Because that's how he is.
"He's a competitive guy. But it was good to have him. I know that.''
The future appears bright in St. Louis considering the Rams have what every competitor in the NFC West currently lacks -- a young answer at the game's most important position who looks to build off a season that exceeded expectations.
Consider the five questions the Rams must answer to take that next step and reach the 2011 postseason:
1. Can new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels raise Bradford's production from rookie prodigy to championship-caliber winning quarterback?
In McDaniels, the former Denver Broncos head coach hired to replace the departed Pat Shurmur, Spagnuolo added one of the toughest offensive minds to defend.
McDaniels was the coordinator of the record-setting 2007 Patriots offense that scored a video-game-esque 589 points and 75 touchdowns. Spagnuolo devised a way to contain that then unbeaten Patriots juggernaut in Super Bowl XLII as New York Giants defensive coordinator.
Sam BradfordCAPTIONBy Brian Blanco, AP
"In the rolodex in my head, we tried to think of the guys that were the toughest to defend,'' Spagnuolo said. "And Josh jumped right out there. Luckily for us, he was available and we were able to get him.
"I've always recognized that he's one of the top offensive minds in the NFL.''
In an effort to keep the offense balanced, McDaniels figures to expand the number of downfield shots the strong-armed Bradford will take off of a play-action run game predicated on the hard running of Steven Jackson. Bradford completed 60% of his passes last season, many of which came on quick-hitting, checkdown passes designed to offset an injury-depleted corps of receivers.
Bradford took every snap and won more games as a rookie than any quarterback selected No. 1 overall since 1970. He also set new league rookie records for attempts and completions, joining Manning and Baltimore's Joe Flacco as the only quarterbacks to take every snap last season.
Despite misperceptions that he is strictly a quarterback guru, McDaniels has always adapted to his talent and said he's intent on finding ways to incorporate Jackson more as an offensive centerpiece given that the eighth-year running back had 90 receptions worth 806 yards during his 2006 career year.
2. Will the Rams find a change-of-pace backup for Jackson?
Jackson earned his third consecutive Pro Bowl honor with 1,241 rushing yards and six touchdowns. More importantly, he cemented his reputation as a team-first player when he played through a painful broken left ring finger and other injuries to help his team win. Jackson turns 28 in July. But with increasing mileage on his seven-season odometer, it would be an ideal time to secure a change-of-pace backup to threaten defenses and spell Jackson. GM Billy Devaney chastised himself in a recent appearance on ProFootballTalk Live after failing to address that priority in the draft.
Jackson averaged a career-low 3.8 yards per carry last season. And more than ever, the Rams know they need to have a fallback plan for life without Jackson should injury dictate.
"I gotta' admit, I've done a lousy job,'' Devaney said. "We've been trying to address this for two years now, not just for Steven's sake, to extend his career.
"He can't keep going at this pace.''
A couple of candidates whenever free agency returns could be Tampa Bay backup Carnell "Cadillac" Williams or San Diego Chargers tailback/returner Darren Sproles.
3. Did the Rams fix their glaring red-zone scoring weakness in the draft?
On the surface, the answer would seem to be "Yes.'' But given the threat the lockout poses to rookie success, the drafting of second-round Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks and plucking Boise State wideout Austin Pettis in the third round and Hawaii receiver Greg Salas in the fourth, a potential red-zone improvement could be undermined by their inability to be coached up in time to make the desired difference.
Bottom line: The Rams ranked 31st in red-zone scoring last season, converting 20 touchdowns (35.7%) on 56 possessions inside the red zone. They tied for fifth in red-zone possessions, but hit a wall inside an opponents' 20-yard line.
The 6-3, 240 Kendrick figures to play "The Joker'' H-back position and fill a void for an offense in need of another matchup problem who can spread the field and open the box for Jackson.
Pettis and Salas are effortless hands catchers and dependable, productive receivers. McDaniels helped Belichick and Brady win three Super Bowls without a true No. 1 receiver threat before. But if the sum of a healthy Donnie Avery, Mark Clayton, Danario Alexander and Danny Amendola are pushed and made better by competition from Pettis and Salas, the Rams should take an important next step in upgrading a 26th-ranked scoring offense that averaged 18.1 points per game.
4. Can the Rams get better interior line play out of their guards?
Despite the hard running of Jackson being an offensive focal point, he and the Rams hit a second-half wall last season in large part because of interior offensive line struggles. The Rams finished 25th in rushing, averaging 98.6 yards per game. Veteran Adam Goldberg wasn't the answer at right guard. Fourth-year guard John Greco proved a punishing run mauler. But he has to prove he can stay healthy to emerge as a needed right guard upgrade. Because center Jason Brown's performance sagged following a strong 2009 showing, the Rams' interior deflated overall. Left guard Jacob Bell also struggled and that cascade effect showed up in Jackson's sub-par yards per carry average.
The good news?
Bradford's fellow 2010 classmate Rodger Saffold was the only rookie to start 16 games at left tackle and punched open holes in the run game while protecting Bradford's blind side.
5. How do the Rams get stronger at weak-side linebacker?
The Rams filled their weak-side linebacker position by committee with Larry Grant starting the first seven games replaced by several other ineffective replacements. They drafted Stephen F. Austin linebacker Jabara Williams in the seventh round with an eye toward plugging that gap and improving their special teams play.
Veteran Na'il Diggs performed well on the strong side in 2010. But he'll be 33 on July 8 and the Rams need improvement on the opposite side since their middle-of-the-pack run defense has yet to be fixed. Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole has familiarity from his 2003-2008 Carolina Panthers tenure with possible free-agent options James Anderson and Thomas Davis. Another possible free-agent candidate who could gain consideration is Tampa Bay's Barrett Rudd.
Spagnuolo's 12th-ranked scoring defense is predicated on a tenacious pass rush that generated 43 sacks, seventh best league-wide. The front seven that added first-round pass-rushing end Robert Quinn to the duo of Chris Long and James Hall is headlined by middle linebacker Laurinaitis, last season's leading tackler. While good corner play is an important part of Spagnuolo's defense, without a hallmark safety, the Rams need more consistent play from their outside linebackers to get over the playoff hump.
Despite missing the playoffs, Spagnuolo sees a young team on the rise toward that championship goal he pursues with a dogged, even-keeled approach.
"The confidence grew,'' Spagnuolo said of his 2010 Rams. "Certainly, the expectations are going to be higher. What I'm really excited about is there's a tremendous hunger there.''
And now there appears to be more talent to help Spagnuolo and Bradford go about satisfying that hunger for championship-starved Rams fans.