Rams offseason report: Sam Bradford excited by fresh talent ..
By Nate Davis, USA TODAY Sports
Sam Bradford is stoked.
A year ago, the St. Louis Rams affirmed their faith in their young quarterback by forgoing the opportunity to draft Robert Griffin III. This offseason, general manager Les Snead has been busy building an arsenal around Bradford like none the fourth-year quarterback has ever had.
"We've had talented teams in the past and tried to maximize it," Bradford told USA TODAY Sports. "But with the speed we've brought in, it really allows us to open things up and put other teams in a bind. That's good for this football team.
"I've been waiting for this, just wanting to see this offense succeed and maybe do some things we haven't been able to in the past."
Bradford's notable new targets include tight end Jared Cook, who arrived via free agency, and wide receiver Tavon Austin, whom the Rams drafted eighth overall after vaulting up the board to grab him. Both players boast uncommon wheels and can line up in a variety of positions, including the slot or split wide. Austin, a shifty player at 5-8 and 174 pounds, is expected to provide a game-breaking element the Rams have lacked. Cook, 6-5 and 248 pounds, should greatly upgrade a red-zone presence that has been missing.
"Defenses are going to have to choose who they pay attention to," said Bradford, who has never had a receiver gain as many as 700 yards in a season. Only former Ram Danny Amendola can claim as many as 60 catches in a season — he did that twice — for the team since 2010, but he's averaged 8.8 yards a reception in his career.
Added Bradford, "There's just a sense of speed now, where in the past we might have had speed at one position but no true burners."
Turf burns could become less of an issue for Bradford, who was sacked in 30 consecutive games at one point and has gone down in 39 of 42 career starts. Now protecting him is newly signed left tackle Jake Long, who has been to four Pro Bowls in five years and is motivated to re-establish himself among the elite after the Miami Dolphins let him walk after two seasons curtailed by injury.
Even though the offense struggled — it hasn't ranked better than 23rd since 2006 — the Rams finished 7-8-1 in 2012, their first year under coach Jeff Fisher and best finish in the last six seasons.
Yet St. Louis remains under the radar. The Rams' 4-1-1 division record in 2012 paced the NFC West, but Bradford doesn't mind if most observers are sleeping on them now.
"We know what we're capable of and what we did in our division last year," he said. "If we play at our true potential, we're not worried about those other teams getting the attention now."
Bradford is coming off his best season, with 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns passing and 13 interceptions, but he has work to do before he's mentioned among the game's new wave of star quarterbacks. He now seems to have the supporting cast for a breakout season. Austin Davis and Kellen Clemens will vie for backup duty.
Gone is franchise rushing king Steven Jackson, who took his eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent. His leadership might be even harder to replace than his production.
Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson, rookies in 2012, probably will split the load. Bradford says the light has gone on for Pead, a second-round pick who lagged noticeably behind seventh-rounder Richardson last year. Richardson had 98 carries for 475 yards to Pead's 10 carries for 54 yards. A substance abuse violation will force Pead to the bench in Week 1.
If the Rams' expectations are correct, Austin will be a hybrid of Wes Welker and Percy Harvin and more than supplant Amendola, Bradford's former go-to guy who is now with the New England Patriots. Bradford predicts big things for Chris Givens, who made an impact as a rookie last year. Big-bodied Brian Quick, a Round 2 pick in 2012, is still a project. He'll be pushed by Austin Pettis and rookie Stedman Bailey, a teammate of Austin at West Virginia.
Cook spent much of his time with the Tennessee Titans deployed as a wideout but didn't feel he got the ball enough; he had 44 receptions for 523 yards in 13 games last season. Lack of touches shouldn't be an issue for Cook now if the Rams do as they expect and spread out defenses. Lance Kendricks will see plenty of snaps, too.
The injury bug bit this unit hard in 2012, and the frequent shuffling did nothing to help the stagnant offense. Long's arrival means Rodger Saffold will switch to right tackle. Center Scott Wells was a Pro Bowl player in 2011 but missed nine games last year. If he's recovered from foot problems, rookie Barrett Jones could prove a steal.
Blessed with three first-round picks, this group should be a strength for an underrated defense. Ends Chris Long (a first-rounder in 2008) and Robert Quinn (2011) combined for 22 sacks last season and might do more damage if tackle Michael Brockers (four sacks) comes into his own. William Hayes offers quality depth.
James Laurinaitis is a tackling machine in the middle, though not necessarily great against the run. Snead rolled the dice on Alec Ogletree, the Rams' other Round 1 pick this year. A former safety at Georgia, he can cover a lot of ground on the weak side, if his well-documented off-field issues don't resurface. Fisher is known for helping immature youngsters grow up.
St. Louis is set at cornerback with veteran Cortland Finnegan and promising sophomore Janoris Jenkins, who returned three of his four interceptions for touchdowns as a rookie. However, safety could be a problem, especially if unsigned Quintin Mikell doesn't return. The Rams drafted T.J. McDonald from Southern California in the third round.
Kicker Greg "Legatron" Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker were impact rookies and should hold down their spots for years. The return duties will sort out eventually with Jenkins, Pead and Austin all potentially exciting options.
Fisher has long been popular among his players and didn't need much time to win over the Rams. Bradford's optimism is also fueled by the presence of Brian Schottenheimer, the first offensive coordinator to work with the quarterback in consecutive seasons. Look for the playbook to expand in Year 2. Tim Walton takes over the defense, which was run by a committee last year after Gregg Williams' Bountygate ban.