Rams preview: Jackson, Holt bring hope to St. Louis
Aug. 26, 2008

WHAT'S NEW

The Rams are coming off a disastrous 3-13 season. Only the Dolphins were consistently worse in 2007. St. Louis was supposed to be a sleeper playoff contender in '07, and instead it was a big step backward for both the offense and defense.

The poor play from his team -- although affected significantly by a rash of injuries -- almost cost coach Scott Linehan his job. But in a compromise move in the most compromising of positions, Linehan turned over the offense to someone familiar to the Rams: Al Saunders.

Saunders worked wonders in Kansas City under former Rams coach Dick Vermiel, but his scheme didn't quite work out in Washington. With a big, powerful, quick and versatile back in Steven Jackson, there's hope Saunders can get some Priest Holmes-like results.

Defensively, the one bright spot in the bad season was earning the second overall pick and the chance to draft Virginia defensive end Chris Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie. Still, don't expect two men to make much of a statistical difference -- at least early in their stints in St. Louis.

5-Star Players
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Steven Jackson, RB. Somebody put the Rams in a corner, and Jackson came away with a knockout contract extension. Someone told him he could do plenty of pouting because he means so much to the team's offense, and of course, it paid off.

So fantasy owners who drafted Jackson during his holdout limbo can now exhale and be confident they have a first-round back who should push 400 touches if healthy. As a bonus, they also avoided Jackson getting bumped around in preseason action.

Jackson fits in the second tier of "full-load" backs, somewhere with Joseph Addai, Brian Westbrook, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore. That is, he should be very busy as both a rusher and receiver, and please his owners with steady combined yardage and red zone touches. The question you'll need to answer is, do you prefer Jackson in Saunders' offense, or Frank Gore in Mike Martz's offense. Otherwise, they have similar schedules and roles on their teams. I endorse Gore just because of what Martz did for both Jackson and Kevin Jones when healthy, with Jackson a close second.

4-Star Players

Torry Holt, WR. Holt just keeps on ticking as one of the league's best wide receivers. The Rams finally parted ways with his venerable receiving mate, Isaac Bruce (now with San Francisco), but Holt looks destined for several more productive seasons and to finish his career as a Ram. More than the fact that this is his 10th NFL season are the issues with quarterback Marc Bulger's durability and whether the Rams can make a successful transition to Saunders' style of passing game. A healthy Holt still is a lock for 80 catches, 1,000 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns, making him a great No. 2 wideout for your roster.



3-Star Players

Marc Bulger, QB. The Battle of the Bulger has nothing to do with a World War or maintaining a slim waistline. It's all about not having his ribs consistently basted by the opposition's pass rush. The Rams' offensive line has struggled to keep him both on his feet and in the lineup the past few years. This preseason has been especially brutal.

Bulger was the unknown soft-spoken quarterback who thrived in the Martz offense. Now he's not the same, perhaps being rattled the same way Kurt Warner once was in St. Louis. He still can put the big-number games when he has time to throw and can pick apart shaky secondaries. The problem is, that doesn't happen consistently, and a 300-yard, three-TD game can be just as likely as a 150-yard, three-INT game. When you factor in the lack of durability, it's to the point where you can't take him as your top quarterback. Instead, he is much better suited to be a fantasy backup/platoon guy whom you plug in for juicy matchups.

2-Star Players

Josh Brown, K. I guess the Rams were tired of losing games in the final seconds with Brown belting home 40- and 50-yarders in the clutch for the division rival Seahawks. With Jeff Wilkins finally hanging it up, they needed a booming leg for the dome, and Brown delivers -- after they paid him good money as a free agent. The Rams have the right mix of offensive pop and drive-bogdown potential where Brown will remain busy on field-goal attempts. He's a borderline starter in 12- and 14-team leagues.

1-Star Players

Randy McMichael, TE. I've liked McMike since his days in Miami, but he's no longer a fantasy starter, and is even iffy as a bye-week fill-in. Some owners in your league will probably draft him a la Bubba Franks thinking this is about six years ago. In the present, neither McMicheal nor Franks should be drafted or played.

0-Star Players

Antonio Pittman, RB. Ohio State's running game has been in great hands without him as Beanie Wells continues to go nuts, and St. Louis has found Pittman, originally drafted by the Saints, to be a good-hands backup for Jackson. Pittman got more chances to tote the rock with Jackson out of action, and has looked pretty safe as a true handcuff, especially with Brian Leonard on the shelf. Jackson owners can either snag Pittman in Round 16 or just look to add him early in the season.

Brian Leonard. RB. Leonard has a shoulder injury that ended his preseason early, and it's unclear if he will be ready to go for Week 1. Either way, when he returns, he seems better suited to take on more of the hybrid running back/fullback role, with just occasional carries and catches. Pittman is more of a traditional runner who fits what Saunders wants to do in case Jackson is hurt.

Drew Bennett, WR. Bennett has been bothered by a strained groin. Not fun. Once the Ivory Tower of the red zone with some occasional streaks of speed down the sideline, he's now trying to stay healthy enough to hold up as the Rams' No. 2 wideout behind Holt. He's a desperation pick, even in the very late rounds.

Donnie Avery, WR. This rookie second-round speedster will be worth watching. Once accustomed to the offense and capable of consistently showing his speed, the former University of Houston rocket can provide a spark in the Rams' lineup. Still, his best opportunity may come as a quick No. 3 where he faces slower nickel backs in mismatches. Don't expect any fantasy impact, however, until much later in the season.

Trent Green, QB. What could have been for Green the Ram in 1999 had then Charger Rodney Harrison not taken out his knee. Instead, Warner went down in fantasy lore by joining the 40-TD club while St. Louis went on to win the Super Bowl. Nearly a decade later, Green is just your typical late thirties backup. The plus is that Green knows Saunders' offense well from his years in Kansas City, so if Bulger goes down as is likely the case, he can come in and keep it going, not taking away from Jackson's value. But Green himself is only worth picking up if Bulger is hurt, and even then, you need to wonder if Green can hold up behind the same questionable line.

Reche Caldwell, WR. He's the kind of receiver who has value only if Tom Brady is throwing him the football. That drop against the Colts seems ages go, doesn't it?

Anthony Becht and Joe Klopfenstein, TEs. Um, no.

Defense/special teams. There are some good individual pieces -- Long, second-year lineman Adam Carriker, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, free safety O.J. Atogwe -- but just not enough as a whole unit to be on any fantasy roster -- unless it's say, against a really bad offense on a desperate bye week. Sacks? No. Takeaways? Too sporadic. Yards? Way too many. Points? They can get lit up like Beijing on Sunday night. We didn't even discuss the Rams' problems with special teams. Oh, wait, we just did.

TO KNOW LIST



Coaching: The heat is on Linehan and his staff to have at least a respectable rebound season. It may take time, however, for the offensive skill players to come together in Al Saunders' system, especially with the key player in the mix, Jackson, having such a long layoff in the preseason. Still, you can expect the Rams to tilt even more toward a balanced attack two full years removed from the Mike Martz Era. Defensively, there were some positives for Jim Haslett's group last season in his aggressive scheme, but it still has a long way to go to make enough plays.

Offensive line: Orlando Pace no longer is the dominant left tackle he once was, as injuries, wear and age have all taken their toll on Mr. Pancake Block. The latest ailment is a shoulder. He's trying his best to help keep Bulger upright, but he's also adjusting to playing next to a new left guard, former Titan Jacob Bell.

The Rams will be OK with Pace, Bell and right guard Richie Incognito in helping Jackson, but there is a big concern in pass protection, as Bulger has taken plenty of hits in the preseason. If he somehow is able to make it through 16 games healthy, it will be a miracle. Neither Bulger nor Green offers much help with a lack of mobility.

Schedule analysis: The opening four-week stretch before the Rams' bye is pretty brutal, including trips to hostile environments in Philadelphia and Seattle. But after a few more bumps -- Dallas, Washington, New England -- the second half of the schedule opens up very nicely, as eight of their final nine games are against sub-.500 teams from last season. During the fantasy playoffs, it's all in the division, as Jackson gets to run on the Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals from Weeks 14-16. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: Tied for 9th easiest (or 24th toughest