By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY


St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson is surveying an NFC West landscape that has been dominated by the Seattle Seahawks the last three seasons.
Then the man called "Action" Jackson hits his point as hard as a hole opening before him.

"The NFC West is up for grabs," he says. "Seattle doesn't have a cushion anymore.

"With us acquiring Dante Hall to help our return game, that's going to help us with field position. … Our offense is as potent as always. And our defense is catching up. I expect great things out of us this year."

Looking for that surprise NFC team that could rise up? Then take a closer look at coach Scott Linehan's Rams.

TABLE: Additions, subtractions in St. Louis

Jackson and quarterback Marc Bulger epitomize the under-the-radar Rams as two of last season's most underappreciated Pro Bowl playmakers.


NFL'S BEST: You grade the players by position

With a league-best 2,334 total yards from scrimmage, the all-purpose Jackson outgained MVP LaDainian Tomlinson's 2,323 yards. Jackson's 90 receptions were three fewer than the total of team leader and perennial Pro Bowler Torry Holt and eight shy of the total of NFC leader Mike Furrey, a former Ram who now plays for the Detroit Lions.

Bulger threw 24 touchdown passes and eight interceptions and completed 62.9% of his passes last season. With a career-best 4,301 passing yards, he was third behind Drew Brees (4,418) and Peyton Manning (4,397).

FIND MORE STORIES IN: National Football League | St. Louis | Seattle Seahawks | NFC West | Marc Bulger | Torry Holt | Scott Linehan | Steven Jackson | Adam Carriker
"I'd rather be flying under the radar this time of year," Linehan says. "But I still like our chances."

St. Louis started 4-1 but stalled for an 8-8 finish fueled by two last-second losses to Seattle. The Rams, San Francisco ***** and Arizona Cardinals spent the offseason doing everything possible to close the ever-narrowing gap on the Seahawks.

The Rams added more weapons for Bulger, whose 64.4% career completion percentage is higher than Manning's 64% career mark. With his uncanny accuracy, Bulger proved an ideal fit for Linehan's balanced offensive system, which places a premium on ball security, power running and play-action passes that set up big-play chances.

"All Marc's numbers speak for themselves," Linehan says. "The great thing about Marc, he's just a team player who does exactly what you ask the quarterback to do.

"As we keep surrounding him with players who can help him, he'll get the credit he deserves. He wants to win, and he's really, really stepped up his game big time."

Now that Bulger has had a season to acclimate to Linehan's playbook, the quarterback could be more dangerous.

"Last year could have been a tough year for him learning a new system," Linehan says. "But he embraced it and had a great year."

The Rams signed free agent wide receiver Drew Bennett and tight end Randy McMichael and traded for return specialist Hall in the offseason to aid Bulger's cause.

At 6-5, Bennett is a big receiver with a knack for big plays, and he brings a new element to the field behind smaller, quicker starters Holt and Isaac Bruce.

"Drew adds a little different dimension with his size," Linehan says. "He fits our offensive philosophy for making big plays. This guy has always found ways to be a big-play guy."

Linehan jumped at the chance to sign McMichael, whom he coached in 2005 as the Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator.

"Randy wasn't even on our minds," Linehan says. "Then Miami let him go for salary-cap reasons. How many times do you get a chance to add one of the top 10 tight ends?

"Plus, Randy knew our offense and brings a lot of experience and toughness to our team."

On top of those newfound riches, Linehan drafted Rutgers' multifaceted Brian Leonard— who possesses sure hands and the versatility to be a lead blocker for Jackson and the ability to spell him at tailback — in the second round.

Linehan envisions a sudden impact from Leonard, who unselfishly transitioned to fullback during his senior season when his blocking and receiving were big reasons the Scarlet Knights went 11-2.

"Brian is an all-purpose player — a backup to Steven — who can be a fullback, a tailback, can play third-down back and help us on special teams," Linehan says. "He has great hands. At the combine, he didn't drop a ball, and there were some top receivers drafted who dropped some balls."

Defensively, Linehan believes he plugged a leaky, 31st-ranked run defense with versatile, 6-6, 300-pound Nebraska defensive lineman Adam Carriker, whom the Rams drafted 13th overall.

Realistic hopes for a Rams title run start with stopping the run. Carriker is a high-motor space eater with 4.7 speed and strong hands to keep blockers off linebackers Will Witherspoon, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Brandon Chillar. Carriker is penciled in at nose tackle, with veteran La'Roi Glover set at the other tackle.

"La'Roi is starting at our 3-technique tackle," Linehan says. "Carriker is playing nose and can play 3-technique. He's going to find his way into our opening-day starting lineup. He's very strong and has probably the best hands of any D-lineman in the draft, which helps him play the run and shed blocks. He understands he has to occupy people, take on two blockers and has the ability to run down the line and make the tackle."

And this all gives Linehan reason for optimism as he echoes Jackson's assessment that the NFC West is anybody's ballgame.

"We have a very competitive division," Linehan says. "We lost to Seattle on two last-second field goals. We split with San Francisco and Arizona."

With that type of parity, it should be a wide-open race.

"I hate to be so simple," Linehan adds, "but the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win this division."

AROUND THE FIELD IN ST. LOUIS

Quarterback: Marc Bulger is as accurate as they come, a master at parachuting 25-yard throws into windows in zone coverage. He is entering the final year of his contract, but coach Scott Linehan says the Rams have every intention of locking Bulger up long term. Gus Frerotte is an experienced insurance policy.

Running back: They don't come much better than Steven Jackson, who rushed for 1,528 yards in 2006. Second-round pick Brian Leonard provides another check-down option for Bulger and can occasionally spell Jackson.

Wide receiver: Torry Holt is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and turns 31 next month but remains arguably the league's most fluid route runner. Isaac Bruce turns 35 in November. Still, the pair show no signs of slowing down. Former Tennessee Titan Drew Bennett, at 6-5, affords Bulger a nice third-down and red-zone target.

Tight end: Randy McMichael averaged 57 catches over five seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Joe Klopfenstein should be better in a complementary role.

Offensive line: Guards Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito finished the season strong. Orlando Pace and Alex Barron are a very good tackle tandem when healthy, though Pace is coming off a triceps injury. Andy McCollum, back from a knee injury, will try to reclaim the center job from undersized Brett Romberg. Rookie Dustin Fry can back up at center and guard.

Defensive line: A lot depends on first-round pick Adam Carriker patching the pothole in the middle, though he can play anywhere on the defensive front. La'Roi Glover, Claude Wroten and Jimmy Kennedy could form quite an inside rotation along with Carriker. The trade for veteran end James Hall should help take double-team pressure off left end Leonard Little, last season's sacks leader with 13.

Linebacker: Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett values speed over size. With Carriker tying up blockers, linebackers Brandon Chillar, Will Witherspoon and Pisa Tinoisamoa should have more freedom to run and hit. Free agent addition Chris Draft led the Carolina Panthers with 111 tackles.

Secondary: Tye Hill, Fakhir Brown and Ronald Bartell are a solid trio of young corners. Third-round selection Jonathan Wade's 4.36 speed will be accentuated on the Rams' fast track, and he figures to push for playing time. Free safety O.J. Atogwe and veteran strong safety Corey Chavous are solid.

Special teams: Jeff Wilkins made 32 of 37 field goals in 2006 and is still going strong entering his 14th season. Punter Donnie Jones led the NFL with a 39.5-yard net average in 2005 before falling off somewhat last year with Miami. Still, he's an upgrade over Matt Turk. Dante Hall brings breakaway potential to return teams that disappointed last season.

Coaching staff: Linehan has given Bulger more weapons to make the Rams more potent in the red zone. Linehan ceded play-calling to offensive coordinator Greg Olson, a move that panned out. Haslett should craft a better pass rush with the multidimensional Carriker on board.

Outlook: The Rams potentially upgraded a 10th-ranked scoring offense that averaged 22.9 points. But how improved a 31st-ranked run defense is remains the key in a division featuring Shaun Alexander, Frank Gore and Edgerrin James.

BREAKING DOWN THE RAMS
Last season: 8-8, second place in the NFC West, missed playoffs

Additions Subtractions Draft picks

WR Drew Bennett LB Dexter Coakley Adam Carriker, DL, Nebraska (13)

LB Chris Draft WR Kevin Curtis Brian Leonard, RB, Rutgers (52)

WR-KR Dante Hall RB Marshall Faulk Jonathan Wade, CB, Tennessee (84)

DE James Hall CB Travis Fisher Dustin Fry, C, Clemson (139)

S Todd Johnson DT Jason Fisk Clifton Ryan, DT, Michigan State (154)

P Donnie Jones WR Shaun McDonald Ken Shackleford, OT, Georgia (190)

TE Randy McMichael FB Paul Smith Keith Jackson, DT, Arkansas (248)

RB Travis Minor G Adam Timmerman Derek Stanley, WR, Wisconsin-Whitewater (249)

CB Mike Rumph P Matt Turk (Overall selection in parentheses)

CB Lenny Walls