St. Louis Rams camp outlook: Fisher begins re-boot
Jim Thomas Sporting News
The Rams have a new head coach, a new general manager and a revamped front office. But they've been down this road many times. Including interims, Jeff Fisher is the team's sixth head coach since 2005; Les Snead is the fourth G.M. in that same span. Rams fans can only hope the team gets it right this time.
St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford will ask his rookie receivers to make a much-needed impact, early in the season. (AP Photo)
At least in Fisher, they have someone who has done it before. Other than Dick Vermeil, Fisher's the first head coach with prior NFL head-coaching experience hired by the team since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995. Fisher has an air of confidence to him, doesn't sweat the small stuff and seems to have established instant credibility with his players. He inherited an older, talent-depleted roster, in an organization that has won only 15 of its last 80 games.
The opportunity to work with Sam Bradford helped lure Fisher back into coaching after a one-year hiatus. So did the fact that the Rams had the No. 2 overall draft pick, which they turned into multiple picks in a pre-draft trade with Washington.
What's new: Offense
In what has become an annual crusade to upgrade the wide receiver corps, the Rams used the first pick of the second round on Appalachian State's Brian Quick, and a fourth-round pick on Chris Givens of Wake Forest. Very few receivers are game-changers as rookies, but the Rams need Quick and Givens to contribute ASAP.
Quick has size, good-leaping ability and flashed dynamic playmaking ability in college. But now he's in the big leagues. Givens gives St. Louis its best deep speed since the under-achieving Donnie Avery, but also has some wiggle to his game.
The Rams brought veteran center Scott Wells to St. Louis from Green Bay in free agency with a $24 million contract, and have some young legs backing up running back Steven Jackson in Isaiah Pead.
Brian Schottenheimer is Bradford's third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
What's new: Defense
The goal here during the offseason was to get bigger -- but more importantly -- faster. The Rams should have seven new starters on defense this season, including first-round draft pick Michael Brockers at defensive tackle. Alongside him will be $24 million free agent pickup Kendall Langford, a former Dolphin.
In the secondary, cornerback Cortland Finnegan came from Tennessee in free agency in a $50 million deal. Rookie Janoris Jenkins, whose college career was marred by off-field woes, could end up as the other starting corner.
The Rams hope some combination of free agent pickups Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh will get the job done at outside linebacker.
The Rams lost new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for the entire season and maybe longer because of his role in the New Orleans Bountygate scandal. The defense will be run by committee this season, with Fisher more involved than usual, along with assistant head coach Dave McGinnis and linebackers coach Blake Williams (Gregg's son) having central roles.
1. Get Bradford back on track. After a strong rookie year in 2010, Bradford regressed last season and appeared to lose confidence as the season progressed. A severe high-ankle sprain, which slowed or sidelined him for the final two-thirds of the season, didn't help matters. Neither did a puzzling scheme by coordinator Josh McDaniels, which frequently exposed Bradford to more pressure than necessary. Fisher likes to run the ball and Schottenheimer's approach figures to be more pragmatic than McDaniels', which should help Bradford.
2. Sort out the O-line. The Rams are counting on bounce-back seasons from young tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. A former No. 2 overall pick, Smith's career is at a crossroads because of repeated problems with concussions. The Rams are thin at this position, so there's little margin for error. Veterans Wells at center and right guard Harvey Dahl should be anchors, but there's a logjam of no-name players competing at the left guard spot manned in recent seasons by the now-retired Jacob Bell.
3. Find starters at OLB. Another problem area in recent seasons, the Rams simply haven't had much in the way of playmaking here, meaning talented middle linebacker James Laurinaitis hasn't had much help with run defense. Among the newcomers, Dunbar is young and undersized but runs well and could start on the weakside. Haggan is a veteran run-stuffer with excellent size who can also help on special teams. McIntosh lost his starting job at Washington last midseason, but the Rams are hoping a change of scenery will help and that he can be a solid contributor either at strong or weakside.
After splitting time with veteran James Hall as a rookie last season, 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn will be an every-down player as the Rams' starting right defensive end. He flashed some of his pass-rush (and punt-blocking) skills last season, but now must do it on a full-time basis.
That includes shoring up his run defense, which was spotty at times last season. Not only did Quinn turn pro early coming out of North Carolina, but he was suspended for the entire 2010 season at North Carolina for NCAA rules violations. Judging by his strong work during the OTAs and spring minicamps, Quinn has knocked off the rust and could be an impact player in 2012.
"Robert's taken some big strides," said DE Chris Long, who had 13 sacks last season. "He's going to be the guy (on the D-line). He really will be. I'm dead serious. If he takes the steps I think he's going to take this year, I think he's going to be the guy."
Coaching changes always lead to roster upheaval, but the changes to the Rams' roster were extreme during the offseason. As a result, how quickly the team can develop any kind of chemistry remains to be seen. It's a critical year for Bradford to show he was worth of No. 1 overall draft status in 2010, but it's debatable whether there's enough talent around him -- both in terms of blocking and skill position players. On defense, the Rams are excited about the potential of the line and the secondary. But the talent pool was so shallow when Fisher arrived that it will be a steep climb back to respectability. Five or six wins probably is the ceiling, but would represent a good start for a team with two first-round picks in both the 2013 and '14 drafts.
Prediction: Fourth, NFC West ... Well now, no one can accuse you of being overly effusive there Jimbo ..