Where do Rams go from here?

BY JIM THOMAS
Sunday, January 9, 2011 3:10 pm

Points scored. Points allowed. Takeaway/giveaway differential. Sacks. Sacks allowed. Pick a category. Any category. The Rams were substantially improved almost across the board.

Then again, when your three immediate predecessors combined to win only six of 48 games, it's not as if the 2010 Rams had a tough act to follow. And for most fans, it will take awhile for the bitter taste of that season-ending loss in Seattle to subside.

A prime-time chance at a playoff berth and an NFC West championship doesn't come around very often in these parts. But the Rams fumbled away the opportunity with their biggest dud of the season this side of that 44-6 shellacking in Detroit, anyway.

But in the big picture, a 7-9 finish after 2009's 1-15 free fall marks significant progress. The Rams have gone from being the NFL's worst team to the middle of the pack in 12 short months.

As our season-ending positional analysis shows, there were brights spots all over the roster. But also holes to be filled and question marks to be answered, with Rams Park now in full offseason mode.

OFFENSIVE POSITIONS:

Rams' outlook at quarterback

What They've Got

Sam Bradford took every snap and took every hit that came his way for 16 games. By the numbers, the presumptive offensive rookie of the year in the NFL played better than just about any other rookie QB in the history of the game, helping to elevate the Rams to a seven-victory season. His athleticism and mobility were surprising; his competitiveness wasn't.

As the season progressed, the coaching staff put more on Bradford's shoulders. Although his play declined late in the season, he appeared to stay mentally sharp and didn't seem overly fatigued. Without stepping on any veterans' toes, Bradford exerted leadership in the huddle. When it came to interacting with his teammates in the locker room or away from Rams Park, he was just one of the guys.

What They Need

Obviously, the starting job's not up for grab and there doesn't seem to be any need to find a new backup. With another year left on his contract, A.J. Feeley has a good relationship with Bradford, a relationship that should only improve in Year 2. With his knowledge of the West Coast offense, Feeley is always there as a sounding board for Bradford, although Feeley tries to avoid butting in because Bradford has lots of voices in his ear. The Rams kept only Bradford and Feeley on their 53-man roster in 2010, with undrafted rookie Thaddeus Lewis on the practice squad. That could be the way things go in 2011 as well, although the Rams might consider drafting a development quarterback in the later rounds. But at the top of the depth chart, the Rams hope they're set at QB for another decade or so.



Rams' outlook at running back

What They've Got

For only the second time in seven NFL seasons, Steven Jackson played an entire 16-game schedule. And he did so despite an early season groin injury that sidelined him for more than half of the Washington game and slowed him for a couple of other contests. He also played more than half the season with a broken finger on his left hand, making it tough to catch and even carry the football. Through it all, he earned his third Pro Bowl berth, surpassed Eric Dickerson as the Rams' career rushing leader, and added to his own franchise record with his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. The only down spot was Jackson's per-carry average - a career-low 3.8 yards, which is one-half yard below his career average.

What They Need

Kenneth Darby did all that could be expected in his limited role, spelling Jackson and frequently serving as the team's third-down back. Darby scored three touchdowns, including one of the season's most critical scores - a TD that gave the Rams the lead for good against Washington in their first win of the season, after Jackson had gone down. Darby does a good job on blitz pickup and is a solid special teams player. But ideally, he's a No. 3 back - not a No. 2. For the third offseason in a row, the Rams are looking for a strong backup to Jackson, ideally a speedy change-of-pace back who can get to the perimeter and catch passes. Maybe this is the offseason the Rams finally fill that need.

Rams' outlook at fullback, tight end

What They've Got

If Michael Hoomanawanui's ankles had held up, the rookie TE from Illinois would've been one of the steals of the draft. Hoomanawanui may have the best hands of any Rams pass catcher, regardless of position. He has deceptive speed and is a willing blocker. But he was limited to eight games because of high ankle sprains in both legs. As it was, Hoomanawanui caught 13 passes, three of which went for TDs. Daniel Fells helped pick up the slack with 41 catches for 391 yards, both career highs. But he had a couple of costly drops and was just so-so as a blocker. Billy Bajema had 14 catches and a couple of TDs but didn't block as well as expected. At fullback, Mike Karney was phased out in favor of Brit Miller, until Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury against Kansas City.

What They Need

If the Rams could count on Hoomanawanui to stay healthy, he would clearly be their starter next season. But there are no guarantees, particularly when you consider he had ankle problems in 09 for the Illini. Fells is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and drew interest from New England last offseason as a restricted free agent. And what about Fendi Onobun? The converted college basketball player remains raw, but before a back injury ended his season he made the active roster and played in three games with two catches. It would be a stretch, though, to think Onobun can develop in one offseason to the point where Fells is expendable. As for fullback, Karney still has a year left on his contract, but it doesn't look as if he has a future in St. Louis.

Rams' outlook at wide receiver

What They've Got

It was evident early in training camp that Danny Amendola was the one Rams wideout who had elevated his game. Small but feisty, Amendola was fun to watch. Trouble was, opposing defenses started watching him more carefully as the season progressed, particularly after outside threat Mark Clayton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Detroit. After being inactive the first two games, Brandon Gibson got out of the doghouse to catch 53 passes for 620 yards and two touchdowns. Gibson lacks breakaway speed but has decent yards-after-catch ability and cut down on dropped passes as the season progressed. Laurent Robinson was slowed for much of the season by a foot problem, but when he got a chance to play didn't make much happen.

What They Need

Wide receiver coach Nolan Cromwell squeezed a lot out of this unit, but at the end of the day, this group just wasn't good enough to beat the league's better pass defenses. Lots of questions here. Is Clayton re-signed as an unrestricted free agent? Can Donnie Avery, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, stay healthy and be productive? Can Danario Alexander, who flashed big-play potential, keep his left knee healthy over a 16-game season? And where does Mardy Gilyard factor in? He was the biggest disappointment in the Rams' 2010 draft class. Robinson's contract is up, and if the Rams truly want to upgrade the position, does it make sense to re-sign him? Whether it comes via free agency or the draft, a difference maker is a must here.

Rams' outlook at offensive line

What They've Got

Bradford's mobility helped, but even with a rookie left tackle (Rodger Saffold) and an inexperienced right tackle (Jason Smith), the pass blocking improved. The Rams allowed 34 sacks, the second-lowest total since the move to St. Louis in 1995 and exceeded only by the 1999 Super Bowl championship squad's 33 sacks allowed. Saffold is a keeper, and played better than anyone expected. Smith had some rough moments, including a nightmare game against Kansas City, but still progressed over the second half of the season. The Rams had their best line continuity since the 2003 division championship squad, with the five starters making 79 of 80 starts. Nonetheless, there were periodic breakdowns in co-op blocking when tested by line stunts and loops.

What They Need

You can get by with one "finesse" blocker at guard, but not two. The Rams need a road grader there to help with run blocking and to neutralize wide-body DTs. One of the season's mysteries was why the Rams couldn't get John Greco in uniform over the second half of the season. The run blocking was at its best when Greco was part of a time-share at right guard with Adam Goldberg. A smart, tenacious player who helped keep Smith settled down on the right side, Goldberg lacked the bulk to handle bull rushes and power moves inside; he's scheduled for unrestricted free agency. At center, Jason Brown didn't play as well as he did in 2009. At left guard, Jacob Bell had some problems with power players but was generally effective.