By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005; 12:09 PM

The St. Louis Rams reached the playoffs last season because they played in a joke of a division in a farce of a conference, but no one in the league was fooled into thinking this was actually a good team. The club has made some marginal improvements this offseason, and tailback Steven Jackson could be ready for stardom in his second season. But could the NFC West possibly be so bad again, and could the NFC playoff chase be so laughably forgiving once more?

The Rams, if they're smart, will build next season's offense around Jackson, who averaged five yards per carry last year as a rookie and gradually took over the bulk of the tailback duties from Marshall Faulk. Faulk has opted against retiring even though his best days as a player clearly are behind him, but the Rams actually might need him to be productive in a part-time role because the only thing Jackson didn't prove as a rookie was that he's durable enough to withstand the week-in, week-out pounding of the pro game without requiring someone to split time with him at the position.

Around the League

The Post's Mark Maske takes a look at the offeasons of each of the NFL's 32 teams.

Today: St. Louis Rams
Next: San Diego Chargers

Players Released
QB Chris Chandler
S Keon Newson
P Kevin Stemke

Free Agents Lost
S Rich Coady
G Matt Lehr
DE Bryce Fisher
LB Tommy Polley

Free Agents Re-Signed
G Darnell Alford
QB Jamie Martin

Free Agents Added
LB Dexter Coakley
LB Chris Claiborne
TE Roland Williams
DE Jay Williams
G Rex Tucker
CB/S Michael Hawthorne
CB Michael Stone
CB Terry Fair
CB Corey Ivy
DE Brandon Green

Rams' Draft
Round 1 (19th overall): Alex Barron, T, Florida State
Round 2 (50): Ronald Bartell Jr., CB, Howard
Round 3 (66): Oshiomogho Atogwe, S, Stanford
Round 3 (81): Richie Incognito, C, Nebraska
Round 4 (117): Jerome Carter, S, Florida State
Round 4 (134): Claude Terrell, G, New Mexico
Round 5 (144): Jerome Collins, TE, Notre Dame
Round 6 (192): Dante Ridgeway, WR, Ball State
Round 6 (210): Reggie Hodges, P, Ball State
Round 7 (250): Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Harvard
Round 7 (251): Madison Hedge****, FB, North Carolina
Draft Analysis: The Rams addressed their offensive line need by getting T Alex Barron in the first round, and second-round CB Ronald Bartell is big and fast but probably needs some seasoning.Grade: C+

The other thing the Rams have going for them on offense is their duo of talented young wide receivers -- Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis -- behind starters Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Holt and Bruce each topped 1,200 receiving yards last season, and McDonald and Curtis took advantage and made big plays when opposing defenses paid too much attention to the two star wideouts.

Quarterback Marc Bulger managed to cut down on his interceptions last season (throwing 14 of them, eight fewer than in 2003), and the Rams upgraded the unit that will protect him when they used their first-round draft choice on Florida State offensive tackle Alex Barron. He's slated to replace Kyle Turley, who feuded publicly with Coach Mike Martz last year and continues to experience problems related to a back injury that have his football future in doubt and have led him to talk about moving to defensive end, at right tackle. Turley likely will be released today.

The Rams finally managed to lock up perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace to a long-term contract in March. The club, in a familiar refrain, made Pace its franchise player in February. The Houston Texans tried to pry him away, reaching a tentative contract agreement with him but failing to settle on compensation with the Rams. The flirtation with the Texans may have spurred Pace's contract talks with the Rams, and he stayed in St. Louis by signing a seven-year, $52.8 million deal that included a $15 million signing bonus.

All of that gives Martz a potentially formidable offense, and the Rams spent their money in free agency to try to upgrade a run defense that surrendered 327 rushing yards in a 30-point, season-ending loss at Atlanta in an NFC semifinal. The Rams signed one free-agent linebacker, Dexter Coakley, to a five-year, $14.5 million contract on the day the market opened, then signed another, Chris Claiborne, to a three-year, $10.5 million deal the following day. They are decent players who will make the Rams better, but neither is the sort of addition who will make the unit fearsome overnight. The Rams ranked 29th in the league in rushing defense during the 2004 regular season.

Linebacker Tommy Polley, defensive end Bryce Fisher and safety Rich Coady exited in free agency. The Rams made an interesting selection on draft day when they chose Howard University cornerback Ronald Bartell Jr. in the middle of the second round. He's big and fast, and some scouts think he could make a quicker impact in the NFL as a safety because his technique at cornerback is a little raw. If the Rams are intent on playing him at cornerback, they might have to live with some rookie mistakes as they work him into the playing-time mix behind starters Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher.

As the regular season wound down last year, many people around the league thought that Martz's mad-scientist routine was wearing thin in St. Louis and his job could be in jeopardy if the club missed the playoffs. It didn't, thanks in part to a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the next-to-last game of the regular season in which Eagles Coach Andy Reid rested his front-line players. That, plus a victory over the New York Jets to close the regular season, enabled the Rams to finish 8-8 and reach the playoffs, and they won at Seattle in a first-round game before the lopsided defeat to the Falcons. Martz stayed around, but the pressure will be on him during the upcoming season to reach the playoffs on merit rather than merely because the NFC is so pitiable.