Personnel wise, future Hall of Famers and Rams’ lifers Orlando Pace and Torry Holt were sent packing as the Steve Spagnuolo regime began.
The former New York Giants defensive coordinator built his reputation during the Giants’ Super Bowl run, and like most winning coordinators found himself in line for a gig as the head cheese – despite just two years on the job. A disciple of the late Jim Johnson, Spagnuolo’s scheme is predicated on getting to the quarterback. Last season, Spags’ unit ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and points allowed, so he’s got credentials. But whether or not he’s ready for the demands of being a head coach, we shall see.
On paper, St. Louis still has a beast running back, veteran quarterback, talented offensive line, emerging receiver, and now a new proven defensive scheme. There’s some young talent on that defensive line (Adam Carriker and Chris Long), and expect Spagnuolo to get the best out of them.
Sounds good, right? Don’t get your hopes up.
St. Louis Rams
Last Season: 2-14, last in NFC West.
New Faces: C Jason Brown, DT Orien Harris, WR Laurent Robinson, QB Kyle Boller, S James Butler, FB Mike Karney.
Subtractions: T Orlando Pace, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, WR Torry Holt, RB Brian Leonard, S Corey Chavous, C Nick Leckey, WR Drew Bennett.
The Draft: After letting its franchise offensive tackle walk in Orlando Pace, St. Louis went in search for its next decade-long fixture with Baylor’s Jason Smith at No. 2 overall. In 1,147 plays at left tackle during his final two seasons at Baylor, Smith allowed just 4.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to play right tackle in the pros first, but might eventually find his way back to the glamourous left.
Second rounder James Laurinaitis was a tackling machine at Ohio State and fell because his measurables aren’t ideal. Animal’s son will most likely go right into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. Rams fans just hope he’s less Andy Katzenmoyer and more A.J. Hawk. Bradley Fletcher (Iowa) was a bit of a reach in the third round (Scouts Inc., ranked him the 34th best cornerback in the Draft), but former first rounder Tye Hill has disappointed, so there’s a chance to impress.
The Good: O.J. Atogwe. There wasn’t a lot to like about St. Louis’ defense a year ago, but Atogwe was the exception. Building off a 2007 season in which he led the league with eight interceptions, Atogwe started all 16 games (for the third straight season) at free safety and put up a career-high 109 tackles. He led the Rams with five interceptions, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. St. Louis slapped the franchise tag on him and he’s playing out a one-year deal. He’s motivated and ready to cash in.
The Encouraging: Offensive line. On paper, the Rams have a talented-laden front five despite the loss of Orlando Pace. Former first rounder Alex Barron is moving to left tackle to replace Pace, and No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith will hold down the right. The knocks on Barron are that he lacks passion and is prone to penalties. He’s talented and young. St. Louis is hoping being a year wiser with added responsibility will spur him on.
The Rams’ big free agent acquisition was center Jason Brown from Baltimore. St. Louis gave Brown $20 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid center in the NFL. Jacob Bell, a big free agent signing in 2008, disappointed last year in his first season with St. Louis, but so did most of the team. The Rams are hoping Bell can return to the form he showed with Tennessee. At the other guard position is nutcase Richie Incognito. This dude is anything but his namesake. He’s always running his mouth. Having a little bit of a mean streak is good and all for interior linemen, it’s actually desired. If this kid can stop getting needless penalties, the Rams O-line is in good shape to pave the way for Steven Jackson – the preferred gameplan for St. Louis.
The Ugly: Wide receiver. Donnie Avery’s performance vindicated Rams’ personnel staff for making the Houston product the first receiver taken in the 2008 Draft. Avery’s 53 catches were the second-most by a Rams rookie behind Eddie Kennison’s 54 receptions in 1996. Avery is a big play threat and will stretch opposing team’s defenses. The problem is after Avery, the depth chart is anonymous. Anyone ever here of Keenan Burton? He’s listed as the Rams’ No. 2 receiver. He had 172 receiving yards a year ago. St. Louis traded for Falcons receiver Laurent Robinson, he of the five 2008 catches. Torry Holt wasn’t getting any younger, but he’ll be sorely missed. St. Louis’ offense will be predicated on the run, and with this group, that’s a decision made out of necessity, not choice.
Fantasy Island: Steven Jackson most likely got hard when he heard the Rams spent record money on a new center and used a top-2 pick on a 6-foot-5, 306-lb.-man child to play tackle. Some fantasy managers might be cold on Jackson because of his lackluster 2008. He barely topped 1,000 yards (1,042), scored seven times, while losing five fumbles. By his lofty standards and average draft position, Jackson was a disappointment. But the Rams as a whole stunk, and he had some nagging injuries. We’ve mentioned the potential of the offensive line, and new coach Steve Spagnuolo will want to utilize his beast back to set a physical tone.
Donnie Avery is worth a look as a WR3 with high upside – mainly because there is no one else for Marc Bulger to throw to. You can go ahead and take a flier on Bulger as a backup, but my guess is that in most 12-team league’s, Bulger will be waiver fodder.
Potential Breakout Player: CB Ronald Bartell. A starter in 14 games last season, Bartell led St. Louis with 20 pass breakups, the most by a Ram since 2004. A big corner at 6-foot-1, Bartell nabbed a career-high three interceptions in 2008 and finished the year with 57 total tackles. The fifth-year pro out of Howard has outshone former first rounder Tye Hill and St. Louis made re-signing Bartell an offseason priority, giving him $13.6 million guaranteed to keep him happy.
Schedule: The beginning of the season doesn’t do the Rams any favors. They open with three of their first four games on the road, and home dates with Green Bay (Week 3), Minnesota (Week 5) and Indianapolis (Week 7) won’t make things easier. Coming out their bye Week 9, the Rams have three straight home games where they’ll probably be the underdog (New Orleans, Arizona and Seattle) before traveling to tough road December road games in Chicago and Tennessee.
Best Case: Albert Pujols hits a grand slam in the ninth to win the World Series.
Worst Case: Alex Barron flops at left tackle, and Marc Bulger gets blind-sided, forcing Kyle Boller to see the field. The team then re-relocates to Los Angeles.
Prediction: 4-12, last in NFC West.