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2015 Team Report: St. Louis Rams

Quarterbacks

Starter: Nick Foles
Backup(s): Case Keenum, Sean Mannion

Starting QB: Nick Foles enters his first season with the Rams as the starter. After a gaudy stat line in his surprising 2013 breakout with the fast-break Philadelphia Eagles offense, Foles struggled in 2014. Besides avoiding sacks in 2014, Foles efficiency marks were subpar across the board. With the Rams, Foles joins an offensive line that was one of the worst pass-blocking units in the NFL last season and has an unsettled pecking order of pass catchers. without an uptempo Chip Kelly offensive design or an above-average set of weapons, the Rams passing game hinges on a rebound from Nick Foles.

Backup QB: Case Keenum had a hot start in his NFL career, only to revert into a solid backup caliber, at best, in Houston. Sean Mannion is an intriguing rookie with upside to challenge for the primary backup spot out of the gate as a prototypically-sized pocket passer.

Running Backs

Starter: Todd Gurley [R]
Backup(s): Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: The Rams shocked the 2015 NFL Draft by selecting Todd Gurley at No.10 overall despite a solid rookie season from Day 2 pick Tre Mason in 2014. Gurley was the consensus top talent at running back in the draft class, clouded only by an ACL injury to close his Georgia career. Gurley checks all the boxes as a big and fast three-down back with solid hands and pass protection acumen. Tre Mason is likely to see a majority of the snaps to open the season with Gurley eased into the lineup, but Gurley projects as a high-volume back by the second half of the season at the latest. The biggest question mark with Gurley's upside resides in the St.Louis offense being dynamic enough to produce consistent red zone opportunities. In mid-August, the Rams stated they would not play Todd Gurley until 100% healthy.

Backup RBs: Tre Mason had a promising rookie season in 2014, however, the Rams promptly selected top-tier talent Todd Gurley in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Mason is a talented runner with questionable pass-blocking skills and now projects as one of the more talented primary backups in the league. With Gurley likely to miss time finishing his ACL recovery early in the season, Mason is the main benefactor with significant touches. Benny Cunningham exceled as a pass-catcher in 2014, Tre Mason's weak spot in the backfield committee. Todd Gurley's addition tempers Cunningham's role substantially when healthy.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Brian Quick, Kenny Britt
Backups: Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens

Starting WRs: The light coming on for Brian Quick in 2014 was short-lived as a significant shoulder injury ended his promising third NFL season. For 2015, Quick is projected to see very little offseason activity leading up to Week 1 and Kenny Britt flashed with Quick out of the lineup to close last season. With new quarterback Nick Foles under center, Britt has the chance to build early chemistry and gain the lead receiver edge. Britt has been a model citizen since his change of scenery from Tennessee, but is now a year-to-year proposition to maintain a relevant NFL role. Britt is the more athletic upside option, while Quick has shown plenty of struggles transitioning from lower level college to the NFL stage. Regardless of which takes hold of the lead job, Britt and Quick form one of the least established starting duos in the league.

Backup WRs: Stedman Bailey was a major benefactor of the Brian Quick injury in 2014, seeing a marked uptick in snaps over the second half of the season. While an unappealing athlete, Bailey outproduced college and now NFL teammate Tavon Austin at West Virginia. Bailey, the classic over-achiever, looks to carve a steady No.3 role in the Rams passing game. Chris Givens' role and productivity has diminished in consecutive season following a promising 2012 rookie season. Now, Givens is in a competition with Tavon Austin, another reduced role receiver in St.Louis, for situational snaps. Austin has struggled to find consistent opportunities on offense after his surprising selection at No.8 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jared Cook
Backups: Lance Kendricks

Jared Cook has logged near-identical stat lines in his two St.Louis seasons. While Cook can stretch the seam with his straight-line receiver-level speed, Cook is an ancillary weapon more than a featured target. Lance Kendricks has found a home has a secondary tight end after limited success since being a second round NFL draft pick, exceling in the red zone. Reports indicate Kendricks took less money to stay in St.Louis, with the promise of an expanded role, instead of signing with Atlanta this offseason.

Place Kicker

Greg Zuerlein: "Greg the Leg" was once a sensation that took the fantasy world by storm (well, as much as a kicker can) in his rookie year. 2014 marked another year of mediocre production that has pushed him down into the ranks of kickers we only use in an emergency. He made 24 of 30 field goal attempts, which is adequate, but far from excellent in the current NFL. The Rams offense probably won't get any worse, but it is unlikely to get much better with Nick Foles at quarterback. Zuerlein belongs right around his early draft ADP of PK20.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Benny Cunningham, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey

Running back Benny Cunningham moved into the primary kick return job primarily due to injuries to the Rams receiving corps. The 27.5 yard average he maintained through 35 returns may go a long way towards him keeping the job in 2015. As Tavon Austin continues to struggle as a wide receiver, there is always the possibility that St. Louis may give him some kickoff returns to increase his touches. Last season, however, the Rams settled Austin into the punt returner role and rarely turned to him on kickoffs.

Punt Returners: Tavon Austin, Wes Welker, Stedman Bailey

Tavon Austin emerged in 2014 as the punt return threat many expected him to be, racking up an 11.2 yard average and taking one punt back 78 yards for a touchdown. It is unclear who his backup will be, though Stedman Bailey and Austin Pettis were the only other players to see a punt return last season. Pettis is no longer with the team.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Greg Robinson, LG Rodger Saffold, C Tim Barnes, RG Barrett Jones, RT Rob Havenstein [R]
Key Backups: T Brandon Washington, T Jamon Brown [R], G Andrew Donnal [R], G Cody Wichmann [R], C Demetrius Rhaney, T Steven Baker

There's several young players on the Rams' line, most notably, left tackle Greg Robinson. A high pick last season, Robinson is a physically elite run blocker who still has alot to learn about pass protection. His career path is on schedule however and he should get better at the job with experience. Next to Robinson, Rodger Saffold should do a decent job at left guard. Saffold is the veteran leadership and the team needs him to stay healthy. Tim Barnes will likely get a shot at starting center, and left guard Barrett Jones could slide over if Barnes isn't up for the task. Right tackle is a battle between Brandon Washington and second round rookie Rob Havenstein. Look for Havenstein to win the position and have a similar scouting report as Robinson: excellent run blocker who has to improve on pass protection. The Rams know they have a problem at the line, and the team loaded up with several prospects in the most recent draft. The team took tackle Jamon Brown in round three, guards Andrew Donnal and Cody Wichmann in rounds four and six and that means the team drafted four total linemen this spring. If any of these rookies distinguish themselves and win a job in preseason, the line's fortunes should be on the upswing. Until that happens, and Greg Robinson becomes a more consistent pass protector, they remain the lowest ranked line going into the 2015 season.

Team Defense

Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald form the core of an excellent defensive line rotation that can create feeding frenzy games that overwhelm even the best of opponents at times. Like the Rams team, the D/ST can fluctuate wildly in results, but their ability to have the #1 week at just about any given time, especially when they are at home, makes them one of the D/ST's that will get drafted in every league once again this year. If Nick Foles is even an incremental improvement of the cast that has replaced Sam Bradford and Todd Gurley is as advertised this year, the Rams could be more competitive and post more top end D/ST weeks this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Chris Long, DE Robert Quinn, DT Michael Brockers, DT Aaron Donald
Backups: DT Nick Fairley, DE William Hayes, DE Eugene Sims DE, DE Ethan Westbrooks, DE Martin Ifedi [R]

Starting DL: The 2014 campaign was a tale of two seasons. After entering the season with the most combined sacks in the NFL during the 2012-2013 seasons (105), the Rams set a league record for futility with only one sack in the first five games. In the second half of the season, the stop unit was vastly improved. By several metrics (scoring defense, rushing yards, sacks and turnovers), it played at a top five level. The slow start in part could have stemmed from being the first year in the complex scheme of new DC Gregg Williams. Another contributing factor was an injury to Chris Long, who after going out week one, didn't return until the last five games of the season. In the four seasons from 2010-2013, he quietly was among the NFL's most productive sack artists (41.5), but that number dipped to an anemic 1 sack in 2014. The former #2 overall pick in the 2008 draft turned 30 in 2015 and is one of the highest paid players overall on the Rams, after bookend Robert Quinn (2 X Pro Bowler in 2013-2014), just 25. Long may need to make a bigger impact and be more productive this season, in order to stay with the Rams going forward, or avoid a contract restructuring. Quinn, like everybody else, was in a funk to begin the season. Coming off a 19 sack, 50 tackle, borderline Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2013, he didnít have his first sack until the sixth game against SEA, but went on to finish with 10.5 (40 since 2012, with 12 FFs since 2013). The Rams received a huge boost from Aaron Donald, the second of their first round rookies, and the reversal of their sluggish start partly overlapped and coincided with his insertion into the starting lineup. Despite only starting 12 games, the highly decorated Pittsburgh interior defensive lineman had 9 sacks, and needed to make some more room in his trophy case for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and Pro Bowl honors. Michael Brockers completes a four top half of the first round pedigree starting DL. The inaugural pick in the current Jeff Fisher/Les Snead regime (and initial bounty from the epic Robert Griffin III trade) does the dirty work in the trenches, eats blocks and clogs the middle so his teammates can make plays.

Backup DL: Just as Donald provided a big lift in 2014, that could be provided in 2015 by yet another top half of the first round pedigree defensive lineman for the Rams (their fifth), ex-Detroit DT Nick Fairley. He is also part of the Auburn "mafia", that includes GM Snead, 2014 #2 overall left tackle Greg Robinson and third round running back Tre Mason. The Lions opted to not sign Fairley, despite salary cap constraints forcing them to also allow former #2 overall defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh to leave in free agency. He had a checkered career in Motown, between injuries and fluctuating weight, but reported to the Rams looking svelte and in trim shape, under 300 lbs. (he intends to actually add some weight between now and the season). Signed on a one year, "prove it"-type contract worth up to $5 million with incentives, Fairley should be motivated to position himself for a big pay day in 2016. At his best, his combination of quickness, agility and power can provide a disruptive interior pass rushing presence, and he is expected to replace Brockers and line up next to Donald in passing situations. Hayes was brought in by former HC Fisher (one of several former Titans on the roster), and in combination with Sims, they are productive rotational defensive ends that can give Long and Quinn periodic breathers, and provide valuable depth. They are also both playing for a new contract. Rookie seventh rounder Martin Ifedi could make the roster, with the contracts of so many defensive ends up in the air beyond 2015.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB James Laurinaitis, WLB Alec Ogletree, SLB Akeem Ayers
Backups: SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, WLB Darren Bates, SLB Korey Toomer, MLB Bryce Hager [R]

Starting LBs: Laurinaitis is a team leader, signal caller and QB of the defense, and at 28, one of the longest tenured veterans originally drafted by the Rams. He might get wider recognition, if not for playing in a division that features several of the top MLB/ILBs in the game, including Pro Bowlers Bobby Wagner of Seattle, Navorro Bowman of San Francisco and Daryl Washington of Arizona (when not suspended). Laurinaitis has fallen to career lows in tackles two years in a row (85 in 2013 and 81 in 2014), but that trend could be in part due to the ascendant defense that was top five in the second half of the season, and better play around him enabling the unit to get off the field faster and more often relative to previous seasons. While not a speed merchant for his position, his underrated athleticism is reflected in the big play department, where he has at least 2 INTs and 3 sacks in four of his six seasons. Ogletree (the second first rounder from the Robert Griffin III bounty, with #2 overall LT Robinson the third and last) has a similar resume to former Arizona ILB Karlos Dansby, with the speed, athleticism, three down skill set and explosive playmaking ability of a former safety blown up to LB size. Like Laurinaitis, his tackles went down from 95 in his 2013 rookie season to 84 in 2014, but still good for a top 10 finish at his position. His elite DE-like 10 FFs since 2013 lead all NFL LBs, and he turns just 24 in 2015. Ayers is another ex-Titan free agent (with DE William Hayes, TE Jared Cook and WR Kenny Britt), drafted in Fisherís hiatus season of 2011, but he did play under DC Williams and some current Rams positional coaches while there. While the second level doesn't sport the pedigree of the five top half of the first round DL, Ogletree was a first rounder, Laurinaitis and Ayers both high second rounders. The former UCLA star was traded during the season to the Patriots, where he excelled as a pass rusher in limited action, earning a Super Bowl ring for his ronin-like brief stint in New England. The 26 year old Ayers signed a two year contract and is expected to be an athletic upgrade over the incumbent SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, he can run, hit and cover as well as blitz. It is unclear at present if/how he will be deployed in the nickel package (where Mark Barron was a hit as a third safety/hybrid linebacker in the big nickel package).

Backup LBs: Ex-Saint and 2012 free agent Dunbar is a spark plug and tone setter with his fiery demeanor and physicality, and is familiar with DC Gregg Williams scheme from their previous intersection and time together in New Orleans. He is strictly a two down thumper replaced in the nickel for obvious passing situations. Dunbar had multi-position versatility in New Orleans and extending back to college, so is the likely first LB off the bench and backup to all three LB spots. Technically, Ogletree also has positional flexibility and experience playing inside at Georgia, though taking on blocks isn't a strength of his game, and his skill set seems to more naturally lend itself to the OLB position. Rookie seventh round MLB Hager was highly productive at Baylor, flashed speed and athleticism at the combine and could make the team on special teams. His father played on a Bears team when Jeff Fisher was working his way through the coaching ranks, before becoming a HC in Houston.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS T.J. McDonald, FS Rodney Mcleod, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB E.J. Gaines
Backups: SS Mark Barron, SS Maurice Alexander, FS Cody Davis, FS Christian Bryant, CB Lamarcus Joyner, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Brandon McGee

Starting DBs: McDonald is another Ram with a famous football player for a father (in addition to Chris Longís Hall of Fame DL father Howie, Tim was a 6 X All-Pro safety for the Cardinals and 49ers). Like HC Fisher, he is also a USC alumni. With a nice combo of size (6'2", nearly 220 lbs.), speed (4.5) and athleticism (stratospheric 40" vertical and ultra-explosive 10'11" broad jumps), the 2013 third rounder is probably better coming up in run support and not as fluid moving in reverse in pass coverage, but has the physical tools, work ethic, football smarts and intangibles to improve, and could be just scratching the surface of his potential at 24 years old. McDonald set a career high with 84 tackles (top five among NFL safeties), adding 2 sacks and 1 INT. He showed toughness, grit and resolve in 2013 by finishing the final 10 games of his rookie season, after missing the beginning with a broken leg. McLeod was maybe the biggest question mark on the defense entering last season but he acquitted himself well, the Rams thought highly enough of him to designate his restricted free agent tender at a second round price tag. He had 60+ tackles, 2 INTs and delivered some highlight reel hits. Also 24, despite being significantly smaller than McDonald at a listed 5'11", 183 lbs. (giving up about 3" and 35 lbs.), he can also be a physical striker in the secondary. He remains the incumbent starting safety along with McDonald, despite the in-season trade last year for ex-Buc top 10 overall safety Mark Barron, because his coverage ability and free safety skill set makes him a better complement to both strong safety types. Jenkins (the second product of the Griffin III trade bounty, after DT Brockers) was one of the top cover CBs from the 2012 draft, but slid to the second round on off field concerns. He hasn't fulfilled the potential of an extremely promising, splash play-filled rookie season, which saw him lead the NFL in defensive TDs (4). Whether due to scheme or habit, Jenkins has had a penchant for giving up too much cushion, and at times gambling has led to giving up costly big plays, but he tightened that up somewhat as the 2014 season progressed. Like fellow class of 2012 CB, high third round former starting CB Trumaine Johnson, they enter the 2015 campaign playing for a second contract. Rookie sixth round revelation Gaines was pressed into action after then-starter Johnson hurt his knee in the preseason, and didnít give the job back upon his return, notching 15 starts in the process. He was tied for fifth in tackles among NFL CBs (63), top 15 in pass defensed plays (15), was a playmaker with 2 INTs and his cool, nearly third of a million dollars performance-based bonus was fifth in the entire league (for context and perspective, his 2015 SALARY is just over $500,000), with McLeod around fifteenth.

Backup DBs: Barron was acquired for fourth and sixth round picks from Tampa Bay during the 2014 seasons. Along with the insertion of DT Aaron Donald into the starting lineup, the prominent use of the former top 10 overall Bucs safety in the three safety big nickel package was one of the key identifiable moves and material changes that seemed to move the dial and coincide with the Rams surging top 5 defense in the second half of the season. He was a moveable chess piece for DC Gregg Williams as a hybrid in-the-box safety/LB (playing LB was nothing new to him, the coveted and highly recruited prep had his pick of top SEC schools as the #1 ranked weak-side linebacker in the nation), and despite only two starts for St. Louis, tied for the league lead among safeties with 3 sacks. Barron has plus size for a safety (6'1", 213 lbs.) and can be a punishing striker, like starting safety running mates McDonald and McLeod. While coverage isn't his strong suit, the former Alabama 2 X First-team All-American and BCS National Champion has underrated versatility, and in his soph campaign, tied for third in the nation in INTs (7) and was close to top five in the pass defensed column (16). The Rams opted to not exercise their fifth year option on Barron, but could still work towards a long term contract that reflects his non-starter status, unless he wants to explore possible starting (and higher paying) options in 2016. Johnson was a collegiate safety/CB-tweener, in the mold of former first rounders Antrel Rolle and Malcolm Jenkins. He offers better size than Jenkins at 6'2" 205 lbs., and is also playing for a contract in 2015. Joyner is a former USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year that has drawn comparisons to Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, Antoine Winfield and Bob Sanders for his diminutive stature (5'8" 185 lbs.), explosive striking ability (one of the toughest pound-for-pound players in the 2014 draft) and playmaking skills (5.5 sacks was second in the nation among FBS DB's in 2013).

Last modified: 2015-12-01 18:41:30