The St. Louis Rams season has been lost for the most part. Ever since about week 6, the team and the fans knew that they had no realistic shot of making the playoffs. Giving up on this season would have been easy for the players.
There is nothing to play for, but the team has continued to play hard the whole season. Some of the players, like Steven Jackson and Chris Long, are simply playing hard because that's in their blood.
Others are playing hard just because it's the right thing to do. They still are professionals no matter how poorly they play. In the end, most of the players are motivated to try and impress the coaches and get some good film so they can keep a job next season.
Ryan wanted me to take a look at which players on defense deserve a spot next season and also which players are keys to the defense next season. More after the jump.
Keys - Players who are essential to the Rams success next season and beyond
He had a great breakout season this year. 13 sacks and countless more QB pressures. He has joined the elite of pass rushers in the NFL.
Animal Jr has become the bell cow of the defense. He has taken on the leadership role and has been playing very well this season. James' solid tackling and great energy will be key for this Rams defense to continue success into the next season.
Quinn has come in and had a fantastic rookie season if you consider the fact that he didn't play football the entire year prior to his first season in the NFL. He has five sacks, in limited play and has gotten his hands on 3 punts, though not all were ruled blocks. He is still a very young man at the age of 21 and all signs point to him developing into a great pass rusher for the Rams. The defense will need him to provide good pressure off the right edge. Having a deadly duo of Quinn and Long might propel the Rams to be a top ten defense in 2012.
Keepers - Players who have earned their spots on the roster, either as starters or backups
Mikell has come in and played up to expectations for the Rams. He has been one of the few guys on defense that create turnovers. He has 5 forced fumbles this season and 2 INTs. His knowledge of the defense and his leadership has been very valuable for the Rams young players. Some might think he should be in the "keys" section, but with the basic certainty that the Rams will be running a new defensive system next season, I don't think his value is as high. He was brought in and paid handsomely because he fits what Spags wants in a safety. No matter what system the Rams switch to, you can bet that Mikell will be a starter.
Stewart has been a pleasant surprise this season. He was an undrafted FA who made the team as a backup. He took over the starting SS job from Craig Dahl and has played very well. He has been very good in run support, but only average in coverage. He will have to improve his pass coverage, specifically deep zones, but there isn't a doubt that the Rams have now found their starting safety for next season.
Even though Robert Quinn will likely be the starter at RDE in 2012, James Hall can still have a big impact. Hall can play any position on the defensive line on passing downs and provide pressure. Due to his versatility he will probably be back next season, giving the Rams stay in the 4-3.
Bannan has been the target of much criticism this season. He has had some very bad games for the Rams, but he has also had some very good games. I think that he should be retained as a rotational guy. He can play multiple positions and also if the Rams do in fact switch to the 3-4, he has a great deal of experience at 3-4 end.
Gibson doesn't have the skills to be a starting defensive tackle in the NFL, but this guy plays his ass off every play he is in and is a great rotational guy to have.
Chis has always been a great ST player, but this season he has been put in the starting lineup and done a nice job. Next season he should be a key backup at LB for the Rams and continue to be a key ST contributor.
Gordy has played very well when you consider that he is a rookie. The Rams poached him off of Green Bay's practice squad and he has been a pleasant surprise. He has show some flashes as a playmaker with three interceptions, but he has stubbled in coverage this season. He's a rookie and I expect him to improve in coverage, but he has shown enough to be a backup corner for next season.
Keepers if healthy
Bartell suffered a neck fracture and missed the entire season. Many including me were and still are skeptical about if he can even return and play football. It's been reported recently that Bartell has been medically cleared to return to football and he plans to play next season. If he is healthy, he will most likely be a Ram in 2012.
Bradley Fletcher is a great young corner, but a great young corner who has suffered his second severe knee injury this season. He will probably be back in 2012, but with these knee injuries, you never know.
A couple of iffy guys
He has had a huge regress this season, partly due to his age of 34. He will have to prove he can still be a valuable asset if he wants to be on the Rams.
Their were high expectations for Jerome this season before he broke his ankle in training camp, but that's all they were. Expectations. He has never played exceptionally well in the NFL and still will have to earn a spot.
Overall, the Rams defense isn't far off from being completed. They just need to add some talent at OLB and DT, to improve the 32nd ranked rush defense, and possibly corner depending on if the injured players can return to full strength. The key pieces of the defense are there (Long, Quinn and Laurinaitis) along with some good starters (Mikell and Stewart). The defense is just a few players away from being a very good defense in 2012.