Having finished the OTA’s last week, the Rams are now off for the summer; leaving us in limbo until late July when the team re-unites for training camp. Knowing what we know now, here are five questions you should ask yourself as we crawl towards the 2013 regular season...
1. Can The Rams' Defense Lead The NFL In Sacks [Again]?
The Rams’ defense tied [w/ Denver Broncos] for the NFL lead in sacks last season, with 52. It was a vast improvement from 2011, when the Rams finished 15th in the league, tallying 39.
The defense continues to be the team’s strong suit, despite having only three starters [Chris Long, Robert Quinn, & James Laurinaitis] who have been on the team for more than one season. The front four set the tone for the Rams, and there’s little reason to believe the defensive line won’t continue to improve in 2013; growing familiarity with the system and with one another. Adjusting to the NFL proved to be relatively simple for Michael Brockers in his rookie year. Kendall Langford - who the Rams acquired from the Dolphins last season - should be much improved in his 2nd consecutive year in the Rams 4-3 defense.
But if the Rams are to own the league-lead in sacks, it will come as a result of stellar seasons from their bookends: Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Long tied for 9th in the league last year - with 11.5 sacks - while his counterpart finished 17th, only one full sack behind.
Jeff Fisher has challenged his defense to beat the 1984 Chicago Bears’ sack record . That’s certainly a tall order for any team. Regardless of whether or not they’re able to break the record, can the Rams lead the NFL in sacks by season’s end?
2. Can Sam Bradford Throw For 4,000 Yards?
This is the year for Sam Bradford, right? It’s be deemed - by many - as a ‘make or break’ season, so it’s got to be, right? Not really. Everyone’s got their take on Bradford, his importance to the offense, and his expectations for 2013. He’ll certainly be the most important player in the Rams' offense this year, as his leadership [post Steven Jackson] is needed more than ever.
One of those expectations is that he eclipse 4,000 yards for the first time in his young career. Would the rest of the players, coaches, and fans trade a 4,000+ yard season for a 10 or 11 win year? Sure. But as his #1 overall draft selection - coupled with his college resumé and reputation - would have it, he’s been expected to provide those results from day one. Take a look at what he’s had to work with through his first three years. Yeah...
But this year Sam has been provided with weapons, and therefore the expectation fire rages on. The real question should be: How do you couple expectations with uncertainty? Sure, he’s been provided with a slew of offensive threats in the offseason. Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, & Stedman Bailey are promising, but reliable? That’s still to be seen. Outside of that, the Rams’ signal caller will look to ‘veteran’ Austin Pettis, and 2nd year guys Brian Quick and Chris Givens. Givens had an exceptional rookie year, and looks to build on being the Rams’ leading receiver for the second consecutive season. Quick, though, has much work to do. As Jim Thomas points out, Quick might not be as far along as one would hope, noting that he’s the No. 4 WR after the OTA’s.
Bradford should be poised for the best year of his NFL career. Or so it would seem. As every team sport would have it, his success hinges upon that of others. Is an oft-injured offensive line going to hold up? Are the young receivers going to be on the same page? The Rams don’t have a cakewalk schedule this year. Is Sam Bradford going to eclipse the 4,000 yard mark in 2013?
3. Can Brian Quick Be Who The Rams Need Him To Be?
As aforementioned, Brian Quick - the team’s 2nd draft selection [33rd overall] from 2012 - doesn’t seem to be standing out in the early portion of the offseason. More so, he’s being out-shined. Should Rams fans be concerned? Maybe. And though potentially premature, the "adjustment from a small school to the NFL" line of rationale crumbles with every snap he’s on the sideline. Needing to improve on his rookie season would be an understatement.
Quick showed promise at the end of last season, displaying the size and sure hands that any NFL red zone threat requires. That great snag aside, the [essentially] first round selection caught only 10 more balls in the entirety of 2012, finishing the season with 156 yards and one other TD.
There are many that think that Brian Quick needs to step it up in 2013, including myself. He’s the biggest wideout on the Rams’ roster, and he should be considered the biggest threat to the opposition.
Will Brian Quick step it up in 2013, or is he going to be overshadowed by rookies, and outplayed by Austin Pettis? [Kudos to Austin Pettis, by the way]
4. Can Tavon Austin Win The Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award?
He was the most exciting player in all of college football last year. If you don’t believe it, just watch this video. He immediately makes the offense more explosive, and as a threat in the return game, Austin could help put the team in a better position to succeed.
The Rams drafted Austin 8th overall for a reason. GM Les Snead doesn’t need players… he wants them. It says a lot about what the organization thinks of him, having traded up in the first round to acquire him. Snead has a pretty solid track record for drafting legitimate playmakers in the NFL, and Tavon Austin looks to be no exception.
The 2012 draft was chock full of game-changers, but Tavon Austin stood apart in the most recent draft. He’s expected to make an immediate impact in the offense [and potentially special teams]. If he’s able to hold up for 16 games and make plays like those in the highlight video above, is there any rookie in the NFL who can challenge Tavon Austin for Offensive ROTY?
5. Can The Rams Make The Playoffs?
The million-dollar question. The Rams have now gone eight consecutive seasons without a playoff berth. They barely missed out on the postseason in 2010, when a loss in the final game of the season ended the Rams' run and afforded the Seattle Seahawks the opportunity to continue on into the playoffs.
The NFC West has come a long way since 2010, when a losing record allowed entry into the postseason. The 49ers have been one of the best teams in the NFC over the past two years, and the Seahawks aren’t far behind, if at all. Both teams have made the playoffs twice in the past three years, with the 49ers representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last season.
Given the improvement - both offensively and defensively - of the team in this offseason, the Rams are going to be a formidable opponent for teams both inside and outside the conference. Their return to legitimacy, though, comes at a time when two of their three NFC West foes are early picks for Super Bowl XLVIII.
It’s probably going to take somewhere in the ballpark of double digit wins to gain entry to the 2013-2014 playoffs, and it may take an inter-conference result like that of 2012 [4-1-1] to solidify their chances.
The Rams have the 4th toughest schedule this season. Can they overcome all obstacles and become a playoff team for the first time in nine years?
If you can answer ‘Yes’ to the first four, what impact does that have on question Number 5?