The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers lost key players to injuries this off season. While the NFL world wonders what the effect the loss of Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree will have on these two highly touted teams, the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams search for the position players to fill huge needs.
The Rams have two key areas of concern - safety and running back - and there's no clear cut solutions on the immediate horizon. One of the pitfall of being the youngest team in the NFL, is a lack of proven player depth at every position. St. Louis showed they have the "skin" of a promising team in 2012, with their rookie and second year classes stepping up in a big way. Yet, the "young team" moniker means - to remain on an upward trend - each succeeding draft, free agent and UDFA group has enormous pressure on them to contribute immediately. The situations at safety and running back were exacerbated by off season losses to free agency.
When Steven Jackson opted to leave for the seemingly brighter climbs and future in Atlanta, the Rams were left without a running back that's scored an NFL touchdown - EVER. A promising former second to last player chosen in the 2012 NFL Draft - Daryl Richardson - impressed in his rookie season as Jackson's back up. His 475 rushing yards on 98 carries - 4.8 yards per carry - proved he could at least be a reliable back-up to Jackson, but can he replace him as a starter? 2012 second round draft pick Isaiah Pead hasn't wowed anyone, and he'll have a one game suspension at the start of the 2013 season marring his chances to take the starting roll straight out of training camp. Terrence Ganaway - a mid season pick up from the New York Jets practice squad in 2012 - has the size Rams head coach Jeff Fisher likes to see, as does UDFA Benny Cunningham. Neither has any NFL experience, though Cunningham has impressed thus far in training camp. The tipping point at running back for the Rams could very well be another first year player. Rookie Zac Stacy is getting lots of looks in training camp, and the former SEC rushing leader could be a decent red zone threat in his first NFL year. Comparisons to the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris are pleasant to hear, but lack substance until proven. What I like about Stacy is his post-initial contact vision. While Richardson flashes quickness, - and almost mono-direction-ally hard at a hole - Stacy gives an added yardage potential.
The bottom line, is that for a "run first" team like the Rams to not have a viable running back, or at least one who is creating some separation from the rest competing for the starting roll, has to have their fan base nervous, right? I guess it depends on if you're buying into the "run first" offense as being real for the Rams in 2013. I don't see it, and if you look at the roster additions and overall shape, "pass happy" seems more the trend. Right or wrong about what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has planned, the issues at running back remain. But based on my assumption of Sam Bradford flinging passes around the field to a talent young wide receiver corps, I'd say pass blocking is going to be a tipping point for any running back making the Rams' roster.
Safety is a huge area of worry for the Rams in 2013. Gone are Quintin Mikell and fan "favorite" Craig Dahl. Dahl moved on to division rival San Francisco, and based on his performance in deep coverage, he wasn't going to be the answer for the potentially top 10 defense the rams are currently sculpting. Mikell had a solid 2012 season, but lacked the pass coverage skills necessary. He performed well as an "in the box" safety, racking up 101 tackles, 3 sacks and four forced fumbles in his final year with the Rams. That's quite a bit of lost performance to recover from, and doing it with less than proven substitutes isn't going to be easy. Former Oakland Raider Matt Giordano - in his 9th NFL season - represents the veteran presence at safety. While he could be an improvement in pass coverage over both Dahl and Mikell, a meaningful presence in the box is doubtful.
The crew the Rams will set their 2013 season hopes on is young; an overriding theme for St. Louis. Darian Stewart is coming into his 4th NFL season. Potential is there, but injuries have kept him from completing an entire season. Hard hitting, the former University of South Carolina product had ten tackles in 2012... 10! Next are a promising duo of second year safeties: Rodney McLeod and Matt Daniels. Expect to see McLeod get serious playing time in 2013, and if Daniels can come back from a late season injury, he'll play a situational role too. Dark horse rookie Rashard Hall could surprise people. If he makes the roster, he'll fill Daniels' shoes on special teams.
Update: Forgive me forgetting young Mr. Cody Davis. A fan favorite so far in training camp, this UDFA has turned more than a few heads. While I don't see him starting, I can definitely see him as a special teams contributor as he learns the wild ways of the NFL...
The tipping point at safety for the Rams will be 3rd round 2013 NFL Draft pick T.J. McDonald. It's tons of pressure to put on the former USC standout. The mixed reviews on McDonald in pre-draft analysis adds to the suspense, creating an unfair and premature"boom or bust" atmosphere around this rookie. Personally, I think the Rams got a steal with McDonald. He's smart, and at 6'2" gives the Rams the kind of free safety they'll need to cover some of the best tight ends in their division, if not the NFL. He'll be covering Vernon Davis, Zach Miller and Rob Housler - who I think is ready to breakout - in the NFC West.
There isn't a team without position question marks, here or there. Some teams have to solve post-injury problems. The Rams are trying to find players who'll fill gaping voids, and doing so with with loads of unknowns. This is where coaching staffs show their greatness. They build out each position from the ground up, so the current crop of Rams trying to land jobs at running back and safety couldn't be in a better place. The only way they can go is up, because their feet are firmly planted on the floor for the time being. This is going to be about rising to an occasion for these young men. How remarkable is it, to be in both a pressure filled and promise driven situation. If successful, the players who perform at safety or running back for the Rams will literally quietly carry the hopes of an entire NFL team in 2013.