FanPost

2013 Season Preview: Part One of Three Part Series




This is my first installment of three unique previews of the 2013 St. Louis Rams. As a longtime fan, I interject comparisons of players and position groups with an eye towards comparison to historical Rams to offer an interesting perspective that I hope is both entertaining and informative. This first post focuses on the strengths of the team that I believe will outperform consensus expectations: the defensive line, linebacking corps, the relative blocking ability of the RBs, Tavon Austin's injury outlook and Stedman Bailey.

In part one of the series previewing the Rams 2013 season, profiling the aspects of the team of which I am more optimistic on than the consensus view. For part two of my season preview, I will discuss aspects of the team of which I am more pessimistic than the consensus. Finally, in the third and final portion of my season preview, I will discuss a player for which there is no consensus view, Sam Bradford.

1) The defensive line will be one of the best in the league.

a) Interior Line: With Michael Brockers entering his second season and fully recovered from his foot injury, I expect his play to take a big step forward. Brockers, who won't turn 23 until late December, was one of the youngest players in the entire league last season. (For comparison, Janoris Jenkins is nearly two years older than Brockers.) I wish I had the same optimism for Kendall Langford, but I do not see him becoming an effective player. However, I think Jermelle Cudjo (if he can stay healthy) and William Hayes are very good role players who can fill in at DT and make up for Langford's deficiencies.

Chris Long's PFP Rankings(a)

Year

Pass Rush

Run Def

Overall

2012

7th

59th

23rd

2011

4th

67th

17th

2010

7th

65th

20th

2009

36th

33rd

36th

2008

42nd

55th

42nd

(a) Among 4-3 DEs only

Chris Long has rated as a top 10 pass rusher (look at his ranks in pass rushing for 4-3 DEs over the past three years according to Pro Football Focus). While Quinn did not take as big of a step forward in 2012, I think he will improve in 2013 and give the Rams one of the best duos of pass rushing Des in the league. Despite their pass rushing talent, they have been slightly below average against the run. However, Long has not had much support from his defensive tackles, which I think will change this year. The Rams' poor linebacker play has allowed big runs against the Rams defense to become the norm and exacerbated the perception of his rush defense as below average. With better defensive tackle and linebacker support, I expect his overall ratings to be more in line with his pass rusher rating.

2) The linebacking corps might be the best in Rams history.

This seems crazy, but let's take a look at the history of Rams linebackers. In my opinion, this group should be at least the best since 2006. In that year, Brandon Chillar played well, Witherspoon had a nice season in his first as a Ram and Tinoisamoa had yet to hit his decline phase. I'm not sure, but I think many Rams fans forget that 2006 team almost made the playoffs. The 2006 LBs were a pretty good group. The other two years that could challenge this group for the title of "Best Rams LB Corp Ever" (BRLCE for short) are the 2001 and 1999 teams. Maybe I am looking too kindly on these teams because they were the Super Bowl years. However, the 2001 team had Tommy Polley in his rookie season, which was likely his best, and Mark Fields played pretty well as the other OLB while sharing time with Don Davis. The 1999 squad sported Todd Collins (in his last truly productive season) and Mike Jones as the outside LBs. Both teams were supported by London Fletcher having some of the best seasons of any MLB in Rams history. At the time, it seemed like Fletcher's play was just a product of the system, but his years of excellent play elsewhere have proven otherwise. The Rams decision to sign Jamie Duncan instead of shell out the extra cash to retain Fletcher was one of the more damaging personnel decisions of the franchise's history, but I digress.

St. Louis Rams Linebacker History

Year

OLB

MLB

OLB

2013

A. Ogletree

J. Laurinaitis

J. Dunbar

2012

R. McIntosh

J. Laurinaitis

J. Dunbar

2011

C. Chamberlain

J. Laurinaitis

B. Poppinga

2010

N. Diggs

J. Laurinaitis

L. Grant

2009

D. Vorbora

J. Laurinaitis

P. Lenon

2008

Q. Culberson

W. Witherspoon

P. Tinoisamoa

2007

B. Chillar

W. Witherspoon

P. Tinoisamoa

2006

B. Chillar

W. Witherspoon

P. Tinoisamoa

2005

D. Coakley

C. Claiborne

P. Tinoisamoa

2004

T. Polley

R. Thomas

P. Tinoisamoa

2003

T. Polley

R. Thomas

P. Tinoisamoa

2002

T. Polley

J. Duncan

R. Thomas

2001

T. Polley

L. Fletcher

M. Fields

2000

M. Jones

L. Fletcher

T. Collins

1999

M. Jones

L. Fletcher

T. Collins

1998

M. Jones

E. Hill

R. Phifer

1997

M. Jones

R. Jones

R. Phifer

1996

C. Jenkins

R. Jones

R. Phifer

1995

C. Jenkins

S. Conlan

R. Phifer

If you take a look at the table of starting LBs, players who would have made a good role players were thrust into starting roles. Culberson, Vorbora and Chamberlain were all probably better suited as special teams players. Lenon, Poppinga, Diggs, Grant and McIntosh are depth players on a playoff team. With those players in the starting lineup, try to even remember who the backup LBs were from 2008 to 2011. How many can you name? My guess is less than three. The depth this Rams team will have with Witherspoon coming off the bench will be superior to any Rams team over at least the past six years.

Last year, Dunbar and Laurinatis played well, but Dunbar was a weak spot. McIntosh played about average against the run but struggled in pass coverage. Laurinaitis played well against the run, but was not as effective in pass coverage. In today's pass-centric NFL, LBs are given more pass coverage responsibilities than probably any other time in the league's history. Given this backdrop, Alec Ogletree is the "new prototype" for an OLB. His rare combination of size, speed and experience at both safety and LB make him my pick for Defensive ROY. If he can stay out of trouble and stay healthy, I think he will be one of the best players on the defensive side of the football in the NFC.

3) Tavon Austin's injury outlook.

Tavon Austin was listed at 5'8 and 174 pounds at the NFL Combine this spring. Durability has been the main concern about Austin, despite that he has allegedly never missed a practice. In the table, you can see the weight-to-height ratio of some notable Rams wide receivers. Although, the absolute size of the player is important, the weight-to-height ratio is also important in looking at the body type of a player. Tavon may possess the lowest weight-to-height ratio, but many other WRs have been able to play and stay healthy. Isaac Bruce only missed significant time in 1998 and 2005 during his 12 years with the Rams, and he was able to stay that healthy during probably the most violent era in NFL history. Is it that much easier for a 6'0 188-pound wide receiver to stay healthy than a 5'8 174-pound one? I do not believe so. While the NFL is the most violent of professional sports and the repeated injuries to former Rams' small WR Danny Amendola. Amendola's injuries were kind of fluky, however, as he missed almost all of the 2011 season with a dislocated elbow. In 2012, he missed three games with a dislocated clavicle and two others with a nagging foot problem. If you look at the table, you can see that Austin's pounds per inch is not that much lower than other notable RamsWRs.

Notable Rams Wide Receivers

Name

Pounds

Feet

Inches

Total Inches

Pounds / Inch

Tavon Austin

174

5

8

68

2.559

Danny Amendola

183

5

11

71

2.577

Isaac Bruce

188

6

0

72

2.611

Shaun McDonald

183

5

10

70

2.614

Kevin Curtis

186

5

11

71

2.620

Todd Kinchen

187

5

11

71

2.634

Torry Holt

190

6

0

72

2.639

Az-Zahir Hakim

189

5

10

70

2.700

Chris Givens

198

5

11

71

2.789

Today's NFL is much safer than the NFL of the past. College rule changes have mirrored the NFL's rule revisions. Alex Grinch, the safeties coach at the University of Missouri, summed up the changes in the safety position, saying, "The whole idea of the safety being a headhunter and an intimidating force over the middle, you really can't be that anymore." He also explained that the rule changes will change the way safeties approach pass plays and the way coaches recruit players for that position. In years past, a smaller player like Austin would have been a much bigger injury liability than under the current rules.

I'm not sold that Austin will succeed in the NFL, but I think his injury risk is overblown given his strong record of health and the new rules, which make the game safer.

4.) Relative blocking ability of Running Backs

Steven Jackson is one of the greatest players in Rams history. His 10,135 rushing yards and near injury-free career are the marks of one of the NFL's truly great players. However, he was not without his flaws, especially at the end of his time with the Rams. His pass blocking in particular hampered the Rams offense.

Steven never had the vision to see opposing players coming through the line or off the edge. When he did engage an opponent, the results typically favored the opposition, as Steven was rarely able to use his strength to his advantage. I imagine this goes unnoticed by many due to the assumption Steven can block because of his size,, but there is a reason that Kenneth Darby came in on third and long situations from 2008 to 2010.

Previously, Marshall Faulk stayed in on passing situations instead of Steven. Marshall Faulk may have been the best pass blocking running block in the history of the league, so we cannot really fault Jackson for not being able to block better than the best ever. At the same time, the 6'3 230 pound Jackson was getting outblocked by 5'10 211 pound Marshall Faulk. Marshall Faulk's pass blocking is what makes him the best player in the NFL's history, in my opinion. Not only could he run and catch the football, but he could pass block better than any other back in the game.

In Bradford's first game as a Ram, Steven's inability to pass block was obvious, as he went to help the wrong side of the line on one play and somehow just didn't see a Cardinals defender go right past him on another. The look Sam gave Steven was priceless.

The perception of Jackson's blocking was unduly influenced by his tremendous block on Patrick Willis when the Rams played at the 49ers this year. One good block does not make him a good blocker any more than Janoris Jenkins' four touchdowns make him a good player. The perception of Jenkins as an excellent player is relevant to Jackson. Pro Football Focus rated Jenkins the second worst corner in the entire league last year but, because of his four flashy defensive touchdowns, Jenkins is perceived as an excellent cornerback (you can read more about my thoughts in Jenkins in part two of my season preview). Jackson's block of Patrick Willis was a tremendous play at a key moment against the Rams most hated rival, but that does not mean he is a good blocker. I predict the pass blocking will be much improved this season.

I believe that the Richardson / Pead / Stacey / other combination will prove more effective at pass protection than Steven did at any point during his time in St. Louis.

5.) Stedman Bailey's ability relative to Tavon Austin

Tavon Austin is the rookie WR most Rams fans are excited to watch play. Given his small size, highlight play potential and 4.34 speed make him a player fans want to watch. However, I do not believe that Austin will be the most productive rookie WR. I believe Stedman Bailey will out produce Austin, just as he did at West Virginia.

Bailey led all receivers in Football Outsiders' Playmaker Score metric, which has proven to be a pretty accurate predictor of NFL success. Admittedly, Playmaker Score does not take into account kickoff or punt returns, which was where Austin was able to showcase his big play ability, but Austin's inability to be as electric when lining up as a wide receiver is a red flag to me. As Matt Waldman points out in a tremendous draft profile of Austin, Tavon's speed never really showed up in the passing up. After watching each of West Virginia's games this year, he found that "the only deep routes where I've seen him blow by a defender were missed assignments or mismatches against linebackers or safeties."

We often hear about players who have great "game speed", meaning they play faster with pads on during the actual game than their 40 time might suggest, but rarely (if ever) do we hear about someone with the opposite skill set. I think there is a real risk that Tavon has "combine speed." His 40-yard dash time suggests he should possess breakaway speed, although Waldman was not able to find evidence of the game film. Here's to hoping Austin can show that 4.34 speed in the games this year. Until then, I remain optimistic that his counterpart, Bailey, will continue the trend he started in college of out producing Austin as a WR.

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