The word "review" is probably something of a misnomer for this. It isn't really intended to be a look back at the Xs & Os for each player and component of the team. Rams fans are pretty well versed on the actual performance of the team and the players: They stunk. This is more of an assesment of where we're at and what we need for each position looking toward the immediate future.
Enjoy the draft talk and the coaching carousel while you still can. Soon enough, Steven Jackson's contract situation will dominate much of the conversation, a la the situation with Bulger last year. Let's start the RB review with this issue, since it will have a far-reaching impact.
The chart above lists the salary cap value and remaining contract years for Rams running backs.
The first question is whether or not to resign him. There are firm believers pointing out the wisdom of NOT overpaying for running backs, not even using a first round pick for them. This NY Times article from November lays out the case. Maybe it's all the "moneyball" talk you pick up as a baseball fan, but the point of the article isn't lost on me. In fact, after seeing Larry Johnson lost to an injury this season after negotiating a pricey long term deal, I probably lean slightly toward that school of thought. As you can see from this conversation I had with Chiefs fans over at Arrowhead Pride, a number of Chiefs fans seem to agree.
Nevertheless, the Rams seem likely to resign Jackson. It's not a bad thing either, even in the context of the "don't overpay running backs" conversation. Right now, the Rams don't have the offensive line to insert just any running back. This year's bailing wire and twine version of the line just couldn't open the holes needed for even the most basic running game. Drafting a blue chip talent for the line will help in the long run, but it's not reasonable to assume even with a marquee addition like Chris Long the line would be among the league's elite in 2008.
On the other hand, diverting money that might be used to give Jackson another contract toward making Alan Faneca an offer he couldn't refuse might change that scenario. Enough to assuage fan anger in the face of letting Jackson walk after a 3-13 season? Probably not, and therein lies one of the main reasons to resign SJ. Beside, the other key offensive players - Bulger, Holt, McMichael, Bennett - aren't of the age where a full-fledged rebuilding effort is worth the cost, not for team that needs to reconnect with its fans, and quickly.
What kind of money can Jackson expect? A deal like Larry Johnson's isn't an unreasonable expectation for the Rams running back. Johnson got a six year, $45 million deal with $19 million in guaranteed money. Jackson is three years younger than his cross-state counterpart.
Jackson, regardless of where you come down in the "what to pay running backs" debate, easily rates as one of the top talents in the league at his position. You don't have to be a Rams fan to see that. He'll be the centerpiece of whatever reconfigured offense Al Saunders or whoever gets the OC job puts out there in 2008. You also have to think about the Rams situation at wide receiver. We lack young talent ready to step up, taking a WR in the first round wouldn't likely change that when you start to figure in development time. Also consider that the Rams may be losing a receiver in Isaac Bruce. Therefore, Jackson is as important to this team for his receiving skills, giving the Rams a legitimate pass catching threat in option packages and passes to the middle of the field.
The biggest hole in Jackson's game is pass blocking. Hopefully, new running backs coach Art Valero can change that. Remember, Marshall Faulk had already achieved a significant measure of greatness in his career before he became a skilled blocker.
Blocking segues nicely into our other major need in the RB corps, a power fullback, a blocking specialist. The tattered offensive line exposed the lack of a blocker from the backfield this season. There's no need to keep Richard Owens. Brian Leonard will be a valuable asset for the offense, but in a role resembling more of a change of pace/different look running back, a role he seems well suited for. Yes, we need someone to replace Super Bowl-bound Madison Hedgecock, who you've heard by now is no fan of Linehan. Adding a fullback via free agency is the most likely route.
A final question is whether or not to keep Pittman around. Given his relatively small cap cost, there's no reason to part ways.
If they can prevent the contract negotiations with Jackson from becoming a three ring circus, and another bad PR hit for team desperate for season ticket sales, and add a cost-effective fullback to the roster, the backfield should continue to be a real strength. Accomplishing this while still shuffling the budget to address other team needs, including the costs associated with signing the draft's second overall pick, poses a real challenge.