Fans were quick to bring out the knives when Chris Long's sack totals failed to live up to the unreasonable expectations heaped upon the second overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. With a list that included Jimmy Kennedy, Tye Hill, Trung Candidate and Alex Barron, most just assumed that Chris Long would take his place in the St. Louis Rams' circle of draft busts.
Assessments started to change in the middle of last season. Powering through offensive tackles and putting quarterbacks on the turf, Long became a bright spot even as the Rams kept losing games. After the season, people started using a different b-word to discuss expectations for Long's third season: breakout. Eleven games into the season, the breakout looks to be official. His 6.5 sacks are second on the team, but Chris Long leads a revived pass rush that's helped put the Rams into the race for a division title.
Want to quantify Long's breakout? Look no further than the number of QB hurries and hits he has on the season. According to Football Outsiders, Long leads the league with 33 QB hurries, through 9 games charted, for an average of 3.7 hurries a game. Through 12 weeks, Long has 10 QB hits, tied for the fourth best total in the league.
The Rams still have five games to play, and more time for the big defensive end to solidify his breakout. More than the individual accomplishment, Long figures to be a big part of the team's playoff push. His late game heroics staved off a Denver comeback that surely would have ended the Rams playoff push last week.
Long is in the third year of a five-year rookie contract (the sixth year was voided when he played more than 35 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie) that will pay him $48 million with $22.385 guaranteed. It's probably a little soon to start thinking about a new deal after this year. Another season like this one and a new, bigger contract becomes a very real possibility.
There are several points on the timeline that could mark the start of the Rams' turnaround. Finally getting it right in the first round with the Chris Long pick is one of them.
Speaking of the defensive line, you'll also notice that Rams DE James Hall is among the league's leaders in drawing holding penalties.