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The Ten Most Important St. Louis Rams in 2014

These might not be the best St. Louis Rams’ players, but they’re extremely important to the success of the team in 2014.

Dilip Vishwanat

1.  QB Sam Bradford

A no-brainer, right?  Time and time again, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have reaffirmed the masses that Bradford is their guy.  Signing a 34-year old backup [Shaun Hill] in free agency, and drafting a quarterback [Garrett Gilbert] in the 6th round of the draft, haven’t changed that.  Coming off an ACL injury suffered in Week 7 of last year, Bradford will look not only to stay healthy, but also revert back to his early-2013 form; when he was on pace for the best year of his young career. The Rams’ young offense is loaded with potential, and Bradford’s ability to lead them to victory will be the determining factor on how often we hear "make or break" or rumblings of drafting Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota in 2015.

2.  DE Robert Quinn

Simply put, he’s the best player on the team, and the Rams need him to replicate the Pro Bowl level results of 2013.  The best pass rusher in the NFL can drastically change how the play pans out for the other ten guys on the Rams’ defense; specifically for the seven lining up behind him.  His incomparable ability to get to opposing quarterbacks will not only lead to well-deserved individual statistics like sacks and fumbles, but more importantly Quinn’s pressure will lead to errant throws, turnovers, and potentially points.

3.  LT Jake Long

Health seems like a never-ending concern in regards to the Rams’ offensive line.  Jake Long, who the team acquired in free agency last year, was having a solid season prior injuring his ACL and MCL and being placed on IR with only one regular season game left to play.  The team is optimistic he’ll be ready for the team’s Week 1 home-opener against the Vikings, though it’s not a certainty at this point.  Why is Long, or his health, more important than any of the other Rams’ offensive lineman?  The Rams’ best O-line looks like this:  Long -- Robinson -- Wells -- Saffold -- Barksdale.  Now, while there's some versatility here - and depth at positions like Center - Long’s absence would lead to undesired moving parts.  If Long can’t stay healthy, the Rams would shift Saffold over to left tackle.  And while serviceable, he’s simply better suited at his current position [RG].  That would bump recently signed OG Davin Joseph into a starting role.  Joseph, who will turn 31 this season, was a Pro-Bolwer in 2008 and 2011, but his Pro Football Focus grades would suggest he’s not all that stellar...minimally, that he’s not been the same since being injured in the Buccaneers third preseason game in 2012...

4.  RB Zac Stacy

Stacy’s name could very well be interchangeable with Tre Mason’s here; as he’s certainly in the mix for staring carries.  But for now, it’s Stacy’s job to lose, and it’s not likely Mason completely supplants the team’s best offensive weapon from 2013.  The Rams look to be committed to a "ground and pound" style offense in 2014, and Stacy [and Mason] should be heavily featured.  If commitment to the run game is truly their plan, then one - or both - of these running backs will need to carry the load, and the team, on their back[s].  Stacy did so last season, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring seven touchdowns, despite having only one carry prior to Week 5.

5.  WR Tavon Austin

The 8th overall selection from last year’s NFL draft, the Rams will need Tavon Austin to step up in a variety of ways.  He showed flashes of brilliance in 2013, but needs to play a larger, more consistent, role in the offense in the coming year.  He’s got the ability to change the outlook of the game on any given play, as witnessed in the team’s Week 10 matchup against the Colts.  The Rams, more so offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, will need to find creative ways to get the ball into Tavon’s hands.  It’s up to Austin to do the rest.  He’s also the team’s primary punt returner, and scored on a 98-yd return in the aforementioned Colts game.  Whether receiving, rushing, or on special teams, Austin has the ability to be an all-purpose yards monster.

6.  MLB James Laurinaitis

Laurinaitis, the second longest tenured player currently on the roster, has been a mainstay in the middle for the Rams’ defense since 2009.  He’s consistently lead the team in tackles, with the exception of last year when rookie OLB Alec Ogletree tallied one more [117] than JL55.   The team’s defensive captain will need to continue being Mr. Reliable this season, especially in defending the run.  Taking a glance at the 2014 schedule, it’s evident that Laurinaitis and Co. will have their hands full in slowing down Top-10 rushers from 2013...

7.  CB Janoris Jenkins

No. 1 wideouts are covered by No. 1 cornerbacks.  That, for St. Louis, means the Rams are committed to, and are relying on, Janoris Jenkins to thwart some of the NFL’s best pass-catchers.  After his rookie season [2012], there would’ve been little to be concerned about.  Jenkins tallied four interceptions, three forced fumbles, and scored four times in his rookie campaign.  Ignoring off-field concerns around draft day, the Rams were wise to have snagged him in the second.  A "steal" of sorts.  Jenkins’ sophomore season was far less impressive.  He nabbed only one interception, and scored no TD’s.  He gave up some big pass plays, and was a shaky tackler.

It shouldn’t take much time to find out if Jenkins has reverted back to his stellar, rookie form.  He’ll be asked to thwart the likes of Greg Jennings, Vincent Jackson, and Dez Bryant all before the team’s Week 4 bye.  The Rams had two picks in the first round of the 2014 draft and chose not to select some of the nation’s premier CB’s, so they seem set to roll with the guy who made a little bit of history two seasons ago...

8.  WR Kenny Britt

The Rams have needed a stud wide receiver for years, and it’s no secret.  Having Britt on this list isn’t suggesting he will be.  It’s suggesting they need him to be.  There are those who see a Vincent Jackson-like breakout from third year receiver Brian Quick, but I’m skeptical.  Britt has the tools to be successful as the No. 1 wideout in St. Louis, as he’s one of the few with the size and physicality to win contested battles for the ball in the air.  Britt, who was unhappy with his role in Tennessee, is looking for a fresh start in St. Louis.  He’s impressed thus far in camp, and while "buzz" in July doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity in September, he’s the only Rams' WR currently creating any. If he and Bradford can quickly develop a rapport, that buzz could help Britt keep his promise to "be a receiver that makes plays on Sundays and makes something happen for a team."

9.  Johnny Hekker

The Pro Bowl efforts of a punter shouldn’t be discredited, and Hekker’s importance to the Rams’ shouldn’t be underestimated.  Hekker lead the NFL in both punt return yards [79 yards on 78 punts].  30 of those punts were returned, for a league-best 2.6 yds average return.  Incredible.  Hekker’s ability to pin teams deep in their own territory will provide plenty of opportunities for Gregg Williams and his defensive front - the fellas from "sack city" - to have some fun near the opponent’s end zone.  Replicating Hekker’s stellar performance[s] from 2013 may not prove easy, but both the offense and the defense benefit when he’s at the top of his game.

10.  FS Rodney McLeod

There’s some uncertainty, currently, as to how the depth chart will be filled out in the Rams’ deep secondary.  It’s Gregg Williams’ first year as defensive coordinator in St. Louis, and he’s obviously got the offseason to assemble his starting eleven.  The team also, somewhat surprisingly, selected Maurice "Mo" Alexander in the 4th round of the most recent draft.  Alexander, who made the move from janitor to strong safety, currently sits behind T.J. McDonald on the team’s depth chart.  How he’ll be used at this point is anyone’s guess, but don’t expect Alexander to sit on the sidelines waiting for his name to be called upon solely as a result of another’s injury.

McLeod, the special team’s captain, is the team’s returning starter.  An undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2012, McLeod has his doubters, and many expected the Rams to target one of college’s top free safety prospects in May’s draft.  That didn’t come to fruition, and it may speak to the team’s faith in McLeod’s ability to get it done.  The Rams gave up some big pass plays in 2013...but going back and watching some tape, you’ll notice that it usually wasn’t McLeod to blame here.  Or here.

A ball-hawking free safety, Rodney McLeod is not.  But as the team’s last line of defense, batted passes and sure-tackling will go a long way in minimizing the damage.