The good people of Football Outsiders are doing their annual visit with all 32 of SB Nation's NFL blogs, answering questions about the state of the team related to the 2014 Football Outsiders Almanac (available here and highly recommended).
FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz took some time to answer some questions about the St. Louis Rams. Schatz wrote the player comments for the Rams (Mike Tanier wrote the essay and Scott Kacsmar wrote the unit comments in the Rams chapter).
Without further ado, let's get right into it.
1. How likely is a Kenny Britt turnaround this season? Related, how likely is it that Brian Quick suddenly starts playing at a high level, something closer to the No. 1 WR they drafted to him be? Is the front office going to regret standing with this group of receivers?
Let's take the last part first: at a certain point, if you've invested a large amount of draft capital in a specific position, you've got to ride with those guys and figure out what you have. Two or three years is usually not enough time in the NFL to feel fully confident in giving up on a high draft pick. Not all high draft picks work out, obviously, but there was a reason you saw that potential. The Rams have five guys chosen in the first four rounds of the last three drafts. Pettis is what he is, I think that's pretty clear. He's a possession guy, sort of an outside Jason Avant. Everyone else, you don't quite yet know what they are going to be. We're very bullish on Stedman Bailey, who had the highest Playmaker Score of any receiver in the 2013 class. You're talking about a guy who put up 1,600 yards and 25 TD even when he had to share the field with Tavon Austin.
With Quick, I think you need one more year to see what you've got. I'm guessing he's been somewhat held back by that offense. As we discuss in the chapter, Brian Schottenheimer seems to think you can stretch the field in two ways: horizontally and also horizontally. Out of curiosity, I ran sim scores for Quick and looked only at players drafted in the second round. Most similar in their first two seasons: Joe Jurevicius 98-99, Wes Carroll 91-92, Pete Mandley 84-85, Brett Perriman 88-89, Jon Baldwin 11-12 (ugh), Alexander Wright 90-91, Ron Smith 78-79. I think you see from this list how Quick is a bit of a throw-back receiver; these days, if a highly-drafted receiver starts slowly, he's usually a possession guy, not a deep threat. Perriman developed. Jurevicious had a nice long career as a depth guy and won a ring. The rest of that group, yeah, not good.
I don't know what to tell you about Kenny Britt. My common joke is that if I understood what the heck was going on in some of these guys' heads, I would call the site Football Psychologists not Football Outsiders. I don't think it is about talent with him. It's about health and attitude. There's just no real precedent for a guy who produced like Britt as young as Britt, and then crumbled, though Josh Gordon might be following in his footsteps. Here's the list of guys with at least 600 receiving yards at both age 21 and 22 since 1978: Larry Fitzgerald, Josh Gordon, Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin, Randy Moss, Hakeem Nicks, and Andre Reed.
I do think that in this offense, there's no way Britt is going back to 16 yards a reception, even if he is the No. 1 receiver this year.
2. Sam Bradford is in his fifth season in the league. The Rams' brass is convinced that this is the year he he finally puts it all together. What are the chances of Bradford playing up to expectations? his own contract? Where's the disconnect between his promising college career and his NFL career?
Honestly, I wish I knew. I was a big Bradford booster when he came out, and I thought the Rams really had themselves a franchise quarterback. As the chapter discusses, it is hard to figure out where to draw the line between Bradford's limitations and Schottenheimer's limitations.
Bradford concentrates so much on short passes, but he's not the only one ... This is mind-blowing, since he has Roddy White and Julio Jones, but Matt Ryan threw deep (16+ air yards) as often as Bradford did in 2012 and less often than he did in 2013. And Ryan is one of the top seven or eight quarterbacks in the league. It's not an issue of Bradford struggling with pressure, because the difference between his performance with and without pressure is about the same as the average for quarterbacks. He was horrible on third downs in 2012, but it looks like that was a one-year fluke, because he was no worse on third down than on other downs in either 2011 or 2013.
I guess the hope I can give is that Bradford's best year by our numbers was last year, and his second best year by our numbers was 2012, so he's been getting better. But at age 27*, I don't know how much more he can climb. I think his peak is "league-average starter."
*Bradford turns 27 in November.
3. For as much praise as the defense is getting, there are real questions in the secondary, especially at safety. How much of a concern should that be considering the kind of pass rushing power the Rams have? How does Gregg Williams' defense help or hurt that group?
Well, it is certainly less of a concern given the pass rush, absolutely. I'm not sure how much Gregg Williams helps this group, though, given how strong the front four is. He's supposed to specialize in exotic blitz looks, right? Can you think of a defense in the NFL that should be LESS dependent on exotic blitz looks than the St. Louis Rams? Now, I don't think there's as much depth here as some people tend to think, other than with Aaron Donald at defensive tackle. Eugene Sims is nothing special, William Hayes is a nice backup but not really more than that, and as much as we're rooting for him as a person, our SackSEER projection system hates Michael Sam. But when they get that starting four in there (or Donald subs), that's the best four in the league, even better than Carolina. And they really need all seven guys in coverage because of the weakness in the secondary.
The team that needs Gregg Williams isn't St. Louis. It's Atlanta. Now THAT'S a team that desperately needs to manufacture a pass rush with exotic blitz looks.
4. The league's putting a renewed emphasis on illegal contact & defensive holding penalties this year, and it looks like the kind of thing that could result in an advantage for pass-happy offenses. Considering the Rams pass rush AND their plodding offense, will this help or hurt the team?
Honestly, it's hard to make a judgment on "renewed penalty emphasis" until you actually see how it plays out -- and not in the preseason, where who knows what the hell is going on, but in the regular season. Last time we went through this business about "renewed emphasis on illegal contact" was in 2004, and the turnover among winning teams between 2003 and 2004 was really no different than it was in other years. Mediocre offenses got a little less mediocre, and good offenses got a little better, and great offenses got a little greater. Rising tide, all boats, and so on.
5. What do the Rams have to do to get on the same level as the Seahawks & 49ers? Does St. Louis have the right coaching staff and philosophy to get to that level?
To get to that Super Bowl contender level, I think the Rams need a big step forward from the secondary, the quarterback, and the wide receivers and/or offensive line. (They could probably do it with one of those units being mediocre, but not both.) The secondary is probably the most important. Seattle and San Francisco stand out as run-first offenses in a pass-first era, but their defenses are all about killing the pass first and foremost.
As for philosophy, I like the Rams front office, and I'm friendly with Kevin Demoff.
There are two schools of thoughts on Jeff Fisher: One, that he is a mediocrity who lucked into a SB appearance because anyone will if they coach long enough, and two, that he is a pretty good coach who somehow managed to keep bringing the Titans back from big roster implosions caused by salary cap problems. Some of my writers are distinctly in the first camp. I'm in the second.
The problem here, as the chapter details, is the offensive philosophy. You can build an offense around the highly-efficient short pass, but only if you are highly efficient at those short passes. And the Rams seem to be built entirely around "getting the ball to dynamic players in space" without, you know, creating any actual space for them.