Sunday, January 20, 2008

Roster Evaluation: St. Louis Rams

Marc Bulger will be back at the helm next season. When healthy, and behind a line that isn't decimated by injuries the way the Rams line was last season, Bulger is still a Pro Bowl quality QB. Gus Frerotte has one-year left on his contract and should be the backup again, while the Rams bring in a mid-to-late round draft pick to groom for the future. If Michigan's Chad Henne is on the board in round three, he'd be a good get. Erik Ainge out of Tennessee is one of my favorite mid-level prospects, while San Diego's Josh Johnson might do well if brought along slowly like Tony Romo was.

Running Back
The Rams are set at running back with Steven Jackson. Brian Leonard is an adequate backup and Antonio Pittman is fine as the number three guy. One of the Rams mistakes this past season was releasing fullback Madison Hedgecock after one game. He's a solid blocker who helped pave the way for the New York Giants consistently good run game. The Rams power running, meanwhile, was among the worst in the league.
 Steelers full back Dan Kreider will be available in free agency, but will be 31. There are decent full back prospects in the draft, such as West Virginia's Own Schmitt, but with the Rams personnel they would be better served to add depth at WR and TE and continue to run single-back sets with Jackson and Leonard.

Wide Receiver
At 35, Isaac Bruce is a likely cap casualty. Torry Holt will turn 32 this off-season but appears to have a few productive seasons left in him. Last year the Rams brought in Drew Bennett and he was a huge disappointment. Given the money put into Bennett last year, St. Louis would be better off looking to the draft and it's deep class of receivers. Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett and Michigan's Mario Manningham are players who fit the Rams offense and could be available at the top of the second round. Likewise Lousiville's Harry Douglas and Houston's Donnie Avery warrant a look at the top of the third. And there are plenty of guys worth taking a chance on in the later rounds, from Alabama's D.J. Hall to Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson.

Tight End
Randy McMichael was another disappointing free agent signing. Joe Klopfenstein suffered a sophomore slump. And Dominique Byrd continued to struggle with immaturity issues. The Rams need to stay away from the big free agents out there (Dallas Clark and L.J. Smith), work with what they have and bring in another good young prospect. The Rams should stick mainly to a one-back system, running a lot of plays from two tight-end formations. This is a relatively deep draft for tight-ends and someone like Purdue's Dustin Keller or Tennessee's Brad Cottam would be a solid mid-round pick. And if Kellen Davis is there in the third round, the Rams should take a good hard look at him for his upside: if he can put it all together he would be comparable to Kellen Winslow Jr.

Offensive Line
The Rams were incredibly unlucky with injuries last year and so they can count on improvement from this unit just by some of the starters staying healthy. Still, Orlando Pace has been injured two years in a row and just doesn't have many seasons ahead of him. 2005 first-rounder Alex Barron, while showing flashes of his potential, hasn't shown nearly enough consistency or the necessary focus to be the Rams left tackle of the future. Unfortunately, backup left tackles can't be picked up off the street; the Rams will have to look to the draft for a tackle to develop, one from the second tier of prospects, such as Vanderbilt's Chris Williams, Toledo's John Greco, or Clemson's Barry Richardson.
 The interior line could be solidified with starting guards Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito returning from injuries, but neither of them has gotten on the field much in their short careers, so it's hard to say for sure. Center Brett Romberg is a free agent who could probably be brought back cheaply, and the Rams should sign him for depth.
 If I were the Rams I would stay away from Steelers high-priced free agent guard Alan Faneca, who is clearly on the downside of his all-pro career. Ryan Lilja of Indianapolis will be available and could be a good fit for the Rams offense, but he'll be costly, too. The offensive lineman I'd be most likely to go out and spend for is Cincinnati's Stacey Andrews, who is just hitting his peak. He could be slotted in at right guard, and Incognito could be moved to center. If Pace were to go out with an injury again, necessitating Barron's move back to left tackle, Andrews could slide over to Barron's spot, which he can man more than capably.

Defensive Line
Leonard Little is 33 and due to make $9.5 million if the Rams don't re-negotiate his contract. On the other end James Hall soon turns 31 and might not be worth his $3 million base salary in 2008. DT La'Roi Glover is also 33, but he showed he can still be productive in limited playing time, while 2007 fifth-rounder Clifton Ryan was a pleasant surprise. Last year's first round pick Adam Carriker was solid and should continue to improve.
 The big question: will the Rams switch to a 3-4 defense or stick to their 4-3? Coming off such a disastrous season, and with so many of the key players in their front seven winding down their careers, now might actually be the right time to make the change. If Greg Ellis can play OLB in Dallas, then Little, who has experience as a linebacker, should be able to make the move.
 If the Rams switch to the 3-4, Carriker could benefit the most, as 3-4 end is his most natural position. Glover and backup DE Victor Adeyanju could be effective in rotation. And of course with the second pick in the draft the Rams are guaranteed a chance at at least one of the two top-prospects who can play in a 30 front: Glenn Dorsey and Chris Long.

Beyond team MVP Will Witherspoon, the linebacking corps is thin. If they switch to a 3-4, the only other starter penciled in besides Witherspoon at ILB would be Leonard Little at OLB. But the switch in schemes can be done because free agency presents some options. For instance, the Rams could fill in the open starting spots with a couple of mid-level free agency signings with 3-4 experience: Jets ILB Victor Hobson and Cardinals OLB Calvin Pace. Such additions won't make the Rams defense dominant, but they will allow the Rams to compete while transitioning their defensive roster. If they want a little more fire-power they could look instead at another Cardinal, Karlos Dansby, or at Baltimore's Terrell Suggs. The Steelers' Clark Haggans will also be available, but the Rams should focus on acquiring younger talent and Haggans is already 31.
 It's also worth noting that a change in scheme doesn't necessarily mean Chris Draft or Pisa Tinolsamoa are gone: they could find a role in nickel and dime packages.
 In the draft, the Rams should have a shot at landing any number of players who could be OLBs in a 3-4 system, from second or third round prospects like Auburn's Quentin Groves or Virginia Tech's Chris Ellis to potential steals like Georgia's Marcus Howard or UCLA's Bruce Davis.

Defensive Backs
The Rams DBs were torched a lot last season. Part of that can be attributed to the poor pass rush, and another part to the fact that their starters only lined up together six times (all of the Rams three wins came in that group of games). Fakhir Brown missed four games due to suspension, but played well enough the rest of the season. 2006 first-rounder Tye Hill also played well, but he missed eight games due to injuries. One of my 2007 pet cats, third-rounder Jonathan Wade was pressed into action sooner than the Rams wanted, and it showed, but it was expected he'd be raw and he still has upside. Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe topped the NFC with eight interceptions; he's a restricted free agent and the Rams should place a first-round tender on him. Strong safety Corey Chavous is 32 but only in the third year of his five-year deal. Given all of their needs, the Rams will likely live with Chavous and backup Tood Johnson, perhaps bringing in a seventh-rounder and an undrafted free agent or two for competition.

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