The St. Louis Rams are one of the league’s most popular sleeper teams, and it’s easy to understand why.
The Rams have a young franchise quarterback coming off a 3,500-yard rookie campaign, a stellar offensive line and a solid mix of veteran contributors and young playmakers on defense. Their win total jumped from one to seven between 2009 and 2010, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t keep climbing in 2011.
But the progression of the franchise is closely tied to the progression of that franchise QB. Sam Bradford had a good rookie season on paper, but his 3,512-yard total was inflated by a rookie record 590 attempts (third-most in the NFL). Bradford dinked and dunked his way along in a conservative west coast offense, averaging just 6.0 yards per attempt.
The unit as a whole averaged just 4.6 yards per play (second-lowest in the league) and finished 26th in the league in total offense.
The good news is that quarterback teaching champion Josh McDaniels has arrived to coach the offense. The bad news is that McDaniels is introducing Bradford and Co. to a more nuanced system in a short amount of time. In 2011, this team’s success will likely be tied to how quickly the offense can adapt to McDaniels’ approach.
2010 in a nutshell: Typical of a young team, they perform much better at home than they do on the road. They clearly outplay the rest of the weak NFC West, but falter late and blow the division title with a flat Week-17 loss in Seattle.
Three predictions for 2011:
1. Bradford will continue to progress slowly: I think the future remains bright, but Bradford will experience some growing pains in his sophomore season. He still doesn’t have enough support from the receiving corps or the running game. While Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Mike Sims-Walker and Steven Jackson are good players, none are game-changers at this point. Bradford’s offensive line got better in the offseason with the addition of monster right guard Harvey Dahl, but he’ll have trouble grasping McDaniels’ always-changing offense on a week-to-week basis with so many question marks surrounding him.
2. The defense will be much better: They were mediocre in pretty much every yardage-based category last year, but they still managed to give up only 20.5 points per game thanks in part to a great pass rush (43 sacks). And while O.J. Atogwe will be missed a little, they bolstered the entire D in the offseason by adding Quintin Mikell to the secondary and Justin Bannan, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Daniel Muir and Brady Poppinga to the front seven. None are superstars, but they’ll add depth and experience to a unit with several cornerstones already in place.
3. Chris Long and James Laurinaitis will become Pro Bowlers: Long and Laurinaitis are those cornerstones, and 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn is waiting in the wings with a chance to join them. Long finally arrived with a super 2010 season, but expect his sack numbers to climb considerably with the added depth surrounding him. If Quinn can emerge and Bannan can step his game up, opposing offenses won’t have the ability to focus squarely on Long. Laurinaitis is primed to become a star in the middle, and he’ll benefit from the presence of Mikell, who is a great run defender in the next layer.
The final word(s): The offense will struggle in somewhat of a transitional season, but they’re still clearly the most talented team in a weak division. They’ll take the NFC West with eight or nine wins and gain some playoff experience.