(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Rams fielded one of the youngest teams in the NFL a season ago, but even with a handful of new additions they won't be having a midlife crisis in 2013 either.
With youth hopefully comes consistency and Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is looking to put together a core that will remain intact for some time. St. Louis finished last season with 16 rookies on the active roster and will feature a host of new faces this year -- especially on offense.
But with Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer both returning for their second season of duty they will look to spend less time teaching and more time improving.
"I think everybody knows the system is number one," Fisher said of the continuity that should carry over from last year. "There's familiarity, there's youth, there's enthusiasm and guys are serious. They're dead serious. When you have this many veterans that stay in town through the summer and guys that want to come in the building a couple days early, it shows how important it is to them."
The Rams saw a number of their 2012 rookies contribute to last year's 7-8-1 record, an improvement of 5 1/2 games from the previous season under Steve Spagnuolo. Wide receiver Chris Givens led the club in receiving yards, defensive tackle Michael Brockers helped the defense improve against the run and cornerback Janoris Jenkins nabbed a team-high four interceptions, returning three of them for touchdowns.
That defense is slated to return all but three starters from last year, adding 33-year-old linebacker Will Witherspoon for his second stint with the club along with a pair of rookies in linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald.
The offense, meanwhile, brings a different look centered around quarterback Sam Bradford. The biggest change sees the loss of 30-year-old running back Steven Jackson, with sophomore Daryl Richardson likely to get the bulk of carries in 2013.
The Rams made some big moves in free agency, adding left tackle Jake Long to solidify the offensive line in front of Bradford while also giving the quarterback another talented target in tight end Jared Cook. First-round draft pick Tavon Austin may not start, but should see plenty of targets at wide receiver regardless.
Armed with an extra first-round draft pick thanks to last year's trade of the second overall selection to Washington, which grabbed quarterback Robert Griffin III with the pick, St. Louis traded up from 16th to eighth to take Austin and also moved back from 22 to the 30th selection to select Ogletree.
"We were able to take advantage of the additional picks. It appears that we drafted well last year, and at first glances, we're going to have some success and some production out of this year's draft," declared Fisher. "If you're going to build a football team, you need to draft well and you need to take advantage of free agency, and fortunately we've got the support from (Owner) Stan (Kroenke) to do that, and we got a good start but we've got a ways to go. We're not satisfied by no means."
While noting that Bradford continues to improve heading into his fourth NFL season, Fisher also thinks the additions the Rams have made will also help his quarterback get better. Adding Long to the offensive line will certainly help as well.
But will it be enough to get the Rams into the playoffs for the first time since 2004?
2012 RECORD: 7-8-1 (4th, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to the Atlanta Falcons in divisional round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jeff Fisher (7-8-1 in one season with Rams, 149-128-1 in 18 seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Schottenheimer (second season with Rams)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tim Walton (first season with Rams)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Tavon Austin (1st round, West Virginia), WR Stedman Bailey (3rd round, West Virginia), TE Jared Cook (from Titans), T Jake Long (from Dolphins), LB Alec Ogletree (1st round, Georgia), LB Will Witherspoon (from Titans), S T.J. McDonald (3rd round, Southern California), S Matt Giordano (from Raiders)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Steven Jackson (to Falcons), WR Danny Amendola (to Patriots), WR Brandon Gibson (to Dolphins), WR Steve Smith (to Buccaneers), TE Matthew Mulligan (to Packers), OL Robert Turner (to Titans), T Barry Richardson (to Titans), T Wayne Hunter (released), G Rokevious Watkins (to Chiefs), LB Mario Haggan (free agent), LB Justin Cole (to Browns), LB Rocky McIntosh (to Lions), CB Bradley Fletcher (to Eagles), S Craig Dahl (to 49ers), S Quintin Mikell (released)
QB: Bradford has had three different offensive coordinators over his first three NFL seasons, so he has to be relieved to see Schottenheimer return. It also doesn't hurt that last season was his best statistical season.
The 25-year-old top overall pick of the 2010 draft played in all 16 games for the second time and set career highs with 3,702 passing yards, 21 touchdown throws and an 82.6 passer rating. The offense also solely belongs to Bradford with the veteran Jackson having moved on, so building a system around the signal-caller certainly helps.
"I could be here for days talking about that. It feels good going into the second year of this offense -- the second year of any offense for the first time since I've been here. ... We have an opportunity to build on what we were able to do last year and not start from scratch," said Bradford.
Kellen Clemens spent last season as Bradford's backup and will be pushed this year by Austin Davis, signed as an undrafted free agent a season ago.
RB: Though the Rams prevented a potential unhappy character in the locker room by allowing Jackson to void his contract with the club, it puts a lot of pressure on Bradford and leaves him with an inexperienced backfield.
Jackson posted his eighth straight 1,000-yard rushing season last year and exited the club as the franchise's all-time leading rusher, though Richardson still found room to run for 475 yards on 98 carries as a rookie, giving him a 4.8 yard average per carry.
Richardson is the favorite to be the No. 1 ahead of fellow second-year back Isaiah Pead, who like Richardson is 23 years old. Pead was a second-round pick in 2012 out of Cincinnati, but got a late start in training camp and was passed by Richardson on the depth chart. He did get one start last year, but was suspended for the opener of this season due to a violation of the league's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
Even with a pair of second-year backs, the Rams selected Vanderbilt back Zac Stacy in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.
Only one things is sure in St. Louis' backfield and that is there are plenty of carries to be had.
"It's not going to be out of the question that we don't play two or three of them quite a bit," noted Fisher. "We may not end up with a 'bell cow' like we've had last year in (Jackson) and previous years, and just let them all play."
Rookie Eric Stevens, younger brother of Tennessee Titans tight end Craig Stevens, is slated to play fullback after signing as an undrafted free agent.
WR: Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson finished 1-2 in receptions for the Rams last year, but neither are back with the club are combining for 114 catches. That leaves third-year pro Austin Pettis as the club's longest tenured wide receiver at the grizzly age of 25.
Pettis, though, had eight fewer catches than Jackson's 38 last year and made only two starts with four touchdown grabs.
The Rams put a lot of faith in Pettis by not bringing in a veteran at the position and hope he can help move the chains as a compliment to Givens, who grabbed 42 balls as a rookie last year and posted a 16.6 yards per catch average. He led the NFL with five receptions of 50 yards or more, so the deep threat is there.
The lack of veterans at the position also leaves opportunity for rookies Austin and Stedman Bailey, college teammates at West Virginia. Both Austin and Bailey caught 114 passes last year to tie for second in the FCS.
Austin is only 5-foot-8, but his 176-pound frame offers elusiveness with breakaway speed once the ball is in his hands. His vision also makes him dangerous in the return game, while Bailey offers a little more size at 5- foot-10 and likes to play more physical.
There is also the added bonus of the two getting additional comfort at the NFL level having played together while they push second-year receiver Brian Quick for time.
TE: Lance Kendricks was a solid target for Bradford last year, matching Givens for third on the club with 42 catches while hauling in four TD passes. His 519 receiving yards were the most by a Rams tight end since the club moved to St. Louis in 1995, a number Cook surpassed in his third NFL season with the Titans in 2011.
The 6-foot-5 Cook logged 759 receiving yards that year on 49 receptions, but slipped to 44 catches and 523 yards in 2012 with a career-high four TD catches.
Cook should become a favorite of Bradford's once the two get comfortable with each other and take some pressure off the young receivers. Fisher noted how Cook can get down the field quickly and create mismatches.
"He's a big target, big frame. He's got a giant catch radius which is always a good thing if you're a quarterback, so he'll really help us," added the head coach.
OL: The Rams showed improvement in front of Bradford last year as he was sacked just 35 times after the club allowed 55 sacks in 2011. Still, St. Louis jumped on the chance to add Long, inking the top overall pick of the 2008 draft to a four-year, $36 million deal.
Long made the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons with the Miami Dolphins and is an upgrade at both the pass and run-blocking schemes. His experience should certainly make Bradford feel more comfortable when dropping back.
"There's no doubt that it helps," Bradford said of adding Long. "I was probably as excited, if not more excited, than anyone when we signed him when he finally got here. Jake's a great player. There's no doubt in my mind that he's going to come in and play at a Pro Bowl level and knowing that you've got that anchor on the blind side, it really helps."
The addition of Long does shuffle the line. Rodger Saffold shifts to right tackle for the first time in his NFL career and didn't even play the position in college. He hopes to make a quick transition.
Chris Williams, a former first-round pick by Chicago in 2008, signed with the Rams in October of last year after being cut by the Bears in the middle of the month and played in three games. He and Shelley Smith rotated at left guard late last season, but Williams could see an expanded role in 2013.
That leaves center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl as the only 2012 Week 1 starters in line to be at the position for this year's opener. Wells was limited to seven games a season ago due to knee and foot injuries.
Tim Barnes and Joe Barksdale are reserves to a line that does not return Robert Turner, Barry Richardson or Wayne Hunter but is far improved thanks to Long.
DL: The Rams return a front-four that helped the club tie for the league lead in sacks with 52 and is anchored by defensive end Chris Long.
Long, taken one pick after the Dolphins grabbed Jake Long in 2008, reached double-digit sacks for the second straight season with 11 1/2. He led the Rams with 50 quarterback pressures and 24 QB hits, teaming with 23-year-old Robert Quinn (29 tackles, 10.5 sacks) to become the first pair of Rams to reach double digit sacks in the same season since Kevin Carter and Grant Winstrom in 2000.
St. Louis also held on to key depth at the position by re-signing William Hayes, who had seven sacks a season ago.
Brockers, the 14th overall pick of the 2012 draft, had four sacks a season ago and partnered with Kendall Langford (27 tackles, 2 sacks) to help improve the Rams run defense.
Matt Conrath and Jermelle Cudjo back up the middle.
LB: First-year defensive coordinator Tim Walton probably has the best mix of experience and youth at any position on the Rams in linebacking.
Steady pivot James Laurinaitis is an every-down player who can stop the pass and the run. He led the Rams with 142 tackles last year and grabbed a pair of interceptions. He can hawk to the ball, posting 23 tackles for a loss.
To help the defense, Witherspoon was signed after seeing his playing time reduced to just five starts last year with the Titans. He twice had 100-tackle seasons in St. Louis (2006-07) and will start opposite Ogletree, a really good coverage linebacker thanks to excellent speed.
Ogletree, though, likely slipped to the Rams at the end of the first round due to off-the-field concerns. The former college safety has twice been arrested ahead of his NFL career and was also suspended at Georgia for the first four games of the 2012 season for a violation of team rules.
Those events could be another good reason to have a veteran like Witherspoon around.
"He's going to bring a senior, veteran leadership," Walton said of Witherspoon. "He's played the game for a long time, gives you depth at multiple positions. That leadership and experience is valuable in this thing."
The additions of the vet and the rookie on the outside gives Fisher a valuable depth player in Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who made 16 starts last year and was second on the club with 115 tackles in addition to 4 1/2 sacks and two interceptions. Dunbar, however, violated the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances and will be suspended for the first four games.
Josh Hull and Jabara Williams don't offer much experience in Dunbar's absence.
DB: What the Rams lacked in takeaways (minus-1 turnover differential), they made up for in keeping the ball in front of them. St. Louis gave up just 36 pass plays of 20 yards or more, second-best in the NFL behind only Pittsburgh's 31.
Key was cornerback Cortland Finnegan, another player Fisher was familiar with during his time at Tennessee, and the 29-year-old made a big impact during his first year with the Rams in 2012. He nabbed an interception in each of the first three games of 2012 and though he didn't have a pick after that, his aggressive style led to him tying for third on the club with 101 tackles.
Opposing quarterbacks also found trouble when trying to pick on rookie Jenkins, who led the NFL in defensive touchdowns with three pick-sixes and a fumble return for a score.
Depth, though, could again be an issue. With Bradley Fletcher having signed with Philadelphia during the offseason, the reserve group is made up of second-year players Trumaine Johnson (31 tackles, 2 INT) and Quinton Pointer as well as rookie Brandon McGee.
On top of that, Fisher will have two new starters at safety in Darian Stewart and rookie T.J. McDonald following the offseason departures of Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell, who had 101 tackles. Stewart did make 13 starts in 2011 but had just 12 tackles in 12 games last year.
McDonald will step in to replace Mikell after St. Louis nabbed him in the third round, and brings a heavy-hitting style to the secondary that will leave offenses hearing footsteps.
"Obviously we were fortunate that he was there," Fisher said of getting McDonald. "We got a little nervous on draft day, but he's got all the tools to play the position at this level and play it very, very well. We're especially impressed with his instincts and his football intelligence, and he's fit in right now. He's making calls like veterans make calls in the secondary."
As insurance the Rams signed for Oakland Raiders safety Matt Giordano. He had 51 tackles and two picks last year for the Raiders in 16 games with 13 starts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Fisher's philosophy to the Rams doesn't look past the special teams group, with a unit that should be together for some time.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein, a 2012 sixth-round pick, burst onto the scene by making his first 15 career field goal attempts, hit on seven chances from 50 yards or longer and set a league rookie record with a 60-yard field goal. Overall, he went 23-for-31 on his chances as he seemed to be worn out by season's end, though six of his misses were also 50 yards or longer and the club made sure he got extra rest this offseason.
Fellow 2012 rookie John Hekker turned in a solid campaign as well, posting averages of 45.8 yards gross and 39.9 yards net per punt. Both numbers ranked fourth best for a single season in Rams history and Hekker even completed three passes on fake punts last year, one a two-yard TD pass.
Those two should give Fisher one less thing to worry about and long snapper Jake McQuaide, entering his third season, signed a four-year extension in July.
The speedy Austin was the Big 12 Conference co-Special Teams Player of the Year as a senior and should step in for the departed Amendola as the main punt returner. He is also in line to return kickoffs along, another reason Givens is likely to be ahead of him on the depth chart.
COACHING: Fisher didn't do himself any favors last year but raising expectations thanks to the quick improvement despite the young roster. But his addition seemed like the right one given the fact that he is a player's coach. That should keep some heat off the young players and Fisher offers a lot of knowledge as he enters the season third among active head coaches with 149 wins.
Schottenheimer, former offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, does a lot of things that Fisher likes, including an emphasis on protecting the quarterback. He certainly kept Bradford upright more often than the system under Josh McDaniels the previous year.
Walton replaces Gregg Williams, who was hired as the defensive coordinator prior to last season but never coached a down after being suspended for the entire 2012 campaign for his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program.
THE SKINNY: Key will be getting the offense up to par with the steady defense and making Bradford comfortable. Consistency should help.
"There's no doubt that this offense has a totally different feel than the one last year. I think if you look at some of the pieces that we've added, we're faster. We're faster at almost all the positions on the field now. I think that puts a lot of stress on the defense. If they hesitate for a second, we're by them," Bradford said.
The Rams continue to stock talent with an eye towards the future and there is enough talent out there now, combined with solid coaching, for the club to be competitive in the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers will be hard to overcome, but a wild card spot is a realistic goal for the club.
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