Saturday, February 21, 2009

5 Questions NFC West: St. Louis Rams

Next up in my five questions series are the St. Louis Rams. The Rams went backwards in 2008 which is pretty hard to do when you are coming off a 3-13 season. St. Louis had as many coaches as they did wins this past year, firing head coach Scott Linehan after he went 0-4 and letting interim head coach Jim Hasslett leave after he lost his last 10 games. New head coach Steve Spagnuolo and his staff have a number of daunting questions facing them. Here are 5 of the most pressing:

1. Is it time to trade team leaders and likely Hall of Famers, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace?

Holt and Pace have been franchise icons and were corner stones of the teams' Super Bowl runs in 1999 and 2001, and between them they've had 14 Pro Bowl appearances. Now both players are on the wrong side of 30. Both also have high salary cap numbers, making them a luxury a rebuilding team like the Rams can't afford. One problem facing the Rams with trading these players, is that it won't likely be a popular move amongst fans. The fans will be even more upset over the return from their two Pro Bowlers, as the Rams will be lucky to get a 3rd rounder for each player. There was a time 3 years ago where it would have cost at least two first rounders for either player, but given their age and contracts they would be lucky to get a 2nd rounder for both players together. My Take: Make the trade for whatever you can get. While its always sad to say goodbye to team leaders, you can't live in the past and build for the future at the same time.

2. What to do with the 2nd overall pick in the draft?

For the second year in a row the Rams will hold the 2nd overall pick in the draft. And while last year they saw the teams drafting before and after them (Dolphins and Falcons) have immediate turn arounds and become playoff teams, the Rams are still one of the worst teams in the league. Now that is not say that they made the wrong or poor choice in DE Chris Long. Long had a solid rookie campaign finishing with 4 sacks and should be a key component of the Rams defense for years to come. The question is now what do they do for this years' 2nd overall pick. For a team with as many needs as the Rams they could find an immediate starter at just about any position. They could take a top flight receiver in Micheal Crabtree, a dominate defensive tackle in B.J. Raji, a potential shut down corner in Malcolm Jenkins or Vontae Davis, or an explosive pass rusher in Aaron Curry. Any one of those players would fill an major need for the Rams and all are in the top 5 discussion when talking about the draft. But none of them should be the Rams pick on April 25th. Their pick has to be one of the top offensive tackles in this draft, as their offensive line was their Achilles heel last season and will only get worse if the Rams trade away Orlando Pace. There are three top tackles likely to be taken among the top 10 picks in this draft so the Rams will have a few to choose from. Any one of Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, and Micheal Oher will be a significant upgrade on the Rams offensive line. My Take: Even if the Lions grab a tackle with the first pick the talent level is so close and the need is so great that the Rams have to take a tackle. If all players are available Eugene Monroe would be my pick as I think he's the best of the bunch. But you can't fault them for grabbing any of these guys.

3. Do the Rams have the offensive talent to return to the dominance they had at the beginning of the decade?

Simply put the answer to this is no. The Rams used to have the "greatest show on turf" practically scoring at will, now have one of the most anemic offenses in the league. They finished 30th in the league in total points and 27th in total yards. That is quite a bit off from the Rams teams between 1999-2001 when they led the league in both scoring and total yardage. The Rams do have a few bright spots led by running back Steven Jackson. Jackson is one of the best and most complete running backs in the league. He is a weapon catching the ball out of the back field as well and must always be accounted for by opposing defenses. Last years 2nd round pick WR Donnie Avery had a very good rookie year finishing with 53 catches, 674 yards and 3 touchdowns. Avery will likely be the go-to-guy next year and will need to take his game to the next level. Quarterback Marc Bulger has struggled these past two years, but did throw for over 4,300 yards in 2006 so you know that the arm is there. Bulger is not among the elite quarterbacks but still has the tools to be a solid signal caller for the Rams. Tight end Randy McMicheal is the next best player but he is coming off a serious injury and isn't nearly as effective as he was with the Dolphins. Unfortunately, beyond those few players the cupboard is pretty bare for St. Louis. Drew Bennett has been a major bust since the Rams signed him two years ago and the other receivers are all extremely young and raw. The offensive line is a glaring weakness and should be in the discussion for the worst in the league. The Rams need to take their cap savings from getting rid of Holt and Pace and invest it in the O-line and another receiver. My Take: The Rams need to build around Jackson and Avery going forward . They also need a complete overhaul of the offensive line. With a new line Jackson and Bulger can hopefully bring this team back to respectability.

4. Can new head coach Steve Spagnuolo get his new defense to play like his world champion New York Giants defense?

If he can, it will be a long road up as the Rams defense was even more futile than their offense, finishing 31st in the league in points allowed and 28th in total yardage. One of their best young players, corner back Ronald Bartell, is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to test the open market. If the Rams lose him, they will be left with only two corner backs on the roster and neither one has been too effective to date. Jonathan Wade may eventually develop into a solid corner but Tye Hill, the Rams 1st round pick in 2006 has been a complete bust and can't be counted on to handle a starting job. Another weakness of the Rams is their lack of talent through the middle of their defense, which was exploited by other teams leading them to have the 29th ranked rushing defense. Their middle linebacker Will Witherspoon is moving to the outside where he's better suited and they have no obvious replacement. Strong safety Corey Chavous and defensive tackle La'Roi Glover are both free agents and shouldn't be resigned. The other defensive tackle Adam Carriker hasn't been too productive since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007 and should probably play defensive end. Carriker has always been a bit of a tweener on the line and might be more effective in a hybrid role playing end on rushing downs and moving inside on passing downs. In addition to the chance of Carriker having a resurgence there are other reasons to hope for the St. Louis defense. Chris Long and veteran Leonard Little can both get after the quarterback and Long has all the tools to be an elite defensive end. Outside linebackers Will Witherspoon and Pisa Tinoisamoa are both above average solid contributors. Free Safety O.J. Atogwe is the clubs franchise player and a legitimate ball-hawk. While he will get burned occasionally he did have 5 interceptions and forced 6 fumbles this past season. My Take: Resigning Bartell needs to be a priority if they can at least have two good players in the defensive backfield it will allow them to have a solid pass defense. Outside of that they need to get strong up the middle a MLB and DT need to be priorities. A Carriker and Little platoon at one end position should help their rushing defense and help keep Little healthy and fresh to attack the quarterback.

5. What will the Rams do in free agency and the NFL Draft?

In addition to drafting an offensive tackle and resigning Bartell the Rams have a lot of work to do this off season. In free agency they won't have much money to spend but should be able to sign one or two solid players. If they don't re-sign Bartell then corner back should be their number one priority. As for other major signings they should probably split their money and target one guy on offense and one on defense. On offense they should focus on a second tier offensive lineman to help Bulger and Jackson. As for defense anyone up the middle would be a big help with the most likely addition at either middle linebacker or strong safety. Free agent SS James Butler played for Spagnuolo with the Giants and would make the most sense. As for the draft, grabbing the tackle is most important. After that the Rams could go in any number of directions and will likely depend on what they address in free agency. The Rams should hope that either a DT like Peria Jerry or MLB like James Laurinaitis fall out of the first round. Either player would be an immediate starter and fill a gaping hole on defense. If they don't the Rams should take either the best offensive lineman or corner back available. My Take: Convince Bartell to resign and bring in Butler to shore up the secondary. After that I'd use my mid round picks to add defensive linemen, corners and linebackers. Add a veteran offensive line-man, and a veteran receiver in free agency. Take Monroe or Smith with the number 2 overall pick and if guard Duke Robinson or center Alex Mack last until the second round grab them and have a brand new offensive line for Jackson to run behind. I'd look to add a receiver in the mid rounds and maybe a back up running back late.

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