Jeff Fisher’s second season in St. Louis was, despite Bradford’s injury, another step in the right direction for a rebuilding franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003 and hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2004.
That’s the biggest of several questions that Fisher and his St. Louis squad will have to answer this season. But with the start of training camp approaching in a few weeks let’s take a quick look at how the Rams have changed since last season’s 7-9 campaign.
St. Louis was hit hardest along the offensive line and in the secondary, but the losses from last season’s roster were more about depth than losing impact playmakers.
Williams, who signed a free agent deal with Buffalo, was a reclamation project who started 16 games at left guard in 2013. Dahl, who remains unsigned, started nine games during an injury-plagued season. Smith, who signed with Miami, started two games.
Finnegan was a big free agent signing before the 2012 campaign, coming to St. Louis to be reunited with Fisher following their days in Tennessee, but after starting 16 games in his first season with the Rams — when he recorded 83 tackles and three interceptions — he was limited to seven games (five starts) in his second and ultimately final season in St. Louis. Stewart appeared in 14 games and made six starts at safety when T.J. McDonald was out with an injury.
Clemens started nine games after Bradford went down and turned in a decent season — the Rams went 4-5 during his starts — for a guy who has turned into a solid backup during his eight-year NFL career. He signed a two-year deal with the Chargers in the offseason.
McNeill, a local product, had one catch for five yards but established himself as a special teams contributor and appeared in 14 games.
Despite the numerous additions to the roster this season with free agents and draft picks, it’s likely that no one will have a bigger impact than Williams. Fisher’s first two seasons in St. Louis included upheaval and inexperience at the defensive coordinator spot after Williams, his initial choice for the job, was suspended as part of the bounty scandal from his days in New Orleans. The Rams hired Tim Walton to the defensive coordinator before the 2013 season but it just didn’t work out. Williams now gives the Rams an experienced and authoritative voice for a defensive unit that has the pieces in place to become one of the better groups in the NFL in 2014.
Hill, 34, is the oldest player on the Rams’ roster and gives the Rams a veteran backup quarterback behind Bradford. He’s made 26 starts in his career with San Francisco and Detroit and has posted a 61.9 percent completion rate and 41 touchdowns against 23 interceptions. He’s an upgrade over Clemens at a key spot, given Bradford’s return from injury and his track record with injuries.
Britt, Joseph and Carrington represent additions to the Rams’ depth at those positions with the opportunity to turn into significant contributors. Britt and Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler, look like low-risk high-reward guys who could emerge as difference-makers.
Robinson, the massive offensive lineman from Auburn, will start out at the left guard spot vacated by Chris Williams and looks like he’ll have a chance to be a mauler in the run game. He admitted during OTAs that the transition from left tackle to left guard wasn’t easy for him, but just that acknowledgement shows he’s concerned about it and working to get better.
After racking up just about every national defensive award you could think of during his final season at Pittsburgh, Donald earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates during OTAs. He may not start ahead of Kendall Langford this season, but he looks like a guy who can make a difference as part of a rotation at defensive tackle.
Joyner won a national championship in his final season at Florida State and brings a winning pedigree and attitude to St. Louis. He’s not the biggest guy but the Rams liked him enough to trade up in the second round to select him. His pass-rush skills from the nickel cornerback spot are a bonus in Gregg Williams’ defensive scheme.
Mason was a surprise pick in the third round, but Fisher and general manager Les Snead felt like they couldn’t pass up the chance to pick the Auburn standout. With Stacy around the Rams won’t need much from Mason early on, which will give him time to work on his pass protection. That will be a key to how early and how often Mason sees the field.
Alexander is a hard-hitting safety out of St. Louis who played his college football at Utah State. It will be interesting to see how he fits as a safety, but he’ll definitely have a chance to make his mark early on special teams.
Gaines is an undersized cornerback who was a first-team selection in the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference during his career at Mizzou. He’ll have to compete to win one of the backup cornerback spots but his college resume shows he should be up to the task.
The Rams’ final five picks — Gilbert, Van Dyk, Bryant, Sam and Rhaney — will have to compete for roster spots but look like solid developmental prospects for the future.
Gilbert will compete with Austin Davis for third cornerback spot behind Bradford and Hill. Van Dyk and Rhaney both have good opportunities based on the Rams’ lack of depth on the offensive line. Bryant is still recovering from a severe ankle injury that ended his final season at Ohio State and may end up on injured reserve. Sam is probably the most likely of these five players to make the regular season roster, but earning the job as the Rams’ fifth defensive end won’t be easy.