EARTH CITY, Mo. — The football world is fixated out West, where the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks engaged in an arms race this summer to bolster their playoff-ready rosters. Then, both teams saw a key skill-position player go down to injury, which drew even more attention.
Oh, and both teams have bright, young, promising quarterbacks who have become media darlings.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams went 4-1-1 against the NFC West last season, feature a former No. 1 pick at quarterback, have one of the top defensive fronts in the league and possibly have the youngest roster. Let’s not forget about St. Louis just yet, even if they crave this under-the-radar status. Here is what I heard spending the day with an enthusiastic Rams group:
1. Bradford the teacher: For the first time in his young football career, Sam Bradford has had the same offensive coordinator two years in a row. Heading into his fourth season, Bradford finally can spend training camp without the burden of learning an offense. That should pay off for the Rams, and not just because Brian Schottenheimer can be as creative as he’d like with Bradford and a versatile, fast group of skill players. As general manager Les Snead told me in his office, “Instead of learning the system himself, (Bradford) can actually help teach it. Last year, he couldn’t help teach it. Like he tells me, ‘I can actually go teach the rookie,’ ” Because of a variety of factors — nagging injuries, a struggling offensive line — Bradford hasn’t been as consistent. That should change this year. Signing left tackle Jake Long bolstered Bradford’s group of bodyguards, with coach Jeff Fisher telling me the offensive line is a strength this year.
2. Youth should catch on fast: Spend a little time around the Rams, and the youthful enthusiasm is contagious. No, not everyone is young. Fisher is 55, for instance. But it all feels young and relaxed and exciting. The Rams were one of the youngest teams in 2012, and they will be again this season. At receiver, Austin Pettis is considered a veteran and he’s just 25. In the front seven, defensive linemen Chris Long and Kendall Langford are grizzled vets, entering their sixth seasons. Optimism abounds. Snead told me the rookies aren’t playing young, they aren’t slowing down physically to catch up mentally. That’s one reason Tavon Austin has looked as quick as a Ram as he did as a Mountaineer. “That will allow these guys to start thinking less and playing to their college speed faster,” Snead said. “There’s always that for rookies, it’s more complicated, there are more checks. They can be a little bogged down so they don’t look quite like they did in college athletically, the central nervous system isn’t catching up. That’s the thing about this group. They’re picking up football and what we do faster.” Just one reason everyone is gushing about Austin, first-round linebacker Alex Ogletree and the rest of the rookies.
3. How uncomfortable can you feel?When the Rams first started rebuilding, they wanted to beef the team up one unit at a time. Stack one group, then move on to another, like the Giants did with their defensive line. It appears St. Louis has done just that. When I mentioned to an opposing coach that I planned to visit the Rams, the response was, “Oooh, that front seven.” Yeah. People know. The goal is to make quarterbacks uncomfortable, which should make them even better at covering on the back end. The Rams don’t have all the answers on defense, but they don’t have a ton of questions, either. Even at safety, rookie T.J. McDonald is already opening eyes — he was calling the defense a day ago. The goals are to have Top 10 units on offense and defense, and that is within reach.
4. The Rams could be around for a while: The youth of the Rams is one reality for the organization. “It’s cool to have the youngest team,” Snead told me. “I think we’ve upgraded talent. We’re better. Now, we just gotta get experience, go on stage, and know our lines.” The other side is, because of that youth and because of the financial health of the team, they’ll be around for a while. They had two first-round draft picks in April thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade, and they have two more in 2014. Heading into next offseason, the only key free agents to be are tackle Rodger Saffold and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. There aren’t any for the following offseason, either. For two years, no one is going anywhere. And even Bradford, who has the final megadeal for rookie quarterbacks, will only cost the team $36 million over the next three years. It’s not cheap like Andrew Luck’s deal, but it’s not crippling either. Their key parts should stick together. In other words, we might want to get used to hearing about the Rams.
5. Expect to hear a lot of names on offense: At receiver, there are at least five players in the mix for playing time, and Fisher told me, “We’ll use them all. It’s none of these, ‘I want the ball things,’ any of that stuff. They just want to play, get where they need to get to, so Sam can make a play.” Austin is the hot name now, but Chris Givens has had a really strong offseason and camp. At tight end, free-agent signee Jared Cook began building his rapport with Bradford during sessions in the summer. They’ve already connected endlessly in camp, making one believe he’ll serve as Bradford’s security blanket like Danny Amendola was in 2012. What the coaches also like is that when Bradford throws it, Cook catches it. “Jared has a giant receiving radius,” Fisher said. “With Sam’s accuracy, Sam can put the ball out of frame to complete it. And they work really well together.” With Steven Jackson gone at running back, Fisher said the situation could be “playing two or three backs all the time. Which is good.” As I said, get ready to hear a lot of names for the Rams’ offense.