In order to really contend, the St. Louis Rams need these players to develop…quickly


According to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports and basically every other media presence, the St. Louis Rams had an excellent draft last week. Experts applauded their first round pick, offensive lineman Greg Robinson; the nation applauded one of their seventh round picks – defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. And most other picks were met with high marks as well.

Based on their needs and the players they selected, it appears the Rams positioned themselves for improvement in 2014. That’s the goal of the draft, after all. The defensive line should wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with the addition of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the second first round pick by the Rams and the 13th player drafted overall.

The offensive line, a question mark heading into the offseason, appears stabilized with the drafting of Robinson and the re-signing of Rodger Saffold. Assuming Jake Long comes back healthy for the start of the season, the line will be that much stronger.

However, if the Rams are going to make the leap into playoff contender, they won’t be able to solely rely on the fresh crop of talent. They’ll need progress – and a breakout or two – from key veterans already on the roster.

Brian Quick

Arguably the biggest disappointment during the Les Snead/Jeff Fisher era, the former 33rd overall pick has amassed 29 receptions (on 64 targets) in two years. That was an average six-week stretch for Terrell Owens, a player to whom Quick has been compared.

To be fair, Snead and Fisher admitted up front that Quick would need time to develop. It’s just that most people – coaches and fans – thought he would be further along in his development by now.

This could be Quick’s best (and last?) opportunity to shine. The wide receiving corps remains muddled, even more so with the suspension of Stedman Bailey. Quick doesn’t have to catch 100 passes and make the Pro Bowl (although that would be more than OK with me) for this year to be considered a success. But becoming a prime target in the red zone for quarterback Sam Bradford would be a huge step.

Speaking of which…

Sam Bradford

You either love him or hate him. You’re an apologist or a hater. There’s no middle ground in St. Louis when it comes to Bradford. The former first overall pick was on his way to a career year in 2013 when a torn ACL in Week 7 against the Carolina Panthers ended his season.

Talk of a make-or-break season last year was a bit premature. The same cannot be said of 2014.

During the season, or shortly after, the Rams will have to decide if Bradford is the quarterback to lead them in the future. If he thrives behind a stout offensive line and the ground-and-pound attack, it seems like a safe bet the team will commit to him. If Bradford struggles or continues to be injury-prone, the Rams might move in another direction.

Count me among those who believe Bradford will succeed in 2014. And I guess that means count me among the apologists.

Janoris Jenkins

Jenkins showed great potential as a rookie in 2012 with four interceptions – three of which were returned for touchdowns – and a fumble recovery that was also returned for a score. In 2013, however, his numbers dropped across the board.

Maybe Jenkins wasn’t a good fit for former defensive coordinator Tim Walton’s system. Maybe the dreaded “sophomore slump” was to blame. Regardless of the reason, the Rams’ cornerbacks were torched last year and Jenkins contributed to the struggles, grading out as a -0.9 defender on Pro Football Focus’ scale, while giving up seven touchdowns.

The Rams addressed the secondary during the draft by taking cornerback Lamarcus Joyner in the second round and adding safety Mo Alexander and cornerback E.J. Gaines in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively.

Even with the fresh faces, Jenkins is entrenched as a starter and will be expected to improve. With the release of veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the Rams will look to Jenkins to take on a more important role in the secondary.

Chris Givens/Tavon Austin

So I cheated a little on this one by combining Givens and Austin. But both are fast and experienced relatively disappointing seasons in 2013. Givens was tabbed as a potential breakout. Austin was dubbed the most electrifying player in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Both experienced growing pains and adjustments. Givens tried to become a more well-rounded receiver as opposed to just a deep threat. While his targets increased, his receptions decreased – a bad combination. He was also held without a touchdown.

Austin, on the other hand, struggled to find traction early in the season. Eventually the Rams figured out how to best put his talents to use and he broke out in a Week 10 win over the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, he had two receptions for 138 yards – both for touchdowns – and added 145 yards on four punt returns, including a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Unfortunately a foot injury sidelined Austin for the last three games of the season.

There are few questions about the Rams defense. It should be stout enough to keep them in most games, especially the front seven. However, the team will need to put up points. And improvements and/or breakouts from Givens and Austin would go a long way in easing that offensive burden.

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