By John Doylemason
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
“It was the best of times it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens
Although the iconic quote above is contrasting life in London and Paris during the French Revolution in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” it could have very well been referring to the 2012 St. Louis Rams. While the Rams made great strides under new coach Jeff Fisher and his staff in 2012 taking the floundering squad from 2-14 to 7-8-1, they also faced significant challenges as they lost both their starting WRs, their longtime star RB Steven Jackson, as well as many starters from their improving defense.
QB Sam Bradford threw for career highs (3702 yards passing for 21 TDs with only 13 INT) and piloted a stalwart team that played strong week in and week out. The team’s youth showed in a few areas but Fisher was able to coach his team to a 4-1-1 record in one of the best divisions in the NFL landscape; the NFC West. While the offense gathered steam in 2012, Bradford will have to establish chemistry with a new set of receiving options, and one of their RBs will have to step up in S-Jax’s absence. Will the Rams be able to continue the momentum and youth movement in 2013? Let’s dive in!
Added: T Jake Long, TE Jared Cook, QB Kellen Clemens, DE William Hayes, G Chris Williams
Drafted: WR Tavon Austin, ILB Alec Ogletree, FS T.J. McDonald, WR Stedman Bailey, OG Barret Jones, CB Brandon McGee, RB Zac Stacy
Lost: S Craig Dahl, WR Danny Amendola, CB Bradley Fletcher, WR Brandon Gibson, RB Steven Jackson, LB Justin Cole, LB Mario Haggan, T Wayne Hunter, DT Trevor Laws, LB Rocky McIntosh, S Quintin Mikell, TE Matthew Mulligan, T Barry Richardson, WR Steve Smith, S Darian Stewart, G Robert Turner
One Up: Zac Stacy, RB – Pocket Hercules version 2.0 (also been compared favorably to Ray Rice and Doug Martin) out of Vandy is an intriguing player to watch during training camp and the preseason. He may be relegated to a backup role early in the season but his talent is absurd and he’ll push Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead for carries. The only reason he fell to the 5th round was because of an injury plagued college career. He isn’t the type of RB that will make a lot of defenders miss, but as the biggest of the Rams three main RBs, he seems best suited to early down work. He is a great guy to target in dynasty leagues, but expect him to get limited opportunities if both Richardson and Pead are healthy while Stacy gets acclimated to the NFL game. As the most well rounded of all three, he’s a great wildcard to gamble on, as there is no clear RB starter in STL and a strong preseason may propel him to a bigger opportunity.
One Down: Brian Quick, WR – While Brian Quick has a ton of talent and had been “putting on a show” at OTAs, there are too many cooks in the WR kitchen for them all to have significant roles. Despite his good spring performance, Quick has been surpassed on the depth chart by third year Austin Pettis and deep threat Chris Givens. Givens has bulked up and is looking to add more responsibilities beyond the long ball. With 8th selection overall Tavon Austin making waves in the slot, Quick is the odd man out. TE Jared Cook was brought in this offseason and will be used in a variety of formations so if Quick ends up as the 4th WR, don’t expect much opportunity for the 2nd year player out of Appalachian State. Unless an injury or major breakthrough in camp arises, Brian Quick will be relegated to the bench.
1) Fisher loves bellcow backs, can any of the three RBs be this year’s Alfred Morris?
This seems to be one of the million dollar questions in the NFL this offseason. The Rams have a plethora of running backs on the team but as a unit they have only combined for 108 carries at the pro level. Each of the backs provides different skill sets. Adding more uncertainty to the equation, QB Sam Bradford is on record stating Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense is transitioning from a run-first mentality to a “spread it out and play more one-back” system. This will certainly fit the talent on hand as the WR and TE corps is loaded with talent.
Darryl Richardson took nearly all of the carries as S-Jax’s backup in 2012, and will likely be the slated starter going into the season due to experience and Isaiah Pead’s suspension to start the year. In his limited snaps, he did manage a productive 4.8 YPC and also brings some burst to the table exemplified by a 53 yard scamper versus the Redskins in Week 2. Although he’s yet to hit pay dirt he seems to be the favorite to start due to his familiarity of the system and success last season.
Isaiah Pead was taken in the 2nd round in 2012 but underwhelmed greatly. Relegated to the 3rd RB slot he still made the most of his carries 10 carries averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. Coupling his lack of experience with two mid season fumbles and a one game suspension by the NFL for testing positive for a banned substance, Pead has a lot going against him. However, Pead is the most explosive of all the backs and Fisher has been very supportive of Pead and has said that his suspension will not hold him back in the RB competition. Based on his explosiveness and his ability as a pass catcher, he seems to be the favorite to start.
Pead’s biggest threat is 5th rounder Zac Stacy out of Vanderbilt. As discussed earlier, he draws many parallels to Maurice-Jones Drew in his stature, ability, and film. At 5’8”, 216 pounds, the despite being the shortest of the three backs, the diminutive Stacy is also the heaviest and likely the most durable. He certainly makes up for his lack of height with strength as he repped 225 pounds 27 times at the NFL Combine. He has been tested in college against SEC opponents and performed admirably.
While Stacy may start the season with a limited role, I firmly believe he will push for starting time and end the season in at least split time or even the lead back because of talent and power. Although Fisher has traditionally had one RB handle the majority of the carries, beat writer Jim Thomas anticipates a running back by committee this year. Regardless, training camp and preseason will go a long way towards determining who will push for serious play time. In our preseason rankings, there isn’t any consensus as to who is the RB to own, with Pead and Richardson both coming in as RB4s, while Stacy doesn’t make the top 50. My vote is Richardson>Stacy>Pead to start the season but I expect Stacy to be the RB to own by season’s end.
2) Can Jared Cook finally live up to his potential as a top 10 TE?
Perhaps, I am partially pessimistic because of the lack of a proven track record. Surely Cook’s numbers took a dive with Jake Locker at the helm of a patchwork offense mired with trouble but the cards are not exactly stacked in Cook’s favor while on the Ram’s either. This is not to say he does not have potential because he is a gifted athlete, but this is a very green offense. Let’s put down a few thoughts.
Positive – Athletic Ability
Jared Cook weighs in at 6’5” 248 pounds. He has a 39.5-inch vertical and an absurd 4.37 40-yard dash time. He has great burst and top end speed and can create separation. While his route-running can wane and his blocking needs work, Jeff Fisher will certainly work with Cook to thrive in his offense as he is a rare athlete.
Neutral – Brian Schottenheimer’s Offense
While Bradford has come forward and said the offense is evolving into a more pass friendly, 3 second-read, styled scheme to take advantage of the speedy personnel and pass catching depth at running back. With Steven Jackson departing the offense is left with a fledgling run-game in a heated three-headed camp battle. Whoever can win the game of totes inherits a team that still runs heavily (410 attempts in 2013). Although rushing touchdowns only account for 15.62% of the offense in 2012. This can be a coin-flip.
Positive – Trusted Veteran
With four seasons under his belt, Cook is the most experienced pass catcher currently on the Rams roster (yikes). That experience is still very important and Bradford will certainly value it. Although this is his first year with the organization, early reports reveal Cook is a consummate professional and is wowing his coaches with athletic ability and work ethic. He seems to have great chemistry already with Sam Bradford and is definitely making the most of his $35.1 million dollar deal thus far.
Neutral – Targets
Despite his chemistry with Bradford, don’t expect Cook to be the first target on this offense. The lead pass catcher will likely be Tavon Austin out of the slot with Chris Givens and Austin Pettis running downfield routes to clear space for Austin whose explosive presence commands rolled coverage. However, the coaching staff has discussed moving him around the formation a lot, even using him in the backfield some. As such, he may even see an increase on his career high 82 targets in 2011.
Given the production history, offensive scheme, and talent, Jared Cook has a great shot at being a Top-10 fantasy TE in 2013, albeit on the lower end. His athletic ability in this offense will produce solid numbers and he would make a great value pick. Within the first week or two of the
season, we’ll get a good idea or whether Cook is being targeted enough to take the step forward this year, but at a position in which you can afford to wait, Jared Cook is a great guy to target.
3) With Amendola gone, who is Sam Bradford’s top target now?
With the 8th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the Ram’s selected Tavon Austin to lead the Rams to glory. And that he most definitely will. The Ram’s front office just handed Bradford the keys to the sportiest car in the lot. While his physical measurables at 5’8” 174 pounds do not turn heads, his production in college certainly did.
He led the FBS as a junior in all-purpose yards with 2574 in 2011 capped by a 390 yard, 4 TD performance against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. His senior season was even more spectacular as posted 2917 all-purpose yards. With 1287 receiving and 652 yards on the ground, Austin is a dynamo of potential and draws many comparisons to Randall Cobb in the NFL. Although he will be primarily utilized in the slot, he is very capable on specialized runs, and end-arounds, as well as the short-screen game.
His athletic ability and speed make him an incredibly explosive talent that Fisher will move throughout the offense. Although he is a rookie, his experience as the lead producer for West Virginia show he is more than capable of being the focal point of an offense. I do have some trepidation due to Austin being a sub-180 pound rookie, but the potential is off the charts; think Percy Harvin with a more competent coach.
Bradford does have two capable TEs and a few other WRs that will have capable years but beyond Austin and Jared Cook the pass catching group in St. Louis won’t be on my radar this offseason. If a runner can stand out in the three-way battle and the offensive line gels then Bradford can potentially make Austin a top 20 WR in PPR. In standard leagues, he currently doesn’t make our top 30 (largely since Russ doesn’t like investing in rookies), but he’s definitely a good upside guy to target after you grab your starting WRs.
There are many question marks across the Ram’s roster in fantasy terms but the outlook is positive for a team with such an expansive youth movement. Things are on the up and up in St. Louis and Bradford will likely see a boon in fantasy this year. A young run game and inexperienced WR corps mixed with an extremely talented division defensively will make fantasy predictions difficult in 2013 but Bradford, Austin, Cook, and the ultimate winner of the running game competition will provide quality depth across your roster.