With OTA’s in full swing (and training camp a little over a month away), it’s time to look at some St. Louis Rams-related items of note, and take a peek at what lies ahead. Let’s breathe some life into the slow part of the offseason!
2015 regular season schedule
The Rams open the regular season at home against the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. No matter how many times I go through the teams’ schedule, I can’t see a game that holds more importance for the Rams than the home opener. I believe this game could set the tone for the entire season.
In their 2014 Week 1 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings, the Rams looked like a team unprepared to play competitive football. The result was an embarrassing 34-6 loss, part of a horrible 1-4 record to begin the season. If the Rams are to vie for a playoff berth in 2015 it’s imperative they get off to a better start. Jeff Fisher must have the Rams ready to play from the opening whistle.
The Week 1 matchup versus the Seahawks promises to be a hard-fought, closely contested affair. The Seahawks have lost 2 of their last 3 games in St. Louis. All three games were decided by 6 points or less. It will be interesting to see how well the Rams’ defense can contain newly-acquired TE Jimmy Graham. Can the Rams’ vaunted defensive line dominate the Hawks’ vulnerable, Swiss cheese-like offensive line? Can the Rams’ newly-minted running game shine brighter than Seattle’s powerful rushing attack? Does Jeff Fisher have a few more tricks up his sleeve for Pete Carroll?
Looking ahead to 2016
The 53-man roster isn’t even close to being finalized. The Rams haven’t played a game in 2015. Yet I’m already looking ahead to 2016!? When it comes to the salary cap, looking at what lies ahead is an important exercise, especially as it relates to 2016.
Depending on what personnel and contract decisions the Rams make between now and the end of 2015, they could be faced with the dilemma of having 21 players (projected) eligible for Free Agency in 2016:
When looking at the list, two questions immediately come to mind: how many of these players will the Rams attempt to re-sign? How many players will they be able to afford to re-sign under the salary cap?
The Rams have, by my estimate, close to $115 million in total financial obligations counting against the salary cap for 2016. This figure will undoubtedly change as the year progresses. The 2015 league-wide salary cap is $143.28 million. It will likely increase to a minimum of $155 million in 2016. That leaves the Rams with approximately $40 million in salary cap space for re-signing/signing players in 2016. $40 million could end up being more than enough, or not even close to enough.
The Rams are quite proactive when it comes to re-signing/extending their best/most coveted players. Recent examples include Robert Quinn and John Hekker, who were signed to new contracts well before they could become Free Agents. Additionally, the Rams just picked up Michael Brockers’ 5th year option.
Could the Rams be looking to lock up QB Nick Foles long-term, before he plays a single down in the horns?:
One priority for #Rams: Lock up QB Nick Foles to a long-term deal. They’ve had initial talks, those’ll ramp up leading up to the season.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 15, 2015
The Rams don’t have to rush to get a long-term deal done. If Foles plays like he did in 2013, the Rams can always use the franchise tag to ensure he remains with the team through 2016. It gives the Rams the flexibility to see how he performs in 2015 without committing to anything long-term until well after the 2015 season is completed. Foles is scheduled to earn $1.542 million in 2015. Signing Foles to a long-term deal before the season starts is a risky proposition for the Rams. How do they determine his market value at this point in time? Based on his extraordinary performance in 2013, or his injury-riddled, mediocre 2014 season? What if 2013 was an outlier, and Foles’ 2015 season is no better than his 2014 results? The only way the Rams do this deal is if it’s on extremely team-friendly terms.
There are many high quality players on the Rams’ roster who are eligible for Free Agency in 2016. How many of them fall into the category of must-signs (similar to Quinn, Hekker and Brockers)? The closest to must-signs (at this point in time) are Nick Foles and Janoris Jenkins. Even then, their performances this coming season will have a significant impact on how they are viewed by the Rams when it comes time for contract negotiations. That holds true for the remaining 19 players on the list as well. With so many players in their contract years (and only so much salary cap space available in 2016), it will be interesting to see who rises to the occasion, and who makes themselves expendable.
Has the Fisher/Snead power dynamic shifted?
When you look back at the Rams’ offseason to-date and the last two drafts, one thing has become apparent: the equal “partnership” Jeff Fisher and Les Snead once shared is fraying at the edges, and Jeff Fisher is taking over control of this team.
I’ll look at their relationship in more depth in an upcoming article. In the interim, let’s briefly examine the last two drafts and the current offseason.
Michael Silver was in the Rams’ war room during the 2015 NFL Draft. His observations after Day 2:
“And Friday night, for the first time in the three years and three months that have passed since Fisher took over as the St. Louis Rams‘ coach and top football decision-maker, he exuded a deep-seated satisfaction impossible to ignore — that of a man who feels his team will play football the way he prefers it, with no ambiguity about its mission.”
“We’re trying to become more physical on offense,” Fisher said. “We did that today. We got two guys who are gonna go downfield and finish blocks — and clear space for that guy we got last night to do what he does. It’s not complicated: Hand it off, run play-action passes, get the ball out quickly, keep your defense off the field.”
“I feel good, yeah. I feel real good. It’s been a long time coming…” – Jeff Fisher after the draft.
In other words, the Rams are doing it strictly Fisher’s way going forward: run the football behind a mammoth, physical offensive line, and stack the defense with as much talent as possible. Both are hallmarks of Fisher-coached teams.
The following are personnel decisions made since May, 2014 that have Fisher’s name stamped all over them:
- A running back selected in the 3rd round of last years draft (Tre Mason) and in the 1st round of this years draft (Todd Gurley).
- 7 offensive linemen selected in the past two NFL drafts combined (including Greg Robinson with the 2nd overall pick in 2014). Plus signing Free Agent OL Garrett Reynolds, and re-signing OL Rodger Saffold (March, 2014). For the most part, a bunch of physically imposing road-graders.
- Re-signing TE’s Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey, primarily because of their blocking skills. Kendricks’ exorbitant contract was a bit of an eye-opener.
- Trading a 4th and 6th round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft to Tampa Bay for safety Mark Barron.
- The Rams’ two major Free Agent acquisitions in 2015? LB Akeem Ayers and DT Nick Fairley.
- Adding a multitude of defensive talent in the 2014 NFL Draft and through the 2014 UDFA process: DT Aaron Donald (1st), DB Lamarcus Joyner (2nd), DB Maurice Alexander (4th), CB E.J. Gaines (6th), CB Marcus Roberson (UDFA) and DE Ethan Westbrooks (UDFA). Alexander in particular was a quintessential Fisher draft selection.
A long time coming indeed…
The offensive line
Will the Rams’ offensive line “lean to the left”, as noted by Jim Thomas (Post-Dispatch) last week?
During OTA’s, the Rams have rotated centers. Demetrius Rhaney, Barrett Jones and Tim Barnes have all seen 1st team reps. That’s expected to continue right through the preseason. What Thomas was alluding to is the composition of the remainder of the line during OTA’s. Rookies Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein are getting most of the 1st team reps at RG and RT, respectively. Rodger Saffold and Greg Robinson are holding down the left side of the line.
I’m a bit surprised to see Saffold at LG and a pair of rookies on the right side of the line. It could be a recipe for disaster. If Jones or Rhaney wins the starting role at center, the Rams could conceivably have three players side-by-side-by-side who haven’t had one start in the NFL. That’s a scary proposition. I’d feel a lot more comfortable about the line if it was more balanced. This would involve moving Saffold to RG and Brown to LG.
The offensive line (from left to right):
Robinson – Brown – Jones – Saffold – Havenstein
I believe the Rams will keep 9 offensive linemen on the final 53-man roster. Aside from the 5 starters mentioned above, Tim Barnes, Cody Wichmann, Andrew Donnal and Garrett Reynolds all make the roster. Rhaney, Travis Bond, and Darrell Williams are all likely candidates for the practice squad. Brandon Washington could also be in the mix for a roster spot with an outstanding training camp.
Nick Foles to Chris Givens?
The Rams are pretty much set at the WR positions. They’ll likely carry 5 on the roster: Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens. Chris Givens has become the forgotten man, slowly sliding down the depth chart over the last two seasons. Could the trade for QB Nick Foles be just the spark Givens needs to resurrect his career?
In a recent article for Bleacher Report, respected writer Mike Tanier (using data from Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project), ranks the NFL’s best deep passers. In the study, NFL QB’s are placed into different categories (young guns, the big five, veterans, crossroads QB’s etc.) then compared.
For Rams fans, the “crossroads QB’s” category is the most interesting and relevant:
“Nick Foles’ deep passing numbers are outstanding. He was amazing in his breakout 2013 season, with 10 deep touchdowns to just one interception in less than a full season. He was still close to league average for his playing time last season, though with a high interception rate. Foles has a very good arm.”
“So does Sam Bradford, who was a league-average deep passer in 2012, when he and Chris Givens looked like an emerging home run combination, and then was awful in a half-season’s work in 2013, when the Rams gave up trying to throw more than three yards downfield.”
Deep Passing Stats: The Crossroads QBs
|Robert Griffin III||71||18||683||4||3||25.4%||9.6|
I still remember Givens’ rookie season (2012), when he caught a pass of 50-plus yards in 5 consecutive games, an NFL rookie record. It’s just a hunch, but I think Givens could surprise us this season. He’s exactly the type of vertical threat that could thrive in the Rams’ “new” offense, with Nick Foles under center.