(St. Louis) (AP) – The Robert Griffin III trade helped speed the St. Louis Rams’ arc from sad sack to respectability. In coach Jeff Fisher’s second season, they’ll be counting on more high-profile youngsters they’ve stockpiled to take the next step.
Surplus picks from the deal with Washington for the second overall pick in 2012 gave the Rams confidence to trade up for wide receiver Tavon Austin this year. Austin and fellow first-rounder Alec Ogletree will start for a team that improved to 7-8-1 last year with two rookie starters on defense and both specialists as rookies, too.
While the Redskins made the playoffs last year, the Rams had more needs to fill and they’re getting Washington’s first-rounder next year, too. They remain among the NFL’s youngest teams, so expect more learning on the job that’ll require patience at the top.
There are increased expectations, fed in part by the addition of free agents Jared Cook and Jake Long. There’s a feeling the Rams belong in a stacked NFC West, too, after going 4-1-1 in the division, but will have to show it over the long haul to post the franchise’s first winning record in a decade.
“Now is when you’re got to learn grit,” general manager Les Snead said. “They’re going to know we’re coming.”
If the Rams were playing on the PGA tour, Snead last year they’d have been satisfied making the cut. No more.
The Rams have been here before only to fall back, winning seven games in 2010 only to crash the next season, losing their first six, going 2-14 and getting Steve Spagnuolo fired. It shouldn’t happen again under Fisher, and here are five things to know about the Rams heading into the Sept. 8 opener at home against Arizona:
FISHER’S TEAM: The roster overhaul has been drastic, with eight undrafted free agents among the 18 rookies to play last year. There are about a dozen holdovers from the failed Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan regimes that combined for just 15 wins in five seasons, the worst stretch in NFL history. A few have been simply too good to show the door. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has led the team in tackles all four of his seasons, defensive end Chris Long is the top pass rusher and though Sam Bradford has yet to crack the NFL’s elite cadre of quarterbacks, the Rams are satisfied with him. They’ve had a while to adjust to the biggest camp setback, plugging in veteran Will Witherspoon at outside linebacker the first four games. Though Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s suspension was announced in early August, the team had known it was coming barring a successful appeal for some times.
REPLACING JACKSON: The biggest question heading into camp, finding a successor to Steven Jackson, was settled prior to Week 3 of the preseason when Fisher named Daryl Richardson the starting running back. Richardson was the next-to-last pick of the 2012 draft but is no surprise anymore, beating second rounder Isaiah Pead for the backup job last year and impressing this summer with quickness and decisive moves. Two rookies, fifth-rounder Zac Stacy and undrafted Benny Cunningham, are also in the mix.
SPEED SPEED SPEED: For years, the Rams ignored wide receiver. Now they’re well stocked. Austin showed game-breaking potential at Denver with an 81-yard punt return and will be used all over the field to keep defenses guessing. Both Austin and Stedman Bailey are coming off prolific seasons at West Virginia. Incumbent Chris Givens won a number of foot races as a rookie last year after emerging ahead of Brian Quick, chosen two rounds earlier in the second round. Quick has shown promise in the preseason he’s ready to handle more. The rookies must adapt, though, to a more complex playbook.
BRADFORD BREAKOUT?: For the first time since getting picked first overall in 2010, the quarterback didn’t have to spend the offseason learning a new scheme. A second season with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme should help expand the options for Bradford, who is coming off his best statistical season.
“It seems like now I’ve just had so much more experience and I’ve seen things that it’s rare that I see something that catches me totally off-guard,” Bradford said.
FRONT LINE: The Rams have a pair of former No. 1 overall picks on offense, with Long (2008) protecting Bradford’s blind side at left tackle. Center Scott Wells was among the top additions last year and is healthy after a delayed debut in 2012 and right guard Harvey Dahl is durable, efficient and feisty. Chris Williams and Shelly Smith, alternating starts at left guard during the preseason, are both solid. Former left tackle Rodger Saffold is an upgrade on the right side after an inauspicious start, injuring his shoulder on the second snap of the preseason. He returned for Week 3.