Jesper from Denmark graced the NFC West mailbag with a position-by-position evaluation of the St. Louis Rams. He thinks the team has gotten worse at several positions. He also thinks I've been a little too optimistic in my assessments of the team's prospects for 2010. I liked the clear, concise way Jesper presented his case. I'll pass along his thoughts and add my own.
Sando: The Rams' outlook at the position has improved, but you're right about the short-term prospects. I think the Rams would be foolish to open the regular season with Bradford at quarterback, even if Bradford looks better than Feeley during training camp. Bulger had five touchdowns, six interceptions and a 70.7 rating last season. I'm not expecting much better from the Rams at that position this season.
Jesper: Steven Jackson had more than 350 touches last season. He is coming off back surgery. It's hard to imagine him producing the same numbers, and there has been no attempt to get a decent backup. Verdict: At best the same/possibly worse.
Sando: I see this position as a downgrade for sure simply because it's unrealistic to expect the same production from Jackson following back surgery. This position could turn into a big problem for the Rams if Jackson breaks down physically. However, there's a good chance Jackson will be a productive player this season, based on my conversations with ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell.
Jesper: Laurent Robinson is back from injury, but can we really judge him from seeing him play 2.5 games last year? Can he even stay healthy? Avery's receptions and yardage went down in his second season and he has in no way lived up to his status as the first receiver drafted in 2008. Then you've got a bunch of no-names, and Mardy Gilyard, a rookie (how often do rookie receivers produce?). Verdict: same.
Sando: This group could improve through better health. I agree that some of the guys appear prone to injuries. Brandon Gibson was a player you might have mentioned. Overall, though, it's not a stretch to say this group appears similar to last season. I would expect some improvement, though.
Sando: I don't think the Rams are losing anything by parting with McMichael because he dropped so many passes. Fells was the better receiving option last season. But neither would I say this position is improved. It's a wash.
Jesper: Jason Smith had a not-so-great rookie campaign and now he has been move back to the left side. Rodger Saffold is a rookie. Jacob Bell has not been a success. I think John Greco will be the right guard -- not so promising. Jason Brown is pretty good. Alex Barron might not have been an All-Pro, but he was solid and better short term than Saffold. Verdict: worse.
Sando: The line will not be worse this season unless injuries overwhelm it again. The line fell apart in the second half of last season. I expect improvement from where the line finished last season, and the long-term prospects should be better with Saffold joining the group.
Jesper: The only new starters are rookies or players who have been promoted due to the departure of other players. Verdict: worse.
Sando: The quarterback situation will dictate how much the offense improves or worsens. We both have serious concerns about the position in the short term, so it's fair to say the offense could be worse for a while. When I think of the 2009 Rams on offense, I think of a team that couldn't finish drives in the red zone. That was a reflection of the Rams' lack of playmakers. The team still lacks playmakers.
Jesper: Chris Long finished strong, but he will never be that great. just solid. Leonard Little is (probably) gone, and that makes 33-year-old James Hall the other end. Long gets double-teamed and Hall might sneak up on 3-4 sacks. Verdict: worse.
Sando: The Rams drafted defensive ends in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. It's unrealistic to expect immediate contributions from those players. Long could be more effective spending more time on the left side, but I also have a hard time seeing him becoming an elite player. This group does not appear improved.
Jesper: Adam Carriker is gone, but he didn't play last year, anyway. Clifton Ryan is a little underrated, I think, and he is actually a pretty good player. Fred Robbins is old, but still an upgrade. Then you got Darell Scott and Chris Hovan in rotation. Verdict: same/better.
Sando: I'm with you here. They'll be a little better, most likely, and that could help James Laurinaitis.
Jesper: Laurinaitis is a good linebacker, but who else was going to make the tackles last year? Three-fourths of his tackles came 5 yards down the field. Na'il Diggs is 32 years old and made fewer than 40 tackles last season (not that Paris Lenon was great). And then you got Barbie or Mr. Irrelevant, David Vobora. Verdict: same.
Sando: Laurinaitis should improve in his second season. Bobby Carpenter did get tagged with the "Barbie" nickname while with the Dallas Cowboys and it's fair to question how much improvement he'll provide. The switch to a 4-3 could help him. Overall, though, this isn't an exciting unit.
Jesper: Ron Bartell had a bad year after his pretty good 2008 campaign. Bradley Flechter smashed his knee and we don't really know how good he will be coming back. That leaves us with Kevin Dockery, Justin King and rookie Jerome Murphy. Verdict: same/worse (depending on Fletcher).
Sando: Murphy was an intriguing pick in the third round. I'm interested in seeing what he might offer. The group does not appear obviously improved and I'd agree with you regarding Fletcher as a key variable.
Jesper: Oshiomogho Atogwe is back, but he is also coming back from injury, and probably will be released next year, I suspect. James Butler had trouble in coverage, and might lose his job to newcomer Kevin Payne from the Chicago Bears (although Payne did not have a great 2009, either). Verdict: same (but with a little more depth).
Sando: Atogwe's health is key. He had been durable until last season. It's fair to wonder if he'll hold up for a full season following surgery. I do like the depth better. Craig Dahl comes back with some experience. Overall, though, it's tough to say this group is improved significantly.
Jesper: The Rams have new starters at DT, LB and maybe CB. But none of them are really big difference makers (Robbins is probably going to make the most difference). Verdict: same.
Sando: That is fair. The Rams do not have a dynamic pass-rush threat and that is a concern. The run defense does have a chance to improve.
Jesper: Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was not very impressive in his play-calling last season. Spagnuolo had a great defensive scheme in New York, but he does not have players to do the same thing in St. Louis.
Sando: It's critical for the Rams to have the right coaches for Bradford. Shurmur has a solid NFL track record in this area. Quarterbacks coach Dick Curl, not so much.
Jesper: The schedule is easier than last year -- on paper. When the season is over, we can look back and decide. There will always be teams who disappoint and surprise, so it's a little hard to judge right now (even though I have to agree that the first half of the season last year was brutal).
Sando: I like the Rams' schedule early in the season and think it gives them a chance to win a couple games before the midway point. That would mark an improvement from last season.
Jesper: Their will be injuries -- maybe not as much as last year, but there will be some. Who is going to step up if someone such as Laurinaitis, Long, Jason Smith or -- worst-case scenario, Jackson -- goes down? There is very little depth. I see a lot of potential, but only long term. What makes this year's team better than last year's version?
Sando: No question, this season is all about looking toward a future that seemed a lot less promising when the roster was packed with aging and declining former stars. I wouldn't put much hope into this season. However, I also think it's tough to go 1-15. Lots of bad things have to happen. Those things did happen to the Rams last season. It's realistic, I think, for the Rams to suffer from fewer problems beyond their control in 2010. They could win a few games -- even with a roster that doesn't appear appreciably better overall.