Thursday, January 2, 2014
All-NFC West: St. Louis Rams
By Nick Wagoner
ST. LOUIS -- As though the St. Louis Rams' last-place finish in the hypercompetitive NFC West division wasn't enough of a reminder of how far they have to go to become legitimate contenders again, one need only look at how they fared in our voting for an all-division team.
While Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona each had at least seven representatives on a team consisting of 26 players, the Rams finished with just three players to qualify. In all honesty, it's hard to argue with the result, save for one notable exception I'll get to in a moment.
The three Rams to make the list are defensive end Robert Quinn, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and returner Tavon Austin. Before we get into the reasons, let's lay out the rules of the voting here. We voted for actual teams with an additional defender allowed because of the different defensive schemes used by the teams in the division. We also stuck to positions so we couldn't just vote for the four best linebackers regardless of inside or outside. We had to have two outside 'backers and two inside 'backers.
With that out of the way, it's hard to argue against any of the three Rams who made the cut.
Quinn was the obvious choice, an absolute no-brainer who is not only the best at his position in the division but in the NFL as a whole. He has built a compelling case to be the league's defensive player of the year. Quinn became a complete player in 2013, adding a much-improved ability to stop the run to his repertoire in addition to his dynamic pass-rush skills. All of that added up to his first career Pro Bowl invitation.
Ogletree put together a strong rookie season, showing the type of week-to-week improvement the Rams hoped he'd achieve after using a late first-round pick on him in 2013. Staying on the field for all three downs, the former college safety was adept in coverage right off the bat, but game experience helped his instincts and he got better against the run along the way. What's more, Ogletree showed a knack for the splash play, forcing six fumbles and returning an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.
It should be noted that while Ogletree had a good year and is deserving of his inclusion, he's also a direct beneficiary of our voting rules. Other outstanding linebackers were left off because of the plethora of talented inside linebackers and the standard allowing for only two of them to make it.
In a division loaded with dangerous returners such as Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Golden Tate, it was the Rams' other first-round pick who landed the votes to be the team's returner. Austin had a rocky start as a returner as penalties from his teammates nullified some big returns and left him frustrated in the first part of the season. But Austin grew up along with his young special-teams units and began to find a groove. His scintillating 98-yard punt return for a touchdown against Indianapolis was the team's most exciting play of the season and just a glimpse of what the future may hold for the dangerous rookie.
All three of those Rams are deserving of their place on this team and though I argued vehemently for the inclusion of one more, punter Johnny Hekker, he came up short to the more well-known name in San Francisco's Andy Lee. In fact, each NFC West reporter threw out a nomination for the punter he covers, but the case for Hekker was far better than the others. He was consistently excellent throughout the year and set the league record for net punting in a season. At least the Pro Bowl voters got that one right.
Aside from Hekker, it's hard to see anything more than maybe some minor quibbles with the team from a Rams perspective. Cases could be made for Michael Brockers at defensive tackle or Greg Zuerlein at kicker. Jake Long likely would have landed a spot if we took the two best tackles rather than a left and right.
As it's currently constructed, I have little doubt the Rams' roster is much better than it was when coach Jeff Fisher arrived. For St. Louis to take the next step, more players like Quinn will need to take the next step forward and emerge as elite in the game's toughest division.