NFC West: Steven Jackson

When the NFL released compensatory picks on Monday afternoon, it listed five "lost" free agents counting toward the St. Louis Rams' formula: cornerback Bradley Fletcher, center Robert Turner, receivers Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola and safety Craig Dahl. The formula also counted tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook as additions.

Conspicuous by his absence was running back Steven Jackson, who departed in free agency to the Atlanta Falcons. At the time, it seemed Jackson may have been a simple oversight on the list released by the league, but after some checking around, ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando got to the bottom of it to confirm that Jackson was actually not included in the formula.

According to Sando, although Jackson was categorized by the NFL as an unrestricted free agent last offseason, he did not count toward the formula because his contract was re-worked in its final year. The league's stance on the issue is designed to prevent teams from making tweaks to contracts in their final season which could theoretically allow teams to set themselves up for additional compensatory picks.

That's a logical stance, but one could also see how it would be unfair to the Rams in Jackson's case. Jackson's contract already had an opt-out clause in it before the final year, though it was a clause triggered by reaching performance plateaus. The only tweak the Rams made to it was to allow Jackson to opt out, even though he wasn't going to hit those marks.

At the end of the 2012 season, Jackson chose to opt out and the league declared him an unrestricted free agent. In a very technical sense, the Rams didn't "choose" to lose Jackson, though it's certain he would not have been brought back at the scheduled $7 million price tag had he decided not to opt out.

It's clear that any alteration in the final year of a contract is probably going to prevent that player from being eligible to be counted in the compensatory formula, even if the player leaves at his own discretion.

Even without counting Jackson, the Rams received three compensatory picks, one in the sixth round and two in the seventh. Really, Jackson's exclusion from the formula isn't a big deal, though it's hard to say whether it cost the Rams a chance at receiving the maximum four compensation picks. Either way, the Rams aren't hurting for selections as they now have an even dozen for May's NFL draft.

Rams add three compensatory picks

March, 24, 2014
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The St. Louis Rams were already sitting in prime draft position with nine choices and two first-rounders before the NFL handed out compensatory selections Monday evening. Now, they have even more opportunity to add talent after the league awarded them three more choices for 2013 free-agent losses.

Heading toward May's draft, the Rams now have 12 picks after picking up a sixth-rounder (No. 214 overall) and two seventh-rounders (Nos. 249 and 250) from the compensatory process.

Breaking it down further, the Rams have two picks in the first round (Nos. 2 and 13), two in the sixth and four in the seventh to go with their lone original choice in rounds two through five.

Compensatory picks cannot be traded but having that many choices likely puts the Rams in position to maneuver around the board as they wish with those other nine choices.

In the official release the NFL sent out Monday evening, the Rams were credited for losing receiver Danny Amendola, safety Craig Dahl, center Robert Turner, receiver Brandon Gibson and cornerback Bradley Fletcher and adding tight end Jared Cook and tackle Jake Long.

Conspicuous by his absence was running back Steven Jackson. The Rams allowed Jackson to void the final year of his contract and he was declared an unrestricted free agent before signing with Atlanta. It's unclear right now if Jackson was not factored into equation or if his name was an accidental omission from the league's release. For what it's worth, Jackson was not counted as an addition in Atlanta's equation.
With the NFL owners meetings convening in Orlando this week, much of the discussion will center on potential rule changes and points of emphasis for the 2014 season. For fans of the NFL draft, the biggest news coming out of central Florida will be the compensation selections which are also expected to be announced.

In addition to the chance to finalize the draft order, teams can also pick up valuable selections anywhere from the end of round three to Mr. Irrelevant at the close of round seven.

Before we do our best to try to project what the St. Louis Rams will receive, let's attempt to explain a few things pertinent to the discussion of compensation picks.
  • The NFL does not disclose the exact formula it uses to divvy up the picks. All picks are awarded based on the previous year's free-agent market so in this case, the Rams' extra picks will be based on players like Danny Amendola and Jared Cook rather than the many free agents they've lost this year.
  • What we do know about the formula is that it's based on a balance of what a team gained and lost the previous season. Picks aren't just handed out because a team signed less free agents than it lost. How those players performed, how much they played and how much money they made is more important than sheer attrition. So if you lose four backups and sign one starter, it could theoretically even out and gain you nothing depending on how those backups perform and the differential in money.
  • Only unrestricted free agents who had that designation based on the natural course of their contract expiring are eligible to be factored into the formula. Restricted or exclusive rights free agents who do not receive tenders from their team are ineligible to be counted. Likewise for veterans who are released before the start of the new league year. What's more unclear is how players who come to some sort of opt-out agreement are counted. Using an example for the Rams, running back Steven Jackson technically opted out of his contract and chose to leave but the Rams enabled that despite Jackson not meeting the requirements to automatically trigger the voidable year. Still, Jackson was categorized as an unrestricted free agent and played 398 snaps in 2013, which should qualify him for this exercise.
  • The new Collective Bargaining Agreement only allows for a total of 32 compensatory picks to be handed out. That's not per round but total so as to limit the draft to no more than the equivalent of a full eight rounds.
  • Compensatory picks cannot be traded.

Here's the breakdown of free agents lost and gained with regular season snap counts from 2013 included:

2013 free agents lost: Amendola (542 snaps), Jackson (398 snaps), offensive lineman Robert Turner (379 snaps), receiver Brandon Gibson (245 snaps), cornerback Bradley Fletcher (881 snaps), safety Craig Dahl (84 snaps), receiver Steve Smith (0 snaps, signed with Tampa Bay and retired soon after). (Note: Turner and Gibson finished the season on injured reserve)

2013 free agents gained: Offensive tackle Jake Long (818 snaps), tight end Jared Cook (691 snaps).

Projection: The Rams obviously lost more free agents than they signed in 2013 but Long and Cook were not only clearly the highest-paid going in either direction but the most productive and reliable in terms of play time. Fletcher played the most snaps while the rest of the list struggled with injuries which limited their opportunities. Dahl was mostly a special teams player for the 49ers. Few of the free agents the Rams lost should factor in a significant way aside from Fletcher and, perhaps, Amendola.

Without knowing the full details of how the picks will be handed out, this is simply an educated guess, but while I do expect the Rams to receive some sort of compensation, I wouldn't expect it to be much. The guess here is the Rams will receive one, maybe two, late-round selections likely in the seventh round with a sixth-round choice as the probable best case scenario. The team already holds nine picks in this year's draft and could gain more by trading down but either way, they'll have no shortage of chances to make picks come May.

NFLN survey/Super Bowl player: Rams

January, 22, 2014
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ST. LOUIS -- As part of the on-going reveal of answers to the NFL Nation survey which polled 320 players on a variety of questions, we've reached the release of the answer to a poll question that I don't believe is much different than the one asking which player is most respected by his peers.

The only twist here is that the question asks which player (active, non-teammate) would you like to see in the Super Bowl? The pre-requisite was that the player named couldn't have already been to one. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson edged Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez to take top honors as a whopping 88 players received votes.

Two things struck me as I asked around the Rams locker room.

First, how much many of the players would simply like to have a winning season or just get to the playoffs let alone a Super Bowl. I'm confident in saying that these Rams would have voted for a current teammate if given the chance.

Second, I was a bit surprised not to hear Steven Jackson's name mentioned a bit more. Now, many players named a friend playing somewhere in the league and Jackson's name did come up, but I wondered if it would be more popular. When looking at the Falcons, though, it's clear most players think of Gonzalez before Jackson.

Rams-Falcons: Matchups breakdown

September, 14, 2013
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ATLANTA – Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons contains plenty of intriguing matchups, making it difficult to boil it down to just a few. Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off at 1 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins vs. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones

Jones
Jenkins
It’s a matchup that fans of the Southeastern Conference have seen before and one that Jenkins undoubtedly is anticipating.

Jenkins was at Florida at the same time Jones was at Alabama. The final two times their teams met, in 2009 and 2010, Jenkins won their battles by unanimous decision -- helping to limit Jones to a combined six catches for 47 yards.

Although the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones has a clear size advantage against the 5-10, 198-pounder, Jenkins found ways to slow Jones in their college meetings by forcing him to work other routes than the basic deep ones that are Jones’ calling card.

“He’s a vertical threat, the deep guy, the home run guy,” Jenkins said. “He basically bangs 8s [routes] and digs. I have just got to play cornerback on him. I know he can’t get out of his breaks as fast as I can, but they love going deep so I have got to be prepared to go deep and just study his film.”

The Rams generally prefer not to shadow any one receiver, and they didn’t do so last week against Larry Fitzgerald. Still, should Jones play through a knee injury (he's listed as questionable), he and Jenkins should see plenty of each other Sunday afternoon.

Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis vs. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

Jackson
Laurinaitis
Earlier this week, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan joked that Jackson’s top target when he gets the ball will be Laurinaitis. Really, matching up with Jackson figures to be a total team effort, but Jackson has always enjoyed measuring himself against opposing middle linebackers.

Laurinaitis and the Rams never had to tackle Jackson in live game action during his nine years with the team, and they've all made it clear they are expecting Jackson to bring a little something extra Sunday.

“Jack is going to be trying to truck-stick whoever he can on this defense,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s the nature of playing him. He’s a competitor anyway, but players seem to play their hardest against teams they were just on. Steven is a competitor in his very nature anyway. That’s the way he is. He’s playing against the team that he used to play for; he’s going to play extremely hard. It’s a huge challenge.”

Jackson had just 11 carries last week against New Orleans, but the Falcons will probably look to get him more involved this week.

The Rams' offensive line vs. Atlanta DL Kroy Biermann

Biermann
In watching the Falcons' defense, it’s hard not to notice the constant movement and various places Biermann lines up. The veteran lineman makes appearances as an edge rusher, a linebacker, inside, outside, just about anywhere one could imagine.

Last week against the Saints, Biermann was all over the place in posting five tackles, including one for loss, and a pair of quarterback hits.

The Rams' offensive line did not allow a sack last week against the Cardinals, the third game in a row they've accomplished that feat dating to last season. Arizona threw a variety of stunts and blitzes, but the Rams picked them up well as the Cardinals hit quarterback Sam Bradford just six times.

“Kroy, for most of his career, was an edge rusher and a very good one,” Fisher said. “He’s a high-motor guy. He’s lining up all over the place. He’ll match up outside on a back and end up playing the corner spot in their zone concept. So he’s obviously very intelligent and a high-motor guy. He’s a big-play guy.”

Morning Ram-blings: NFC Best?

September, 14, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell took a deep look at the evolution of the NFC West, offering a timeline of the events that have taken the division from one that was won by a 7-9 team as recently as 2010 to one that now boasts two Super Bowl favorites in San Francisco and Seattle and two up-and-coming teams in the Rams and Arizona.

It's hard not to agree with the sentiment that the NFC West is now the best division in football, or at least one that should garner such consideration. It's been something of an amazing turnaround given that fans and media alike used to derisively refer to it as the "NFC Worst."

The addition of energized former college coaches Pete Carroll in Seattle and Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, along with well-respected NFL veterans such as Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, has brought a certain cachet to the division in addition to the improved rosters.

Better quarterback play has also been at the root of the turnaround, with Sam Bradford, Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick representing huge upgrades over the likes of Shaun Hill, Charlie Whitehurst and John Skelton.

To me, the turnaround in the division started with defense and grew from there. All four teams have gradually built defenses that already have been top-10 units or are on their way to being in the mix. It's made for some hard-hitting games and left teams in other divisions black and blue.

It's not just Barnwell who has taken notice, either. The nation will get some up-close looks at the strength of the NFC West on a big stage in coming days and weeks. The 49ers and Seahawks take center stage on Sunday night, and the Rams meet San Francisco in a Thursday night showdown on Sept. 26. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

I.C.Y.M.I.

Your daily roundup of anything you might have missed Friday from this corner of cyberspace. ... We started with a look at the Rams' emphasis on hidden yards and the importance of yards after the catch in this offense. ... From there it was an injury update on end Chris Long, who did not practice Friday and is questionable for Sunday. ... We followed with a look at the rest of the injury report, including the status of running back Daryl Richardson. ... Finally, we took a look at what a Rams victory would mean to a group that hasn't started a season 2-0 since 2001.

Elsewhere

The always-prolific Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dived deeper into what could become an interesting debate on the Hall of Fame possibilities for running back Steven Jackson. From there, he offered an interesting take on Tom Brady dealing with struggling wide receivers and compared those issues to the problems Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has had in his first few years in the league. Finally, Miklasz joined fellow columnist Bryan Burwell for a breakdown of the Rams-Falcons matchup.

Post-Dispatch Rams writer Joe Lyons gave a quick look at the anticipated return of tight end Cory Harkey against the Falcons.

Over at stlouisrams.com, fantasy writer Matt Lutovsky believes receiver Chris Givens could be a sleeper this week as Atlanta shifts its attention to tight end Jared Cook.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's nothing out of the ordinary for teams to look for new and creative ways to find salary-cap space at this time of year. Teams up against the cap will restructure contracts, make cuts, trade players or all of the above in order to open up some money. The Rams have been active in that regard in recent weeks, not least of which includes the release of linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar.

Sliding under the radar a bit, though, was a creative move to create a little more room by reworking the contract of guard Harvey Dahl. The move actually happened close to the beginning of the month, but it went relatively unnoticed because of other roster happenings. Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer/vice president of football operations/salary-cap guru, found a way to move money around in Dahl's contract and save the Rams in the neighborhood of $1.25 million against the salary cap.

The move is a bit involved, and the fine folks at Over the Cap have a better explanation of the move than I can offer.

The upshot is that the move saves the Rams some money this year, giving them some wiggle room in case there are injuries and for the practice squad. In exchange for taking a "pay cut," Dahl got a big chunk of guaranteed money up front, and he still has a chance to earn the rest of the money originally due to him with some reasonable incentives.

Dahl's contract is still scheduled to expire after the 2014 season. Coming off arm surgery last year, Dahl played well against Arizona last week. This week he gets to go back to Atlanta, the place where he was before the Rams signed him to a four-year, $16 million deal in 2011.

I.C.Y.M.I.

Our daily look at all things Rams that were covered right here in this corner of cyberspace. ... We kicked off Wednesday's activity with this week's version of "Double Coverage" where Pat Yasinskas and I kicked around some topics on this week's Rams-Falcons game. ... Then I offered a quick take on Mike Sando's Insider piece Insider on Sam Bradford and the disconnect between the traditional passer rating and our total QBR. ... In sticking to the Insider theme, we then took a look at Mel Kiper Jr.'s first rookie rankings Insider, where Rams LB Alec Ogletree checked in at No. 11. ... In the daily Injury Wire report, RB Daryl Richardson (foot) returned to practice on a limited basis and DE Chris Long was also limited because of a hip injury. ... Finally, we took a deeper look at Rams DE Robert Quinn and discussed his quick start against Arizona and ways he can continue to evolve in 2013.

Elsewhere

Over at the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, columnist Bernie Miklasz gave his take on an important matchup for the Rams against the Falcons. Miklasz offered that the Rams' defensive line appears to have a favorable situation against an Atlanta offensive line that was shaky last week against the Saints. From what I saw from both sides, it's hard to disagree with that stance. It's one matchup where the Rams could really change the game.

Beat writer Jim Thomas gave a good look at how the Rams are approaching facing Atlanta RB Steven Jackson.

Fellow beat writer Joe Lyons discussed RB Isaiah Pead's return to the mix this week after a one-game suspension.

Quinn appeared on NFL Network on Thursday and offered up a potential nickname for he and Long.

It's a couple weeks old, but if you need something uplifting to start your day, check out this piece on Rams S Matt Daniels and his special friend.
EARTH CITY, Mo. – Upon his departure for Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason, Steven Jackson exited a running-backs room full of talented youngsters who would suddenly have to grow up.

Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are one week into their second NFL seasons, and rookies Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy provide depth. It’s a green group lacking in meaningful experience.

Heading into a matchup with Jackson’s Falcons on Sunday, the jury remains out as to whether the St. Louis Rams have the parts to equal the sum of Jackson’s whole.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Richardson
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceDaryl Richardson is one of a group of young running backs trying to fill the hole left by Steven Jackson.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher is pleased with where his young backs are in their progression but acknowledged that there’s plenty of work to be done.

“Well, it’s still early,” Fisher said. “The younger backs, obviously, have ability and it’s just going to take time. They’re going to need snaps and reps and plays.”

There is no shortage of opportunities for those younger backs at Rams Park these days. Richardson won the starting job relatively early in camp in a position battle that never really materialized.

Pead remains as the backup and a player the Rams still have high hopes for despite his early struggles with ball security and his one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Stacy and Cunningham are promising rookies, but Stacy has just one carry to his name, and that’s one more than Cunningham at this point.

In parting ways with Jackson, the Rams figured to join an ever-expanding group of teams leaning on multiple backs rather than one workhorse.

Jackson is one of the last of a dying breed: a back who stays on the field all three downs and is at once the team’s best runner, pass-catcher and pass-protector. It’s a role that is going out of style so fast that Jackson was prepared to retire if a team wasn’t willing to provide him the chance to be the bell cow.

Replacing your all-time leading rusher is tough. Replacing your undisputed leader and finding one or more backs to fill the various roles Jackson did can be even more challenging.

In an ideal world, the Rams could find a piecemeal way to bring everything together and get the type of contributions they need from the position. Richardson would be the slashing, speedy back who gains the yards there to be gained. Stacy would be the pass-protector and short-yardage guy. Pead would work on third downs, picking up the blitz and catching passes out of the backfield. Cunningham would be a sort of X factor capable of doing it all.

That’s what things might look like if everyone turned into what the Rams believe they could be.

Quarterback Sam Bradford is hopeful the process of replacing Jackson can be expedited by the fact that players like Pead and Richardson worked in Jackson’s company for a year.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” Bradford said. “Obviously, it’s tough, ‘Jack’ meant so much to this offense and to this organization while he was here. They got to see the way he approached the game and the way he worked. I think that I’ve seen those guys try to emulate that during the week of practice and in their preparation, and I think they’re doing a really good job of that.”

On his end, Jackson has done what he can to provide guidance for the young backs in St. Louis, even from afar. He and Richardson grew particularly close last year, and the pair stays in touch on a regular basis.

Jackson said he talks to Richardson about more than football, providing tips on how to handle yourself off the field, how to take care of your body, even ways to conduct yourself during interviews with the media.

“It’s those dog days where no one wants to go to practice, no one wants to work, you have to push yourself forward and you have got to view yourself as the engine,” Fisher said. “When guys are down or you have a sluggish practice, you have got to come out running hard to motivate guys to up the ante.”

Someday in the not too distant future, it’s possible, if not probable, that Jackson will return to St. Louis when his career is over.

“We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved,” Fisher said. “This way the story ends real good. You’d like to think certainly his jersey’s retired back here whenever he’s done. We just wish him the best. He’s a class guy and was a tremendous leader in the locker room last year.”

Richardson missed Wednesday’s practice with what the Rams' injury report calls a foot ailment. Pead returned from his suspension and was plenty busy in his first practice back. Cunningham and Stacy had their opportunities as well.

Watching practice and seeing so many backs getting chances for carries served as a reminder that sometimes replacing a franchise legend is really difficult job. Sometimes it takes more than one to get it done.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher recently affirmed Daryl Richardson's status as the team's starting halfback. Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and undrafted rookie Bennie Cunningham are among those competing for the backup job. Steven Jackson is long gone after posting eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing.

We pick up the discussion from there.

Mike Sando: I just saw Steven Jackson listed as a 66-1 shot for MVP honors this season. Every story out of Atlanta suggests he's primed for huge season. You and I know soft-tissue injuries will be a threat there. As much as anyone with a heart wants Jackson to go out on top, there were reasons the Rams let him hit the market. They wanted to move on with younger, more explosive players and they weren't going to pay $7 million for Jackson. That all makes sense in theory, but should the reality at running back in St. Louis worry Rams fans?



Nick Wagoner: Jackson was such an important piece of the team in terms of leadership and all the fact that he was well rounded enough to stay on the field for all three downs. Obviously, the Rams wanted to go with a shift in offensive philosophy to move away from a power running game to add more game breaking speed to the offense. They were tied for 30th in the league last year in "quick strike drives" (touchdown drives of four plays or less). They clearly want to see that number change and those big, breakaway runs were the one thing Jackson didn't bring to the table.

Sando: The offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, defines explosive plays as runs covering at least 10 yards and passes covering at least 20. Jackson ranked 13th in the NFL with 27 runs of at least 10 yards. Richardson had 11. The rate was 10.5 percent for Jackson and 11.2 percent for Richardson -- not a big difference at all. Richardson averaged 4.9 yards per carry overall. The figure was 4.1 for Jackson. I'll be interested in seeing how additional carries will affect Richardson's per-play averages.

Wagoner: The 10-yard runs are a decent barometer but I think the Rams are thinking bigger with Richardson. He brings a more explosive element and had three of the team's four longest runs in a much smaller sample size in 2012. Having Richardson as the starter meshes much better with the offensive personality the Rams are trying to build but it doesn't mean they're all set there. He's still largely unproven and though he had a solid rookie season, he hit a wall near the end of the year and had some ball security issues at times as well. I still tend to think the other backs on the roster will get their share of time, don't you?



Sando: Yes, I would think so, but how well the backs play is going to dictate that, and it's tough to envision the team relying on Pead or Stacy much based on what those players have shown thus far. Does the team still expect great things from Pead?

Wagoner: It would seem that expectations for Pead have been tempered but he also really hasn't had much of an opportunity yet, either. Granted, his ball security issues have been a big reason for that but at this point, the Rams really don't know what they have with Pead or any of the others. Stacy has been banged up the past couple of weeks and missed out on some chances to get valuable work. Undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham might end up being a factor, especially if he can bring some added value as a kick returner. You'd have to think that finding someone you can trust to pick up blitzes will play into all of this too. That's one area where Pead has been pretty good in preseason.

Sando: A team isn't going to hit on every draft choice and it's too early to render judgment on Pead after one season, but a team relying so heavily on young draft choices needs those young draft choices to contribute. Richardson is one of those recent draft choices. The praise Fisher has heaped upon him recently is consistent with the Rams' actions. They were OK letting Jackson go. They were OK waiting til the later rounds before taking Stacy. They shrugged upon learning Pead would serve a one-game suspension. Now, if the team runs out and gets a veteran back, that will be telling. For now, though, Fisher seems content with what he has even though most of us aren't sure what that will be.



Wagoner: I suppose history tells us that teams can get contributions from running backs in all shapes and sizes from all kinds of different backgrounds. In Tennessee, Fisher used to spend premium draft choices on backs and it usually worked out with guys like Eddie George, Chris Johnson and, at least for a while, LenDale White. The value of running backs isn't what it used to be but it's interesting that a Fisher team could have a stable of backs with only Pead as a relatively high draft choice.

Sando: I've enjoyed watching Schottenheimer and Fisher defy their reputations. They have essentially bet big on Bradford and built a pass-oriented team around him. And they are trusting their eyes on Richardson, who has already exceeded reasonable expectations.

Wagoner: It's definitely going to make for a fascinating watch this year, even if it doesn't all come together right away or even in 2013 at all.

Reigning MVP Adrian Peterson is a longer shot than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in award handicapping for the upcoming season.

Those curious to know where Kaepernick's NFC West rival, Russell Wilson, ranks in oddsmakers' eyes, can check out the chart.

Peyton Manning leads the way at 5-1 odds to win NFL MVP honors, followed by Aaron Rodgers (13-2), Kaepernick (10-1) and Drew Brees (10-1).

Wilson is tied for eighth at 18-1.

Bovada.lv, among the companies providing NFL odds to ESPN.com, distributed its MVP odds Tuesday.

Sam Bradford (75-1) was the only St. Louis Rams player listed. There were no Arizona Cardinals listed. NFC West alums Steven Jackson (66-1) and Alex Smith (75-1) were among the notables. Marshawn Lynch was at 50-1.

Kaepernick is a viable choice based on projected stats. His pace through 10 starts last season (three in the playoffs) would project to better than 3,800 yards passing and 800 yards rushing over a 16-game schedule. Becoming the first player with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing would certainly put Kaepernick in the discussion.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It’s been almost a decade since the Rams have had anything even remotely resembling a competition for their starting running back position.

Since the Rams used the 24th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft on him, Steven Jackson’s name might as well have been etched in stone at the top of the depth chart. From that time, no running back in the NFL even came close to handling Jackson’s workload.

With Jackson now making his NFL home in Atlanta, the Rams find themselves entering their first season post-Jackson in search of a new starter at running back.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Richardson
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanDaryl Richardson enters camp listed first on the depth chart.
On Tuesday afternoon, coach Jeff Fisher pointed to Daryl Richardson over Isaiah Pead as the logical replacement. Well, sort of.

“I think Daryl comes back as our starter because he played significantly more last year than anybody,” Fisher said. “And so Isaiah is working himself up and competing with Daryl. And you’ve got the rest of the guys that are just going to battle it out, and we haven’t ruled anybody out from that matter. But we’re going to try to get as many carries as we can.”

So while Richardson “comes back as the starter,” there seems to be plenty of wiggle room as the Rams head into the preseason opener in Cleveland tomorrow night. Beyond that, calling Richardson the starter now could also be a matter of semantics, because Pead’s one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy will keep him out of the opener against Arizona.

Nearly two weeks into this year’s training camp, Richardson and Pead have spent most of the time in practice splitting repetitions with the first team. Richardson got many of the looks in the opening days before the Rams put the pads on, but since then he and Pead have been taking turns on a fairly consistent basis.

Neither Pead nor Richardson believes the job is anything but up for grabs as the exhibition schedule kicks off.

“I can’t call it right now, I can’t really tell,” Pead said. “All I can focus on is the next play and trying not to make a mistake on it or fixing it if I’ve currently made a mistake on it. That’s really the mindset that all of us as vets have taken, not really paying attention to how things are going to play out, but letting them play out.”

Ultimately, no matter who wins the starting job, it’s highly unlikely the Rams will lean on one back as they did Jackson.

From 2004 to 2012, Jackson’s 2,396 carries were the most in the league. Thomas Jones’ 2,179 attempts rank second.

In St. Louis, the discrepancy is even greater. Marshall Faulk, who played with Jackson in Jackson’s rookie season, had the next highest total after Jackson’s with 260.

All told, the Rams had 59 players carry the ball during Jackson’s tenure. In that time, the Rams tallied 3,665 carries; meaning Jackson’s total was good for 65.3 percent of the team’s total carries in his nine years with the team.

Richardson actually sits fourth on that list after one season in the league, carrying 98 times for 475 yards as a rookie in 2012. Richardson is the fastest of the group, and showed a penchant for breaking the long run with 11 carries of 10-plus yards.

That speed would seem to make Richardson an ideal complementary back, but he says he made it a point in the offseason to add strength so he could be better between the tackles and be more stout picking up the blitz.

“I want to be the guy at the beginning and at the end,” Richardson said. “I am out here working every day, on my hands especially. Pass protection is a must. You have got to protect [quarterback] Sam [Bradford]. That’s the main focus on what will go on the field.”

Those things should help his cause, but Richardson is well aware that ball security is another issue he has to work on during the rest of the preseason. As a rookie, he coughed up three fumbles, two of which were lost.

“You have got to hold on to that ball,” Richardson said. “Holding on to the ball can be the thing that will make you or break you.”

Pead is the most likely to push Richardson and potentially claim the job before the regular season begins. After the Rams used a second-round pick (No. 50 overall) on him in the 2012 draft, Pead fell behind early in last year’s camp and Richardson claimed the backup job early on.

From there, Pead didn’t get many opportunities as he carried 10 times for 54 yards. Like Richardson, Pead brings a speedy running style, but is probably a bit more elusive in the open field.

By his own admission, Pead would like to be the type of multi-purpose player who touches the ball 30 times a game via the run, the catch and as a returner, but for now, his goal is to improve in all areas so he can win the starting job.

“I think every snap counts,” Pead said. “Every blitz picked up, every dropped ball, every missed cut, every missed assignment. We are all out here looking not to make mistakes. You pray for a perfect practice every day, it just doesn’t happen. But that’s what you have coaches for, and that’s what you come out every day for, and that’s what competition is for. It forces you to be on high alert and perform.”

Pead and Richardson will get plenty of opportunities to create separation through the preseason, but other backs such as rookie Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway and maybe even Benjamin Cunningham will get their chances. How soon those other backs get their chance remains to be seen as Stacy hasn’t done much in practice the past two days, and Ganaway appeared to tweak something on a run late in Tuesday’s workout.

“You just have to sit down and give it some thought,” Fisher said. “Out of fairness to them, you want them all to have an opportunity to run behind the first line, because that’s a fair evaluation -- and run against good opponents. So, we’re going to have to work that out the best we can.”
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Issues with Ryan Williams' surgically repaired right knee sent the Arizona Cardinals' third-year running back to the sideline less than three full practices into the team's first training camp under coach Bruce Arians. An MRI exam showed no new damage, Arians said Monday, but Williams will seek a second opinion just to be sure. No one is quite sure when the 2011 second-round draft choice might be cleared for return.

The occasion provides an opportunity to examine as a group Williams and the other prominent halfbacks NFC West teams selected in 2011 and 2012. None was selected to start immediately, so we shouldn't evaluate them solely on production. This sixsome has endured a torn Achilles' tendon (Kendall Hunter), a torn patella tendon (Williams) and a one-game suspension (Isaiah Pead). All will likely serve as backups or in committees.

Williams, who has sometimes appeared dynamic on the practice field for his ability to change direction without losing much speed, could face a make-or-break season after knee (2011) and shoulder (2012) injuries kept him off the field. "I would think so," Arians said.

NFC West teams continued drafting running backs in 2013. They selected a league-high six of them: second-rounder Christine Michael (Seattle), fourth-rounder Marcus Lattimore (San Francisco), fifth-rounder Zac Stacy (St. Louis), fifth-rounder Stepfan Taylor (Arizona), sixth-rounder Spencer Ware (Seattle) and sixth-rounder Andre Ellington (Arizona). Ware has played some fullback in the past and is playing that position now.

The division parted with two incumbent starters when Arizona released Beanie Wells and St. Louis let Steven Jackson out of his contract. The Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch and the 49ers' Frank Gore appear likely to produce at high levels again this season, but their teams are increasingly in position for the future.
Sam BradfordAP Photo/L.G. PattersonThe St. Louis Rams are looking to be more aggressive on offense this year, encouraging quarterback Sam Bradford to take a chance if he thinks there's an opportunity for a big play.


ST. LOUIS -- Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer delivered an old-school message to players in the St. Louis Rams' first offensive meeting at training camp one year ago.

The 2012 Rams were going to seek their offensive identity in the running game, pounding away even when opponents loaded up to stop them, Schottenheimer told the team. They would wear down defenses with a run-first offense, then strike down the field in the passing game.

The thinking was sound given the Rams' personnel at the time and concerns about protecting quarterback Sam Bradford following an injury-shortened 2011 season. Now, with power back Steven Jackson gone to the Atlanta Falcons, the Rams have rerouted their offense through Bradford, loading up on speed at the skill positions and upgrading their line with tackle Jake Long's addition in free agency.

It's as if the Rams have hit the reset button on the Bradford era.

Schottenheimer is back, marking the first time Bradford has had the same coordinator in successive NFL seasons, but so much else has changed.

"Totally different," Bradford said following practice Tuesday. "The speed that we have acquired and what we have on the outside now -- and even the inside -- it suits us more to spread it out and play more one-back this year."

The Rams are banking on rookie receiver Tavon Austin and recently acquired tight end Jared Cook to create matchup problems with their speed, leading to more favorable opportunities for teammates Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey. It's happening already during red zone drills in practice, where the Rams can go with the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Cook and the 6-3, 220-pound Quick on the outside, with Austin (5-8, 174) and Pettis (6-3, 207) among those threatening from the slot.

Bradford thinks opposing defenses will have to change how they play.

"It just seems like when we played teams in the past, they were pretty much saying, 'This is what we play, you can't beat us and we're going to play it,'" Bradford said. "I don't think teams are going to be able to do that any more. They will have to design coverages to stop some of the players that we have."

Austin, he of the 4.38-second time in the 40-yard dash and commensurate stopping power, is everywhere in practice: in the slot, on the perimeter, in the backfield, returning punts. Early indications suggest he alone gives the Rams something they didn't have even when a healthy Danny Amendola was beating slot corners with his quickness.

"What takes Austin to the next level is he played a little running back at West Virginia, so his vision seems to open up, where Danny didn't have to do that," Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "He poses a different kind of threat."

The 40-yard times for players St. Louis added compare favorably to those for players the team subtracted. Austin's 4.38 beats a 4.58 for Amendola. Bailey's 4.52 beats Brandon Gibson's 4.59. Cook's 4.49 beats a 4.9 for Matthew Mulligan.

Jackson, a phenom when he clocked a 4.45-second time nearly a decade ago, wasn't running that fast at age 29. But his 240-pound presence in the backfield, outsized by his figurative presence in the locker room, influenced how the Rams wanted to play. Jackson had earned his touches. The power game suited him.

"With 'Jack' here last year, that was going to be what we did just because he was such a great player and that fit his style of play and even the rest of the guys around him," Bradford said.

Rookie Zac Stacy and second-year backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson give the Rams a smaller, quicker mix of running backs this season. The 240-pound Terrance Ganaway is the traditional bigger back on the roster, but for now he's a longer shot to command playing time even if he earns a spot on the 53-man roster.

Stacy, 5-8 and 218 pounds, has caught the ball well so far. Pead, who struggled to factor as a rookie, caught Bradford's attention last summer as a potentially special change-of-pace back. Richardson averaged 4.8 yards per carry. None of the three compares to Jackson as a pass protector, power runner or team leader, but if things go according to plan, the Rams will increase their per-carry average as part of a higher-scoring attack led by Bradford.

The Rams ranked 24th in touchdown drives last season with 32, nine off the league average. They ranked 27th in points per drive.

Schottenheimer and Bradford think the offense had to work too hard for its points in the absence of "explosive" plays, defined by the team as rushes gaining at least 10 yards or passes gaining at least 20.

Some teams set the minimums at 12 yards for rushes and 16 for passes.

The parameters seem fairly arbitrary and I can't figure out why a 10-yard run would trump an 11-yard pass for explosiveness, but the general idea is clear. The Rams want to extend themselves on offense with an emphasis on the big play.

"That has been one of our philosophies going through camp this year," Bradford said. "If there is a favorable matchup and we can push the ball down the field, let's see what happens. Make our guys go make plays in practice, so if we do it in a game, it's not something that is new."

The Rams averaged 2.85 points per drive last season when they had at least one rush of 10-plus yards or one pass play covering at least 20, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They averaged 0.54 points per drive the rest of the time. The league averages were 3.44 and 0.72 points per drive, respectively.

The chart shows points-per-drive averages for the Rams and the NFL last season based upon the longest play within each drive, regardless of whether the gains were made passing or rushing. For example, the Rams averaged just 0.09 points per drive, about one-fourth the league average, when their longest play within a drive was 0-9 yards. The Rams' points per drive increased tenfold with at least one play between 10 and 14 yards, and so on.

The numbers suggest the Rams, while below average in scoring overall, moved closer to the league averages when they connected on longer plays. This could validate what Bradford and Schottenheimer felt instinctively about the Rams' struggles in grinding out drives. Poor field position was another factor working against St. Louis.

At issue: how to generate a greater number of longer plays.

Schottenheimer wants Bradford to play more aggressively overall and on third down in particular. At one point in practice Tuesday, Bradford threw incomplete to Quick on a deep post pattern against tight coverage. Schottenheimer liked the idea even though Quick wasn't really open.

"You don't force plays, but you've gotta realize if I have a guy running a post and the defender is even with him or if it's a safety on him, hey, sometimes it's worth taking a shot," Schottenheimer said, "because you are showing your player you trust him to go make that play."

There haven't been enough Rams players worth trusting in the recent past. Amendola was too frequently injured, missing 20 games over the past two seasons. The Rams in recent years were filling out their receiving rotation with stopgap players such as the recently retired Steve Smith. Now, the Rams have five wide receivers they expect to build around for years to come: Austin, Givens, Quick, Pettis and Bailey.

Austin, the eighth overall choice in the draft, stands out for his speed and elusiveness. The 6-foot-3 Pettis has had the strongest offseason of any Rams receiver, according to Schottenheimer. Givens provided five receptions of 50-plus yards last season while Bailey matched Austin with 114 receptions for West Virginia. Quick needs reps after playing sparingly as a rookie second-rounder. He had 11 receptions, two for touchdowns -- including a 36-yarder against San Francisco that was one of two scoring receptions longer than 13 yards allowed by the 49ers all season.

"It comes down to who you are going to double [cover] between Cook and Tavon, who do you single, and then do those other guys step up?" Finnegan said. "You have the variety to do so many things offensively now, and we're seeing it defensively like, whoa. It's exciting to watch. It's different."
101ESPN St. Louis hosts Randy Karraker and D'Marco Farr followed up Tuesday regarding various NFC West subjects, including our recent look at the St. Louis Rams' search for explosive running plays.


The basic idea: Steven Jackson was an outstanding running back and leader for the Rams, but the team would trade some of his power and determination for longer gains. Jackson, though still effective at age 30, wasn't going to be gaining in the speed department. And so the Rams are moving forward with younger backs.

NFL teams often define explosive running plays as those covering at least 16 yards. The chart shows Jackson producing such runs on 3.9 percent of his carries while with the Rams, including a career-low 2.7 percent last season. I've included for reference annual and career percentages for NFC West backs Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore.

Jackson had seven such carries in 2012. Backup Daryl Richardson had five on 98 carries, or 5.1 percent. Isaiah Pead had one on 19 carries. Different backs face different opportunities based on blocking and to what degree defenses must respect other potential threats on the field. Jackson hasn't had much to work with on those fronts over the years.

Karraker, Farr and I pick up the discussion here.

Eight in the Box: RB status check

May, 24, 2013
5/24/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Arizona Cardinals: This is a transitional year at the position for Arizona. Free-agent addition Rashard Mendenhall gets a shot to revive his career following a disappointing finish with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's familiar with Bruce Arians' offense, giving him a head start over the competition. Ryan Williams has a shot at the job, too, but he's been injured and recently admitted to playing scared last season while trying to protect his surgically repaired knee. General manager Steve Keim was a huge fan of the speed and cutting ability Williams offered coming out of college, but knee and shoulder injuries have taken a significant toll. Can Williams bounce back? Arians wants his backs versatile enough to play on third down as well. The team used a 2013 fifth-round choice for Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor with that in mind.

St. Louis Rams: Youth will be served in the Rams' offensive backfield now that Steven Jackson has left in free agency. The Rams could have kept Jackson, but they let him out of his contract with an eye toward building a younger roster. Rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy will get every chance to earn a prominent role on early downs. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects as more of a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, should also figure into the mix. The Rams anticipated moving forward from Jackson with a committee setup. It's an upset if one of the backs on the roster commands a huge majority of the carries. The Rams have assumed more of a fast-break look at the skill positions without Jackson as an offensive centerpiece.

San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore remains the primary back at age 30 after holding up physically through a 19-game season in 2012. The 49ers have set up themselves for life after Gore by drafting Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore in recent seasons. The position has obviously been a priority for San Francisco. The 49ers know what the numbers say about running backs declining in their late 20s. Gore has resisted the trend to this point and doesn't seem to be declining. Meanwhile, the dynamics behind Gore are fluid. Hunter could remain the No. 2 back if he can bounce back from ACL surgery, but James demonstrated during the playoffs why he should factor as well. Lattimore, a fourth-round pick this year, will get the full 2013 season to recover from a career-threatening knee injury suffered in college. This amounts to a redshirt year for him.

Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch blows off postgame interviews, shows up for the Seahawks' offseason program at his leisure and has a DUI case pending in the courts. He is even tougher to tackle on the field. The Seahawks know they have a great thing going with the hard-charging Lynch -- for as long as it lasts. They've been hedging their bets for two years running. Robert Turbin, a fourth-round choice in 2012, fits the power mold and has a promising future. The same goes for 2013 second-rounder Christine Michael. And if those picks weren't enough, Seattle used a 2013 sixth-rounder for Spencer Ware, who projects as a combination halfback/fullback. Lynch is arguably the best back in the division. Michael's addition gives the Seahawks outstanding young depth, too.

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