EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There was a time in the not so distant past where, if you ranked NFL rosters from No. 1 to 32, placing the St. Louis Rams at No. 31 would have been considered a compliment.
As the Rams trudged through one and two-win seasons, the lack of talent was so glaring that not coming in last on such a list would be cause for celebration. But those times are gone. Or they should be, anyway.
The folks from Pro Football Focus released their own roster rankings on ESPN Insider on Thursday and much to my surprise and, perhaps, that of many others, the Rams checked in at No. 31. That is not a typo, the Rams finished ahead of Jacksonville, narrowly avoiding a last-place finish.
Four or five years ago, anyone watching the Rams would have been hard-pressed to disagree. As we sit here in 2014, most would do so vehemently.
To put some context behind the ranking, Pro Football Focus has its own methods of measuring each player's production. They use film study and have developed their own grading system which is then used to assign each player a color designation. Those colors correlate to a label for each player of "elite," "high quality," "good starter," "average starter," "below average starter," "poor starter," "not enough information" and "rookie."
Obviously, the more players ranked as a "good starter" or above, the better the roster will be. For example, the No. 1 ranked Seattle Seahawks have three elite starters, seven high-quality starters and eight good starters. According to PFF's metrics, the Seahawks have just two below average starters and zero poor starters.
When it comes to the Rams, the only elite player according to PFF is defensive end Robert Quinn. That is an assessment that is hard to disagree with both in the sense that he is absolutely an elite player, but also in the roster being void of others who would qualify for that label.
However, it's in the middle part of those rankings where I would disagree with PFF's ranks. Of the team's 22 starters, PFF has the Rams down for seven below average starters, eight average starters and two poor starters. That means 17 of the 22 players on the roster are average of worse, according to PFF.
Included in the group of below average starters are middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and tight end Jared Cook. Running back Zac Stacy and defensive tackle Michael Brockers are two of the starters deemed average, and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod are the two listed as poor starters.
While Laurinaitis, Ogletree and Cook certainly have their faults, I wouldn't consider any of them below average based on how they produce compared to others at their positions. That is not to say any of them should be considered elite, but Laurinaitis and Ogletree were two of the most productive linebackers in the league last season, and Laurinaitis has a track record of producing far better than below average or average. Ogletree has plenty of improvement to do, but improved throughout the season and provided plenty of flash plays. Cook didn't put up numbers commensurate with his contract in the first season, but still finished 10th in the league among tight ends in receiving yards, fifth in yards per catch and tied for 11th in touchdowns. If nothing else, those numbers would put him right at average.
By no means am I saying the Rams should be a top 10 or even necessarily a top 20 roster, but it's hard to understand how some teams on the list, such as Minnesota and Oakland, could be ahead of St. Louis.
The Rams certainly have more than their share of question marks heading into 2014. They have been the youngest team in the league two years running and look poised to be once again next season. It's also worth considering that a roster that young still has managed to finish with seven wins in each of the past two seasons. If the roster was older and treading water, I could understand the argument for it being one of the league's worst.
But it isn't. It's folly to think all of the Rams' young players will develop into top starters in the league. There is plenty of work to be done before the Rams roster can be considered one of the league's best. But they've done enough that they should no longer be deemed one of the worst.