NFL Nation: Sam Bradford

Rams' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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Since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, the St. Louis Rams have been headed in an obvious direction. The goal is to build a physical, aggressive team capable of winning games with a power running attack and a stout defense.

Bradford
Bradford
While that approach can win championships in the NFL, there's no denying that predicting the long-term success of a franchise is most tied to what that team has at quarterback. For the Rams, what happens at the game's most important position beyond this season is still up in the air. Predicting what happens over the next three seasons is a task made much harder without knowing who will be playing quarterback.

The Rams have committed to Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback for 2014 and he will get his fifth chance to stake his claim to the spot.

In the team's ideal world, Bradford will take what could be a true make-or-break season and excel to the point that he earns himself a lucrative contract extension. St. Louis had interest in signing him to an extension before his 2013 knee injury, but those plans have been put on hold. Bradford has also preferred to wait on any possible extension, choosing to bet on himself as Joe Flacco once did.

If Bradford struggles or suffers another serious injury this season, the Rams will have to begin considering alternatives. They chose to pass on the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft despite having two first-round picks. Given Fisher's track record of pushing his teams to at least a mediocre record, they may not be in position to choose a replacement.

If that happens, the Rams could find themselves on the other end of a major trade like the one they made with Washington, forced to give up a big package of picks to move up for a franchise quarterback.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams got back to work Thursday with their fourth organized team activity open to the media.

As always, it should be noted that much of what happens in these organized team activities should be taken with a grain of salt (especially for the linemen). The players are not in pads and contact must be extremely limited. It's best not to get too excited or too down on anything that happens.

Williams fired up: New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn't hard to find on the practice field. If you can't see him, take a moment and listen and you'll be able to spot him soon after. Williams regularly yells "Come onnnnnn" at the snap to get his defenders going and then offers an array of "encouragement" throughout the practice.

At one point during Thursday's practice after the offense hit a nice completion, Williams yelled "If you're afraid to compete, go home." That's one of the more print-friendly comments he offered but you get the idea.

[+] EnlargeLamarcus Joyner
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonLamarcus Joyner has been taking reps at slot corner and safety during OTAs.
So far, it seems the players are embracing Williams, too. Rookie defensive back Lamarcus Joyner offered praise for his new coordinator after the workout and he's not alone in that praise, either.

Speaking of Joyner: Rams coach Jeff Fisher has repeatedly indicated that Joyner's primary function would be as a slot corner this year. While Joyner is getting plenty of work there, he's also taking reps at safety. Of course, the Rams are a little thin on numbers at safety for the time being so it's possible those reps will evaporate when some of the walking wounded return.

Receiver tally: There were some highlight-reel moments for the receivers during Thursday's practice. During a 7-on-7 period, Tavon Austin ran a seam route from the slot that turned the corner outside and then came in front of safety Cody Davis for a leaping 17-yard touchdown catch. Later on, Emory Blake made a diving catch on a slant route that drew some loud cheers from his fellow wideouts. Brian Quick had a drop early in practice during 1-on-1s but bounced back with a couple of contested catches after. Consistency is still the word of the day for him.

He's not a receiver but undrafted rookie tight end Alex Bayer had a good day catching the ball. And Kenny Britt continues to make plays, even getting it done after getting his left leg wrapped during practice.

Sitting it out: Tight end Jared Cook returned to practice Thursday but the rest of the names not practicing matched up with Tuesday's group. WR Jamaine Sherman, S Christian Bryant, S Maurice Alexander, RB Chase Reynolds, S Matt Daniels, DE Sammy Brown, LT Jake Long, DT Michael Brockers and DE William Hayes did not practice.

Brockers was also missing Tuesday and he watched Thursday's practice with his right ankle wrapped.

Bradford's day: Thursday was one of quarterback Sam Bradford's designated practice days and he did a similar amount of work to what he did in front of the media last week. Bradford participated in a pair of 7-on-7 sessions and again did work in the hurry-up team drills. He had some good moments, including the aforementioned touchdown to Austin and another scoring pass to wideout Austin Pettis. He also threw an interception to cornerback Janoris Jenkins during the 11-on-11 drills as pressure surrounded him.

Sam makes a play: As practice came to a close, defensive end Michael Sam made a nice play for the second-team defense. He read a pass, jumped to the outside and knocked it down, narrowly missing an interception. He continues to get reps with the second-team defense as Hayes sits out.

Up next: The Rams have now completed six OTAs with four remaining. All four of those will come next week with two more sessions open to the media on Tuesday and Thursday. There is no mandatory minicamp to complete the offseason.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As rumors and speculation hit a crescendo in the additional two weeks before the NFL draft, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford never worried about his job status.

“I didn’t,” Bradford said after Thursday’s organized team activity. “Throughout the end of last year I was in communication with [general manager] Les [Snead] and (coach) Jeff [Fisher], and they made it very clear what their plan was. Throughout the offseason they continued to make that clear. I knew what my position on this team was.”

About a week before the draft, the Rams went to College Station, Texas, and put Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel through a workout alongside teammates Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSam Bradford was off to a strong start last fall when an injury ended his fourth season with the Rams.
From there, the Manziel to the Rams rumors picked up steam and reached the point that one report indicated the Rams were shopping Bradford.

After he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Oct. 20 against Carolina and had surgery on Nov. 18, the Rams repeatedly voiced their confidence in Bradford publicly and behind the scenes.

While rehabbing his knee, it would have been easy for Bradford to allow doubt to creep in and worry the Rams might go in a different direction. After all, it was Bradford’s second injury in three seasons and he has yet to establish himself as a consistently productive quarterback who can lead his team to the postseason.

Bradford maintains doubts never found their way into his mind.

“I pretty much knew what was going to happen,” Bradford said. “Like I said, I had been in pretty good communication with Les and Jeff and they had made it pretty clear what their intention was, so I really wasn’t too worried.”

To their credit, the Rams also handled a potentially tricky scenario with savvy. Even if they were genuinely considering replacing Bradford, telling him that he was the guy and giving him the vote of confidence was the only logical move.

The last thing the team would need is for Fisher or Snead to cast doubt about Bradford’s future and then discover it didn’t like any of the quarterback prospects enough to use an early pick in the draft. That would have resulted in a potentially angry Bradford returning to the mix in a season in which the Rams have little margin for error.

Put simply, if the toothpaste had been let out of the tube, there would have been no way to put it back in.

Handling it the way they did allowed the Rams to look into quarterback prospects and see if there were any that might be worth a No. 2 overall pick.

The Rams also maintained at least a modicum of plausible deniability in case they did fall in love with a quarterback prospect and decided to move on from Bradford.

As it turned out, the Rams decided to bet on Bradford building on what they view as a promising first half of the 2013 season.

“I don’t think he’s feeling any pressure at all,” Fisher said. “He just wants to win. All of this stuff is being generated that this is his year, things like that; if you do the projections off of last year, if he’d have stayed healthy he would have had some very impressive numbers. So no pressure on Sam.”

Bradford finished 2013 with 1,687 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions with a completion percentage of 60.7 in seven games. As Fisher points out, over the course of a full season those numbers would project among the best in the league.

Simply projecting the numbers also isn’t an ideal tell of how Bradford had played. He (and the offense as a whole) struggled mightily against Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco, and some of those numbers were accrued with the Rams playing catch-up in the second half.

But Bradford did play his best after the Rams established a legitimate run game in Week 5 and put together strong performances against Jacksonville, Houston and Carolina in steering a more balanced offense.

Upon suffering the injury, Bradford was clearly dejected about being unable to finish his fourth season. He spent the rest of the year doing his best to stay involved and serve as additional eyes and ears for backup Kellen Clemens while attacking his rehab.

All along, the Rams have expected Bradford to be ready to start the 2014 season. He is scheduled to participate in about half of the team’s 10 organized team activities, and has already been cleared to run full speed in a straight line.

“I don’t think the injuries really change anything,” Bradford said. “My goal is to come out here and get better every day during the offseason, every day during training camp to help this team win games. Obviously as a competitor you want to be out there every day and every week, so going into the year I think the goal is to play every down of every week.”

That Bradford will have the chance to do that is a product of an offseason in which all parties handled what could have been an awkward situation as well as they could.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams will officially open their version of organized team activities on Tuesday, making them the last in the league to do so.

Tuesday's session is not open to the media, so we won't get a chance to see the Rams on the field until the first open session on Thursday. But as the OTAs finally begin, here's some things I'll be looking for.

Bradford
Bradford
Whither Bradford: According to the team, quarterback Sam Bradford has been well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Bradford has been moving around and throwing for awhile now and there are realistic expectations he will participate in OTAs.

The question doesn't seem to be whether Bradford will participate but the extent of that participation. It's unlikely he'll be at 100 percent or be asked to do everything since there's no need to rush him back, but his presence will likely be felt. It's no secret 2014 is an important season for Bradford. Every rep counts but the last thing the Rams want to do is rush him and risk a possible setback to his return.

Long
Line dancing: The status of left tackle Jake Long participating in OTAs is up in the air. Long's surgery didn't take place until January, so it's only natural that he'd be further behind in his own knee rehab. The Rams have remained insistent that Long can and will be back for the regular-season opener but in the meantime, someone is going to have to take the snaps at left tackle.

The most obvious options on the roster are rookie Greg Robinson and Rodger Saffold, who are projected to start the season at left and right guard, respectively. Indications from the Rams are that both players will get some reps at left tackle during OTAs and into training camp so the Rams can have a couple of options ready to go in the event that Long can't. We'll be sure to monitor how those reps are divvied up, and keep an eye out for Long to see if he does any work on the side during these early summer sessions.

Beyond that, there are plenty of other offensive line issues to watch, including the development of interior swingman Barrett Jones and the return to health of center Scott Wells.

Sorting out the secondary: The top five defensive backs heading into OTAs appear to be pretty well set with Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald at safety and Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner (nickel) expected to handle the primary duties in the secondary.

But the Rams have a lot to sort out beyond that group as they look to set the roster for next season. Assuming the Rams keep nine or 10 defensive backs, that would leave room for four or five more defensive backs. At corner, there will be plenty of competition amongst a group that includes Brandon McGee, E.J. Gaines, Greg Reid and some other youngsters including Marcus Roberson. At safety, names like Maurice Alexander, Matt Daniels, Cody Davis and Christian Bryant will jockey for position.

Williams' wrinkles: New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has spent most of the offseason in the lab coming up with ways to deploy his new players. But most of that has been based off film study without the benefit of seeing his players working up close on an actual football field.

OTAs offer Williams his first chance to do just that and make determinations on how he wants to go about using the talent in place. The majority of work in OTAs is centered on installation on both sides of the ball so much of the legwork is already done, but there is plenty of time for tweaking if, for example, Williams views his players' skill sets different than he first suspected.

Britt
Britt
Likewise, it will give the defense its first chance to get used to what Williams wants to do and get comfortable with what will likely be a more aggressive approach in 2014.

Receiver rundown: Aside from the free-agent addition of Kenny Britt, the Rams stood pat at wide receiver in the offseason, choosing to bet heavy that their young receiver corps will be up to the task of taking the next step up the developmental ladder.

Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis return to the fold. Much is expected from Givens, Austin, Bailey and Quick, and Britt will get a chance to make a positive first impression on the field. The competition appears mostly wide open, making receiver a position full of intrigue as we head toward training camp.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

May, 29, 2014
May 29
10:00
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video
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.

And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.

Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.

The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.

The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.

As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.

Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.

First Down

As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?



Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.

Nick Wagoner: At this point, it's hard to argue with the results the Seahawks are getting from the players they draft. It is interesting that it seems like the first-round picks (such as James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin) are the ones who seem to struggle most relative to draft position. But the thing Seattle does so well is find players who fit the confines of who they want to be on both sides of the ball. Then they develop them and have them ready to go. It is why they never seem to miss a beat when injuries hit or a player is suspended. The results speak for themselves.

Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.

Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.


Second Down

Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?



Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.

Wagoner: Well, the competition for that crown isn't exactly daunting in a division known mostly for grinding it out offensively and dominating defensively. But the 49ers probably do have the most dangerous offense in the division. I don't personally think Johnson or Hyde will be a major difference-maker right away, but they don't have to be. Putting Johnson with a healthy Michael Crabtree at receiver and tight end Vernon Davis should allow Johnson to operate free of the pressure of being a No. 1 wideout. Hyde can learn from Frank Gore before taking over the reins. In terms of top-to-bottom talent across the roster, yes, the 49ers look to have the most dangerous offense in the NFC West.

Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.

Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?


Third Down

After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?



Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.

Wagoner: I like what Arizona did this offseason. The offensive line should be much better with the addition of Veldheer and the return of Jonathan Cooper. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was a nice pickup, and first-round safety Bucannon should be a good complement to the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. But it is still going to be difficult for them to make the playoffs. The Seahawks and 49ers remain at the top of the heap, and until we see otherwise, it's hard to see how they fall from that perch unless injuries strike. That would still leave one playoff spot for the Cardinals. Three teams from the same division can make the playoffs, and it just happened last season, but I expect Arizona to take a small step back and just miss the cut again.

Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.

Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.


Fourth Down

The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?



Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.

Wagoner: The Rams are clearly hoping they will be able to win games in classic heavyweight slugfests by playing good defense and running the ball. The Rams did put up points against playoff teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis without Bradford, and most of the same cast of characters returns this season. The question is if they can score enough to overcome teams following a similar blueprint within the division? Adding Robinson and running back Tre Mason and having a full season of Rodger Saffold at guard should certainly help the run game. But until one or more of the young receivers proves himself and Bradford can consistently take advantage of play-action opportunities down the field, I don't see the offense being able to do enough to win games without the help of a special-teams or defensive score from week to week. The Rams should be better against division foes than they were a year ago and might be able to push Arizona, but it still seems unlikely it will be enough to overtake Seattle or San Francisco.

Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.

Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.

 
When Sam Bradford returns to the field in 2014, he could find himself with a bevy of options to throw to.

Watkins
The St. Louis Rams may be looking to add another target to its already stout arsenal of receivers, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Schefter reported Wednesday morning that Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins will visit the Rams on Monday and then St. Louis will hold a private workout with him on April 18. The Rams have already upgraded their receiving corps with the signing of Kenny Britt but adding Watkins would propel the Rams' receivers into the upper echelon of the league's pass-catching units.

And St. Louis needs it. Watkins caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns last season for the Tigers.

After losing Bradford after seven games to a torn left ACL, the Rams went on to post the 27th best passing offense per game and were ranked 22nd in passing yards per play. That’ll naturally improve with Bradford’s return, but adding Watkins to a lineup that already includes Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Chris Givens and Britt, as well as tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, would make the Rams as dangerous as any team in the league on any given play.

It'd also be another building block for the future. With the exception of Cook and Britt, the longest-tenured Rams of that group listed above are Kendricks and Pettis, who've both been in the league for three years.

With Bradford surely wanting to impress in his return to the field -- and with the arms race in the NFC West heating up seemingly by the day -- a receiver like Watkins would just be another weapon in an already improving cache.

Offseason Blueprint: Rams

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
12:00
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Perhaps more than any offseason in recent memory, what the St. Louis Rams accomplish this year will go a long way in determining the future of the franchise.

With that in mind, our team of ESPN NFL Insiders put their heads together to come up with a blueprint Insider for the Rams' 2014 offseason.

This is the third year of the Jeff Fisher era, and though the Rams play in the league's toughest division, the jump from awful to mediocre doesn't figure to sustain the fan base for much longer. The Rams have quietly targeted this as the breakout year since Fisher and Snead were hired. The time has come to take the next step, but that can't happen without pressing all the right offseason buttons.

For the many moving parts mentioned in this blueprint, none stands above quarterback Sam Bradford. His injury issues have brought durability questions, and he has yet to meet lofty expectations. The need for Bradford to step up is obvious, not only so the Rams can contend, but also to shape the team's long-term future at the game's most important position.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: Apparently it can't be said enough but Sam Bradford is the starting quarterback and nothing that happens this offseason barring a major setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery is going to change that. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have voiced confidence in Bradford at every turn. Although smoke screens are common at this time of year, there has yet to be anything resembling a reason not to believe them.

Pending free agents: Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Brady Quinn

What's needed: The Rams could use one, maybe two backups for Bradford. They were left short handed when Bradford initially suffered the injury and after it was official that Bradford's season was over, the team brought in two more signal callers in Davis and Quinn to backup Clemens.

Clemens surprised with his performance in the final nine games and might have done enough to earn a return to St. Louis. If nothing else, Clemens is a highly-respected part of the locker room and a valuable mentor for the team's young receivers as well as any potential quarterback addition the team might make in the draft.

In fact, if the Rams choose to keep three quarterbacks in 2014, Clemens would make a lot of sense as the early-season backup while he grooms another youngster to eventually take over as the No. 2 and potentially push Bradford long-term.

It seems unlikely Davis or Quinn will return as the Rams have made no secret of their interest in adding a young quarterback in the draft. That player could come as soon as the second round but likely will come from the middle (3rd-5th) rounds.

Possible fits: It's almost certain that the Rams will add a quarterback in the draft, meaning an outside free agent isn't likely to be in the offing. Clemens is the most logical candidate to return as a veteran presence but there is a name that could be out there who has some ties to the team. The New York Jets are expected to part ways with Mark Sanchez and Sanchez knows Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system well.

Verdict: Clemens is a better fit than Sanchez for the veteran role, however. You can never rule out anything when it comes to the NFL but the guess here is that the Rams will draft a quarterback in the middle rounds and bring Clemens back to tutor him.
INDIANAPOLIS -- By his own admission, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher is no longer surprised when any sort of speculation takes on a life of its own.

That applies to the constant rumor and innuendo that has seemingly surrounded Rams quarterback Sam Bradford nearly from the moment he suffered a torn ACL against Carolina on Oct. 20. The day after the injury, Fisher let it be known that Bradford would remain the team's starting quarterback in 2014. He said it again last week when he made an appearance on ESPN Radio with "Mike and Mike."

And Fisher, this time backed by general manager Les Snead, made it clear once again Friday afternoon at the NFL scouting combine. They even threw a little humor into the mix.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsSam Bradford is 5-2-1 against NFC West opponents over the past two seasons.
"First of all, things have changed since the last comment," Snead said, laughing. "Cause this Favre character won a state championship as a coach. He might want to come back."

Snead was, of course, providing a comedic rejoinder referring to the Rams' interest in Brett Favre after Bradford's injury and Favre's recent accomplishment of helping a Mississippi high school to a state championship as part of the coaching staff.

But when it gets down to the real answers, both Snead and Fisher remain convinced Bradford is the right guy to handle the quarterback spot, now and in the future.

"As I said a couple years ago, one of the two reasons I took this job was because of Sam," Fisher said. "We as an organization, coaches, Les and everybody has a great deal of respect for him and trust in him, and he's our guy. So I don't know where that is coming from.

"This year, for the record, he was playing pretty good football despite the fact that we didn't win a lot of games early. But project it out over the course of the season had he stayed healthy, I think you would have seen a different player. We have zero concern whether or not he comes back. He's working hard, he's there every day, he's excited about it."

Snead also said he will not lose any sleep over Bradford's rehab, pointing out that Bradford is recovering well and could begin throwing this summer. Although Bradford now has the knee injury to add to a high ankle sprain suffered in 2011, Fisher added that he doesn't believe durability is an issue for Bradford moving forward.

Fisher and Snead pointed to Bradford's production starting in Week 5 when the offense found a solid running game, Bradford's 5-2-1 record against the NFC West over the past two seasons, and Bradford's experience as reasons they want to retain him.

According to Snead, the parties began having discussions with Bradford's representatives in spring of 2013 about a possible contract extension, but the timing wasn't right for both sides. Asked whether those conversations will continue this spring, Snead said the sides remain in touch and the talks are "ongoing and active."

It wouldn't be a surprise to see negotiations on a new contract for Bradford go about as far as they did last year, which is to say nowhere. It's believed Bradford is willing to wait on an extension and play out his deal before engaging in those talks. It would also be logical for the Rams to wait and see how he returns from the knee injury before moving forward.

At least for 2014, the fact remains that Bradford will again be the starting quarterback.

ST. LOUIS -- Somewhere along the way, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford became a hot topic of conversation before the NFL offseason even began.

Speculation about his future with the team has been rampant for months, with some pundits predicting his release.

However, that speculation isn't coming from inside the walls of Rams Park. Bradford suffered a torn ACL against Carolina on Oct. 20. The next day, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that Bradford would remain the team's starting quarterback in 2014.

It's a familiar refrain that hasn't changed. It's a stance that certainly didn't soften Tuesday, when Fisher reiterated the team's commitment to Bradford, or when general manager Les Snead told ESPN's Ed Werder that the Rams "have been and still are open to extending Sam."

At least for the 2014 season, the decision to keep Bradford is the right one.

More often than not, those advocating a departure from Bradford cite his upcoming salary-cap number ($17.61 million), combined with the team's continued inability to reach the playoffs, as the primary reasons for starting over at the position.

Statistically, Bradford's production in his first four seasons hasn't been much to write home about. He has a total QBR of 40.7, below average for an NFL starter, and his career-passer rating is a mediocre 79.3.

Beyond that, the case can be made the Rams might not be in such good position to draft a top quarterback again for a while. The No. 2 overall selection the team received as the final piece of a trade with Washington has it in a prime spot should it fall in love with someone such as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.

Fisher-led teams have a knack for finishing in the middle of the pack, meaning that even if the Rams continue their streak of not reaching the postseason, they might not have the chance again to draft one of the top quarterbacks. They could then find themselves in the same position as Washington, in which they'd have to mortgage their future picks to get the right quarterback.

The best reason to consider a move is actually the one that doesn't get mentioned enough: Bradford's health. Not including his injury history at Oklahoma, Bradford has missed 15 games in four seasons and spent part of a miserable 2011 season playing on a bad ankle.

Releasing Bradford now would save the Rams $10.4 million in 2014. All of those reasons for making a change at quarterback are logical, but that doesn't mean it's the right decision.

The Rams also have plenty of good reasons to keep Bradford, allow him to rehabilitate his injured knee and draft a quarterback in the middle rounds to provide a better backup with some long-term potential.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSt. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher remains committed to Sam Bradford as the team's starting quarterback.
Whether it's Fisher, Snead, COO Kevin Demoff or any number of teammates, the most oft-cited reason for keeping Bradford is the idea that he was starting to find his groove just before he got injured. The Rams' plan to go to a more wide-open, spread-style offense flopped, culminating in perhaps Bradford's worst game on national television against San Francisco in Week 4.

Undoubtedly, the stench of that performance has lingered, but there were positive signs of progress the following weeks. With a return to the run game the next week against Jacksonville, Bradford was one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks. In the following three games, he completed 65 percent of his passes to go with seven touchdowns and one interception for a QBR of 68.0.

Even if two of his best games were against bottom-feeders Houston and Jacksonville, Bradford showed signs that he could have success at quarterback if the players around him were doing their jobs.

The bigger picture here might actually have nothing to do with Bradford. Teams are always looking out for the next Andrew Luck, the franchise quarterback capable of elevating a franchise immediately. Unfortunately, that search is frustrating for a reason: Those players are hard to find.

Although someone of Manziel's talent and charisma would fill seats, opinions on his NFL future vary wildly. The same can be said for Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles. While that trio forms the core of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft, you would be hard-pressed to find any team that sees a sure thing there.

If this year's draft had a couple of top quarterbacks at the same level as Luck, the Rams might view things differently. Maybe then they'd draft a quarterback, move on from Bradford and see if they can hit on a big-money free agent with the savings.

The Rams have remained open to signing Bradford to an extension but he has declined, choosing instead to bet on himself getting the job done and re-signing later. Bradford's cap number will come in well above that of a top-drafted quarterback, but this is an important year for the Fisher regime.

Starting over with a new quarterback wouldn't mean the Rams can't win in 2014, but it would be a gamble for a team in its third year of a dramatic rebuild. Essentially, they're willing to pay a premium for the guy they know versus three or four they don't.

Along with their commitment to Bradford, the Rams must continue to help him by spending free-agent dollars and draft capital on the offense. Those commitments must be buoyed by a talented offensive line and top-notch receivers, tight ends and running backs. Drafting a talented backup is, and should remain, a priority.

The time to compete, post a winning record and reach the playoffs is now. There are no more excuses.

Keeping Bradford puts him right there with the rest of his team. As he enters his fifth season, Bradford's ceiling is much lower than it once was. Much will need to go right for him this season. He must stay healthy. He must produce. He must win.

Sticking by Bradford is the right decision for the Rams in 2014. But if he doesn't get it done, suffers another injury, or both, the speculation that began this year should become much more real this time next year.
ST. LOUIS -- We're still months away from May's NFL draft, but that doesn't mean it's too early to start looking at the many possible permutations of how things could shake out.

The St. Louis Rams aren't having an open auction for the No. 2 overall pick like they did in 2012, but general manager Les Snead has already indicated a willingness to move it. Without a pair of clear-cut top quarterbacks, the market may not be in a hurry to make a move which could leave the Rams waiting until they're on the clock before making a deal. As the combine approaches along with pro days, prospects will become more valued and the market could crystallize.

Free agency is also likely to have an impact on potential trade partners as teams fill needs in other avenues. For now, we'll take a look at a possible Rams trade partner each week for the next six weeks.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Browns reportedly are interested in Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel.
Today, we take a look at the team the Rams nearly made a deal with in 2012 and the only other team that currently holds two first-round picks (Nos. 4 and 26), the Cleveland Browns.

Why Cleveland makes sense: Two years ago, the Browns attempted to get into a bidding war with Washington to move up to get the No. 2 pick from the Rams and select Robert Griffin III. Failing that, there were whispers that Cleveland also attempted to pry Sam Bradford away from the Rams. Neither came to fruition, which is why the Rams hold the No. 2 pick again this year.

In Cleveland, the need for a quarterback remains despite the Browns' using a first-round pick that year on Brandon Weeden and attempting to plug in other options along the way. The Browns again have the necessary ammunition to move up to get the quarterback they want as they have two first-round choices just like they did in 2012. It's a different regime in charge in Cleveland now but if the Browns have a quarterback they love, it's reasonable to assume this group won't make the same mistake as its predecessors.

With those two first-rounders this year and a lofty pick in the second round, Cleveland could probably offer the Rams more than enough to jump the two spots from No. 4 to No. 2 and still get the quarterback it might covet. If South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney goes first, that could mean having the first crack at a quarterback in this year's class. If not, the Browns could at least land the second signal-caller in the draft and still have it be the one they want most.

From the Rams' perspective, Cleveland is the ideal trade partner. The Browns have the assets needed to meet the Rams' potential price and St. Louis would be able to stay in the top four where it could still land an elite offensive tackle, wide receiver or possibly even Clowney. In a perfect world, the Rams could get both first-round choices from the Browns but that would depend on who Cleveland would be moving up for and what other bidders would enter the fray.

For what it's worth -- remember, there's plenty of misinformation out there at this time of year -- there have already been reports that the Browns are willing to move up to land Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Why Cleveland doesn't make sense: It's still very early in the process but there isn't a quarterback in the draft that has clearly emerged as a Griffin or Andrew Luck type of prospect coveted by multiple teams. The scouting combine and pro days should help in that regard but there's still no guarantee that any of them will prove worth moving up for. Theoretically, the Browns could view all the top quarterbacks in a similar vein and remain content to sit at No. 4 and hope their guy is still there or grab the next best thing.

Beyond that, Cleveland also has a couple of other quarterback options. Brian Hoyer played well for the Browns before suffering a season-ending injury in 2013. He's expected to return and could get another shot. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also has close ties to Washington backup Kirk Cousins and it's possible the Browns could make a trade for him or even New England's Ryan Mallett without having to surrender a first-round pick. That would allow the Browns to bolster their receiving corps with someone like Clemson's Sammy Watkins or another weapon to complement Josh Gordon and tight end Cameron Jordan.

If indeed Cleveland is willing to offer a premium package to make a move, it also stands to reason it will first go to the Houston Texans at No. 1 overall as a possible trade partner. It's not that logical for the Browns to try to move up to get a quarterback unless it guarantees they'll get exactly the guy they want. The only way to do that with absolute certainty is to deal with Houston for the No. 1 selection.
The NFL revealed Thursday that players reported 13 percent fewer concussions during the 2013 regular season, and that statistic rightfully produced the headline from a presentation by the members of the league's health and safety division. The league also released its official count of ACL injuries, a topic we've discussed a number of times this season, and those figures merit a closer look.

The chart provides a snapshot of the league's tally, which it said was culled from the medical staffs of each team. It puts the count of ACL tears during the preseason and regular season (games and practices) at 57, which was actually lower than the total over the same period in 2012.

By my research, working off a list originally compiled and distributed via Twitter by @ACLrecoveryCLUB, at least 62 players tore their ACLs between the start of offseason work and last Sunday's championship game. The NFL's time period appears to have begun with training camp and ended with Week 17 of the regular season.

It's reasonable to assume the league's 2011 and 2012 numbers would have grown over that larger time span as well. So based on these updated numbers, we can't conclude that 2013 was a record-breaking year for ACL tears despite anecdotal fears to the contrary.

In releasing this information, the NFL had a vested interest in debunking two theories that link its actions and decisions to an increase in injuries.

The first is that new rules regarding hits to the head would inspire more low hits and produce more knee trauma. As we've discussed several times, that did not occur except in a handful of highly visible instances. (See: Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.)

The second suggests that the 2011 collective bargaining agreement's restrictions on offseason training opportunities leaves players more vulnerable to ligament injuries when football activities resume in the spring and summer. That theory has not appeared to manifest itself in ACL injuries over the past three years, although I don't have figures for 2010 or earlier for comparison.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick went on record last month linking the shortened offseason to what he believes is an increase in all kinds of injuries. What we do know is that more players were placed on injured reserve (125) in 2013, through the championship games, because of knee injuries than in 2012 (121) or 2011 (93), based on ESPN Stats & Information research.

While I agree the data doesn't support the first theory, I think the second requires further evaluation and discussion.

So what have we learned in our first year of attempting to track ACL injuries? There was without question some intense pockets of instances, peaking around Week 7, and the high-profile names of those ultimately affected -- Reggie Wayne, Sam Bradford, Tyrann Mathieu, Geno Atkins -- added some weight to the topic. But the rate dropped over the second half of the season, approaching the league's recent high but ultimately falling short.

Does that mean there is nothing to see here? I wouldn't say that. Discussions this year about shoe selection, playing surfaces and other potential contributing factors had merit. There is no reason to wait until a record is set before initiating the conversation.

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Rams

January, 29, 2014
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ST. LOUIS -- No quarterback in the NFL has more Super Bowl rings than New England's Tom Brady. Brady has won three and has played on the biggest stage two more times.

Brady
That's why it was no surprise to see Brady named on the most ballots of the 320 NFL players surveyed for the question "Two-minute warning and the Super Bowl is on the line. Whom do you want at quarterback?"

Brady took the title clean with 40 percent of the votes. Denver's Peyton Manning and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers followed behind.

Of the 10 Rams I asked, Brady, Manning and Rodgers were the only names to come up. Each has at least one Super Bowl ring and the consensus around the league is that those three, plus New Orleans' Drew Brees, form the league's elite quartet at the position.

Fourteen quarterbacks received votes but it's probably a safe bet that Rams quarterback Sam Bradford wasn't one given the many other options. Bradford has yet to even appear in a playoff game so entrusting him over the other signal callers would be silly.

Whether or not Bradford ever becomes a quarterback deserving of mention in a poll like this remains to be seen. To this point, that seems pretty far off.
PHILADELPHIA -- Right coach, wrong city.

A day after speculation swirled that Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor would go to Detroit, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports Lazor will be the new offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins.

The 41-year-old Lazor spent just one season on Eagles coach Chip Kelly's staff. He spent the three previous seasons as the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia. Before that, Lazor worked as an assistant for NFL head coaches Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs and Mike Holmgren.

His depth and breadth of experience make Lazor attractive, but his work in Philadelphia can't be overlooked. Lazor coached Nick Foles to the highest passer rating (119.2) in the NFL and a record touchdown/interception ratio of 27 to 2. Lazor also worked closely with rookie Matt Barkley, who is likely to be the Eagles' No. 2 quarterback in 2014.

Any coaching departure is cause for concern, especially when it affects young players like Foles and Barkley. But the Eagles have some redundancy built in. Kelly works with the quarterbacks, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has coached quarterbacks from Donovan McNabb to Sam Bradford to Foles.

In Miami, Lazor will work with quarterback Ryan Tannehill trying to revitalize the offensive system run by head coach Joe Philbin.
ST. LOUIS -- As they sit down to watch the NFC Championship Game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers this weekend, St. Louis Rams fans might find themselves wondering how their team can keep pace with the two NFC West division heavyweights.

They might also wonder how the Seahawks and Niners became such powerhouses in the first place. There is more than one correct answer to both questions but there's one response that could apply to either: the quarterbacks. More specifically, the cost (or lack thereof) of the quarterbacks.

Wilson
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Kaepernick
Seattle and San Francisco are to be commended for finding talented signal callers in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the third and second round, respectively. Both teams have done a good job of developing the quarterbacks and getting production out of them early in their careers. Taking it further, they've also benefited greatly from the fact that Wilson and Kaepernick are dirt cheap relative to other starters on playoff-caliber teams.

In 2013, Kaepernick's cap hit was $1,397,535, which ranked 43rd amongst the league's quarterbacks. Wilson was even cheaper, coming in at $681,085, which ranked 54th amongst NFL quarterbacks. For a little perspective, Wilson's backup Tarvaris Jackson makes $840,000.

Kaepernick accounts for 1.2 percent of San Francisco's salary cap and Wilson just 0.5 percent of Seattle's. Even the most adept coupon clippers would struggle to find bargain prices that good.

Meanwhile, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford accounted for 11.48 percent of the team's salary cap with a cap value of $12,600,425 in 2013. Bradford played in less than seven full games before a season-ending ACL injury against Carolina in Week 7. While Bradford was playing well before the injury, he's widely -- and rightfully -- regarded as lower on the quarterback hierarchy than Wilson or Kaepernick.

Of course, Bradford's hefty contract is no fault of the Rams. Rather, it's a function of a broken rookie wage scale that saw top draft picks making so much money that it was a major point of negotiation in the last collective bargaining agreement. The Rams just so happened to have the unfortunate timing of making the final No. 1 overall pick before the rookie wage scale was introduced and top picks became far more palatable.

Despite Bradford's expensive deal, the Rams have remained active in free agency and continued building through the draft with some savvy maneuvering. Still, that hasn't been enough to keep up with the likes of the Niners and Seahawks, both of whom had a bit of a head start and have a much better recent history of intelligent drafting and spending.

So how does one go about quantifying the net effect of having cheaper options such as Wilson and Kaepernick at quarterback? It's clear that Seattle and San Francisco have concentrated their spending on defense, where they have spent the most and fifth-most of their caps of any teams in the league.

Here's two prime examples:
  • Seattle has built one of the league's deepest rosters overall with special attention and extra funds toward building the defensive line. The Seahawks invested a whopping 27 percent of their cap on defensive linemen this season. Bargain signings on veteran linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett elevated an already strong group and the Seahawks were rewarded by leading the NFL in pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 33 percent of their drop backs.
  • San Francisco has also built a deep and talented roster but used much of its savings on putting together the league's best linebacking corps. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks have all earned Pro Bowl appearances in the past two seasons. The Niners invested 15 percent of their salary cap on the position.

It would be unfair to imply that the quarterbacks are the only thing setting the Niners and Seahawks apart from teams like the Rams. Seattle and San Francisco have built complete rosters with talent at most every position and both rely on elite defenses. But it's also instructive to note the types of moves, such as Seattle's addition of Bennett and Avril, both teams have made while the Rams find themselves scrapping for salary-cap space this offseason.

Of course, the day will soon come when both Seattle and San Francisco have to pay the piper and ante up lucrative contracts to keep their quarterbacks. That will almost certainly prevent both teams from retaining all of the current talent on the roster -- for an example, see Baltimore's 2013 offseason adventures -- and that should help level the playing field.

In the meantime, the Rams' margin for error in the draft and free agency remains far thinner than the two NFC West rivals who will play for a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday.

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