Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Finishing third in the NFC West doesn't necessarily mean the Rams won't be in the playoff chase given the strength of San Francisco and Seattle. For a team that will again be one of the youngest in the league, the big jump they're hoping for may have to wait until 2014.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 It's just a matter of time before this young team matures enough to make a playoff return. The Rams will be explosive on offense and surprise you with how good they are on defense.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 A highly underrated defense on a team whose quarterback needs to prove his worth.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Rams could be the biggest sleeper in the NFL. They've added more playmakers on offense and head coach Jeff Fisher has toughened them up.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Year 2 for Jeff Fisher. Sam Bradford needs to prove he can take the next step.|
Five things you need to know about the Rams:
1. Bradford's team: Steven Jackson was the centerpiece of the offense for most of the past decade and also filled a key leadership role for that group. But Jackson now plays in Atlanta and a young offense needs a leader and a new direction. Enter Bradford. He has taken on a larger leadership role in Jackson's absence, regularly providing guidance for the team's young wideouts during practice and in meetings. The offense figures to be more Bradford-centric this year given the team's personnel shift toward adding speedy pass-catchers.
2. What a rush: The Rams finished in a tie with Denver for the most sacks in the league in 2012 with 52. Leading the surge was a defensive line that combined for 39 of those. After re-signing valuable backup end William Hayes to a three-year contract, everybody returns from a group that is quite accomplished for being so young. End Chris Long leads the way as the veteran of the group, but the real upside lies with third-year end Robert Quinn and second-year tackle Michael Brockers.
3. In a hurry: The common perception of the Rams' offense is that it will take on a drastically different look with Bradford spending most of his Sundays in the shotgun and constantly playing in a two-minute mode. The reality is that while the Rams want to incorporate more of that up-tempo approach, it's not going to be a reincarnation of Chip Kelly at Oregon. Instead, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wants to be game-plan specific each week while making the best use of the speed and talent in place. So some weeks the Rams may really look to speed things up and on others will look noticeably different.
4. Safety first: The Rams bring back talent and experience at nearly every level of their defense. Among the front seven, only rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree doesn't have meaningful NFL game experience. At corner, the Rams have the tandem of veteran Cortland Finnegan and talented youngster Janoris Jenkins. Safety, on the other hand, brings the defense's biggest question marks. Rookie T.J. McDonald will start at one spot and fourth-year veteran Darian Stewart will likely handle the other. Neither has been overwhelming in camp or the preseason and Stewart has a history of injury issues and missed tackles.
5. Youth movement, part II: The Rams were the youngest team in the league last year and project to be right near the top of that list again this season. Although they have plenty of veterans starting on both lines, they are particularly young at the offensive skill positions and across the board in terms of depth. Among receivers and running backs, wideout Austin Pettis has the most experience and he's entering just his third season. The franchise got plenty of production from young players a year ago, but if it wants to take the next step to the postseason, it'll need even more production from even more younger players in 2013.
-- Nick Wagoner, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
In his third season, Sam Bradford posted career highs in Total QBR, touchdowns and yards per attempt. Bradford made progress on deep throws, posting a 90.9 QBR on passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield in 2012, 23.2 rating points higher than his QBR on such throws last season.
Bradford completed a career-high 42.6 percent of his passes 15 or more yards downfield last season, which ranked 15th in the NFL. The move to the middle of the pack was a big improvement for Bradford, who ranked 29th in 2011 and 31st in 2010.
Rookie receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey should give Bradford more options downfield. Last season Chris Givens was Bradford's favorite target on deeper throws, but the duo connected only 33.3 percent of the time, the second-worst rate for Bradford to any Rams receiver last season.
In addition, Austin should help Bradford get some extra yardage. Rams wide receivers averaged 3.8 yards after the catch per reception last season, the eighth-worst rate in the league. Austin gained 947 yards after the catch in 2012 at West Virginia, most among players from automatic-qualifier schools.
• Cornerback Janoris Jenkins scored four defensive touchdowns last season. Only four other players have scored that many defensive touchdowns in a season in NFL history.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
LB James Laurinaitis (15.2 avg. AV since 2010)
A big reason the Rams' rush D ranked 10th in DVOA: Laurinaitis hardly ever leaves the field. He hasn't missed a game in four seasons and is by far the league's leading solo tackler (427) since 2009.
-- Pro Football Reference