- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams aren't messing around in trying to fix their franchise.
They paid $7 million a year to land Jeff Fisher as head coach. Front-office execs are working the politicians and arbiters to get a new stadium that would allow the Rams to stay in St. Louis. More important, they are trying to build the Rams the right way.
It started with the draft. A miserable season that featured bad offensive coaching, poor roster construction and a drop-off from 7-9 to 2-14 cost coach Steve Spagnuolo his job. In comes Fisher with general manager Les Snead. Their bold move was acquiring three first-round picks plus one in the second round from the Redskins in a deal that let the Rams drop four spots in the first round and let the Redskins draft Robert Griffin III.
The mistake last season was thinking the Rams were close to being a playoff team. They added veterans who took the roster from the 10th youngest to the fifth oldest. Fisher and Snead are rebuilding with youth. Even better, having two first-round picks in each of the next two years allows them to manage the cap well enough to keep their starters together for years.
Here are my five observations from Rams training camp:
1. Bradford is back: As a rookie, Sam Bradford had the look of an elite quarterback. Then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had him working three-step drops and quick five-step throws, and Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards. Josh McDaniels, last year's coordinator, destroyed that. In one of the most baffling offensive changes in years, McDaniels had Bradford work out of seven-step drops and five-step throws to 15- to 18-yard routes. The Rams couldn't block it. Receivers weren't good enough to get open. Bradford was battered physically and lasted only 10 games. His completion percentage fell to 53 percent, and the offense averaged only 12.1 points a game. McDaniels' departure alone should be worth six points a game. A revitalized Bradford and the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer could be worth more. Bradford looks great. He has lifted weights in the offseason and is bigger and stronger. He finished last season at 216 pounds. Now, he's 225 and throwing with authority. Schottenheimer is adding more motion to the offense with his receivers to confuse defenses. A smarter offensive scheme should mean better quarterback play for the Rams.
2. Receivers are better than expected: This isn't the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt in this receiving corps. The Rams have a bunch of potential No. 2s and No. 3s, but there are options. The surprise is former New York Giant Steve Smith. Signed after a couple of years of knee problems, Smith arrived in St. Louis healthy and with more speed than anticipated. Instead of playing the slot he worked in New York, Smith is working as an outside receiver who can get downfield. The coaching staff has the receivers using their hands more to get off the line against press coverage, another missing element from last year's team. Veteran Brandon Gibson is having a good camp. Danny Amendola remains Bradford's favorite target and is working the slot. The key to the offense is the development of 2012 draft choices Brian Quick and Chris Givens. Although Givens was taken two rounds later than Quick, he seems to be slightly ahead in his development because he can do one thing -- run. Givens is a deep threat from the flanker position. Quick shows flashes as a big receiver at the split-end positions, but coaches are working on his consistency. Danario Alexander and 2011 draft choices Greg Salas and Austin Pettis also are competing for precious roster spots.
3. Age is just a number: Steven Jackson knows 29 is not a good age for a running back. The league tends to phase out runners as they approach 30, but the Rams plan to use Jackson more. Under Schottenheimer's system and Fisher's philosophy, the Rams will be a run-first team featuring Jackson and supplemented by second-round choice Isaiah Pead. Pead is a Darren Sproles-style back with speed, decent hands and an ability to run up the middle well. In the offseason, Jackson visited a specialist who took blood tests to evaluate his eating patterns. Those studies found he had bad reactions to salmon. His favorite egg breakfasts were eliminated. He weighs 235, his body fat dropped from 6.5 to 5.1, and he's quick and powerful every time he touches the ball. The last time the Rams had a run-first mentality was in 2006 under Scott Linehan. Jackson will be able to run behind a fullback, something that was missing last year. The Rams are deciding between Brit Miller and former Falcon Ovie Mughelli.
4. Coverage is now a strength: Spagnuolo tried to bring coverage cornerbacks to the team, but injuries ruined the plan. In one offseason, Fisher and Snead turned a weakness into a strength. They signed veteran Cortland Finnegan for $10 million a year, then drafted Janoris Jenkins in the second round. Jenkins had some off-the-field problems, but, on the field, he might be one of best coverage cornerbacks Fisher has ever had. He has the knack of sticking with receivers in man and has good ball skills that should allow him to make interceptions. Third-round pick Trumaine Johnson is a bigger cornerback who looks a little lost at times. He's competing against Bradley Fletcher for the No. 3 job.
5. No more "Wide Nine" for Fisher: In Tennessee, Fisher developed the "Wide Nine" philosophy for defensive ends that placed them outside the open shoulder of offensive tackles. With Jim Washburn working as Fisher's defensive line coach, the Titans developed countless defensive ends who could rush the passer whether they weighed 240 or 280 pounds. Washburn is in Philadelphia, so Fisher hired veteran assistant Mike Waufle, who uses a more conventional four-man line approach. Ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn can line up more in the faces of ends, but each has the pass-rushing skills to get to the quarterback. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, a first-round choice, seems to get into the opposing backfield on virtually every play. Massive defensive tackle Kendall Langford came over from Miami to stop the run and push the pocket.