Commentary

Young Rams generating buzz

Bradford, strong D, speed on offense have fans excited in St. Louis

Originally Published: August 4, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The future of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis is in question. Local authorities informed the St. Louis Rams they can't meet the stadium upgrade demands, opening a two-year window before the Rams' lease can be broken and the team could leave.

The future of the Rams, though, couldn't be brighter. The youngest team in football got faster and more talented this offseason. On offense, it's a perfect team for a dome. The receivers have track speed. The backs are sprinters, not plodders. The Rams even added tight end Jared Cook, who has 4.5 speed at 248 pounds.

Match that with QB Sam Bradford's quick delivery and you can see why there is a 70 percent increase in fan attendance at practices. There hasn't been this much buzz about a Rams team since the Dick Vermeil-Mike Martz days.

And if that isn't enough, the Rams have two first-rounders in next year's draft.

Maybe all of this will create a perfect storm of compromise. The Rams are on a two-year window pointed toward success. The St. Louis area has a two-year window to work out a deal to keep the Rams. Team success might stir up enough support to build a new stadium.

Here are the five things I learned at Rams training camp:

1. Position battles: Three backs are competing for playing time to replace Steven Jackson. Daryl Richardson is the fastest and may have the best chance to be the opening-day starter because Isaiah Pead has a one-game suspension. The sleeper is fifth-round choice Zac Stacy. Coach Jeff Fisher will use the preseason to figure out how to mix and match his backs. Richardson gives the Rams Chris Johnson-type quickness in the backfield. Pead has speed for the middle of the field. Not only is Stacy a good runner, but he can pass protect. The surprise battle is at left guard. Former Chicago Bears tackle Chris Williams may be able to resurrect his career at guard. He's competing against Shelley Smith and impressing the coaches. Fisher also has to sort out how to use all his speed at wide receiver. Austin Pettis is the flanker, Chris Givens the split end and rookie Tavon Austin is working out of the slot. Packages will be used to get Brian Quick on the field. Third-round pick Stedman Bailey also can't be ignored. Things are pretty well settled for the first-team defense.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
David Welker/Getty ImagesLike speed? Rookie Tavon Austin and the Rams' other wide receivers have plenty of it.

2. These Rams can fly: With the addition of Austin, the Rams' top five receivers have 40 times between 4.28 (Austin) and 4.59. That will significantly change the way Bradford runs the offense. During his first three seasons, Bradford had to manage long, plodding offensive drives. No more. Austin is the one who changes the equation the most. He'll bring to the Rams' offense what the Seahawks thought they had when they traded a first- and third-round choice to acquire Percy Harvin. At West Virginia, Austin worked exclusively out of the slot. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is moving him around to a few different positions, but most of his work will be in the slot. What's clear is Austin loves the game. Former Rams great Isaac Bruce is spending time at training camp. Austin attentively spends a half hour after practice learning from Bruce about how to get off press coverage and the little tricks of the trade at wide receiver. The most improved receiver is Givens, who has 4.41 speed. The Rams signed Cook to give Bradford a tight end who can jump over defenders to catch the ball, but Cook also has the speed to beat defenders downfield. On defense, first-round pick Alec Ogletree adds an element of speed at weakside linebacker. The secondary also has speed and range.

3. Defense is the real deal: In Tennessee, Fisher was known for putting together good defenses. It's amazing how quickly he's put one together in St. Louis. On paper, this should be a top-12 defense. Let's start with the defensive line. The Rams have three first-rounders (Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers) and Kendall Langford starting. Brockers did well as a rookie and is expected to break out this year. He's worked hard this offseason to improve his body structure and should be able to drive centers and guards crazy. That will free up Long and Quinn to crash the run and rush the quarterback from the ends. The Rams had 52 sacks last season, 22 combined by Long and Quinn. The secondary is a strength. Janoris Jenkins has Pro Bowl potential as a man cover guy and great ability to angle for interceptions when the ball is the air. Cortland Finnegan is a great leader at cornerback. Trumaine Johnson is in his second season. He'll come off the bench in passing situations and can match up against any type of receiver. Fisher is also excited about third-round pick T.J. McDonald, who has size, speed and range from the free safety position. James Laurinaitis is one of the top middle linebackers in the game. Having Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Ogletree on his left and right should let him roam more and make plays.

4. Managing Jake Long: The Miami Dolphins drafted Long over Matt Ryan in 2008 because they thought Long could be the left tackle who can protect their blind side for more than a decade. Injuries wore him down over the past two seasons, and the Dolphins decided not to keep him after his rookie contract expired. His addition to the Rams could be the key to the season. Fisher is one of the most attentive coaches in football. A former player, he knows the mental workings of players. Fisher is doing his best to monitor Long's work and make sure his body returns to the level that made him a top pick. He's doing the same with right tackle Rodger Saffold. If the mission is successful, defenses will have an impossible time getting to Bradford and the backs will be able to use their speed to the outside to get big gains.

5. The growth of Bradford: The Rams averaged 18.1, 12.1 and 18.7 points a game over the first three years of Bradford's career. Now he has the weapons to come closer to the 24 points per game offenses need to be considered playoff caliber. It's been a tough go for Bradford. He had three different offensive coordinators in his first three years. Each year, he went through a different group of receivers. Now, things have settled. Schottenheimer is back for his second year as coordinator, and it's made a big difference. With so many coordinator changes, Bradford often had to go into the season playing catch-up to the changes that came with new bosses and new philosophies. Instead of being a student, he can be a teacher, which is much needed with a young group of receivers. Perhaps the biggest impact was made when he held workouts in Oklahoma after the minicamp to bring the offense together. Once this group of fast, young athletes comes together around Bradford, watch out.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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