2011 St. Louis Rams preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Steven Jackson gets a solid backup in Jerious Norwood, who could also help the return game. (AP)  
Steven Jackson gets a solid backup in Jerious Norwood, who could also help the return game. (AP)  

2010 RECORD: 7-9 (second, NFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to Atlanta, 47-17, in NFC divisional round

COACH (RECORD): Steve Spagnuolo (8-24 in two seasons with Rams)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Josh McDaniels

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Flajole

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 25th rushing, 21st passing, 26th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 17th rushing, 19th passing, 12th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: S Quintin Mikell (from Eagles), OG Harvey Dahl (from Falcons), WR Mike Sims-Walker (from Jaguars), DT Daniel Muir (from Colts), RB Cadillac Williams (from Buccaneers), RB Jerious Norwood (from Falcons), LB Brady Poppinga (from Packers), LB Zac Diles (from Texans), CB Al Harris (from Dolphins), DE Robert Quinn (first round, North Carolina), TE Lance Kendricks (second round, Wisconsin), WR Austin Pettis (third round, Boise State), WR Greg Salas (fourth round, Hawaii), S Jermale Hines (fifth round, Ohio State), S Jonathan Nelson (seventh round, Oklahoma), LB Ben Leber (from Vikings)

KEY DEPARTURES: S Oshiomogho Atogwe (to Redskins), LB Larry Grant (to 49ers), OG John Greco (to Browns), TE Daniel Fells (to Broncos), WR Laurent Robinson (to Chargers), RB Kenneth Darby (not tendered)

WEAPONS FOR BRADFORD: The Rams enter 2011 with some extremely high expectations. New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has created a buzz around the offense. Bradford was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season and more is expected of him, especially after the Rams loaded up on weapons through the draft and free agency. They drafted Kendricks in the second round, then added Pettis and Salas in Rounds 3 and 4. Once free agency began, owner Stan Kroenke opened the wallet and allowed the team to go out and get Sims-Walker and a pair of running backs. Those players join what was already a decent crop of skill-position players, when healthy. WRs Mark Clayton, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander all have shown glimpses of greatness, but were hampered by injuries last season. Clayton, who has yet to re-sign, and Avery missed the entire year with knee injuries. Michael Hoomanawanui developed a quick rapport with Bradford but was slowed by a pair of ankle injuries. What the Rams do need is a better yards-per-reception ratio. Leading receiver Danny Amendola caught 85 passes last year, but for only 689 yards -- a paltry 8.1 yards per catch. Sims-Walker has averaged 13.5 yards per reception during his career.

REPLACING THE BALLHAWK: One of the biggest hurdles for the Rams to overcome will be the loss of Atogwe, who has created more takeaways than any other NFL player over the past six seasons. Instead of giving him a roster bonus in February, the Rams released him and Atogwe then signed with Washington. The Rams drafted safeties in the fifth and seventh rounds and Nelson, especially, has looked good early in camp. Once free agency began, they went after Philadelphia's Mikell, who many consider an upgrade over Atogwe. Although he's not the ballhawk Atogwe is, Mikell is considered a more aggressive player who is better in coverage. The two are comparable in size with Mikell at 5-feet-10, 203 pounds and Atogwe listed at 5-11, 205. The Rams also bring back Craig Dahl and James Butler, who were penciled in as the starters when camp began. One of them will likely be pushed out by Mikell.

FLANKING LAURINAITIS: Outside of the battle at receiver, where the Rams have 12 players fighting for what will likely be six spots, the best position battle may be at outside linebacker. The Rams are set in the middle with James Laurinaitis, but used a platoon of players last season on the outside, namely on the weakside. While Na'il Diggs held down the strong side before a shoulder injury late in the season, Grant, Bryan Kehl, David Vobora, David Nixon and Chris Chamberlain all saw time on the weak side. The Rams added Poppinga and Diles to the mix this year, creating a crowded LB corps. Diggs and Diles are expected to be the opening-day starters and the bigger question may be how many LBs the Rams keep. Including Josh Hull, who spent his rookie season on IR, the Rams had eight LBs on the roster last season. Nixon was released the first week of training camp, leaving the Rams with 10 LBs.

DO-IT-ALL AMENDOLA AGAIN?: Steven Jackson had 376 touches last season, rushing for 1,241 yards on 330 carries. His 46 receptions were third on the team behind Brandon Gibson's 53 and Amendola's 85. Amendola was the do-it-all player last season and this year, although special teams coordinator Tom McMahon shied away from saying so, the goal has to be finding a way to lessen Amendola's workload by finding somebody else to return kicks. Amendola led the NFL in all-purpose yards last season, with 1,142 kick-return yards and 452 more in punt returns to go along with his 689 receiving yards. The 5-11, 186-pounder took a beating and that's where Norwood, second-year receiver Mardy Gilyard or rookie DBs Mikail Baker or Dionte Dinkins could help out. Baker and Dinkins returned kicks in college while Gilyard excelled at it. He was expected to be the return man last year, but couldn't beat out Amendola. Given the competition at WR, this is a make-or-break camp for Gilyard. Norwood is coming off a knee injury, but has done very well returning kicks, with a 24.5 yards-per-return average. If Amendola isn't asked to do as much, he should be fresher and that measly yards-per-reception average could increase.

FINAL WORD: The Rams are the odds-on favorite to win the NFC West. They came within a game of winning the division last year and have upgraded at nearly every position. They found a RG in Dahl, who Jackson said was the team's best acquisition. They have more talent at WR, found a pair of legitimate backup RBs in Norwood and Williams, got a replacement for Atogwe, solidified the OLB positions and got themselves a hot new offensive coordinator. Now the question is how well everything goes together. With so much optimism, the pressure is on McDaniels and Spagnuolo to make it work. Spagnuolo has two years left on his contact and McDaniels inked a two-year deal when he came to St. Louis, so the futures of the two are definitely entwined.

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