Team overview: In Jeff Fisher’s first season in St. Louis, the Rams ended 2012 as one of the most surprising teams in the league. St. Louis finished the season at 7-8-1 and were competitive in all four games against the 49ers and the Seahawks. With menacing edge rushers Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Rams registered a sack on a league-high 9.51 percent of pass attempts. After serving a one-year suspension, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was hired as a senior assistant with the Titans upon his reinstatement into the league. Williams has been replaced by Tim Walton, a former secondary coach with the Lions.
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What the depth chart tells you: An already inexperienced receiving corps will be even further depleted if the Rams are unable to come to terms with slot receiver Danny Amendola in free agency. Of the Rams’ top six receivers from 2012, only three are currently under contract for next season. The trio of Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis has a combined four years of service in the league. After nine seasons with the Rams, three-time Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson is set to enter the open market. If Jackson leaves, as expected, the Rams have a pair of promising young running backs in Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. Sam Bradford, meanwhile, is entering a crucial season in 2013 after failing to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.
Rodger Saffold, a third-year left tackle, struggled at times with his lateral movement and couldn’t be counted on in pass protection last year. The Rams could also use an upgrade at left guard. Offensive lineman Rob Turner, who started nine games at center and seven at left guard, is a free agent. There is an equally sizable need at strongside linebacker next to dependable veterans James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
In the secondary, St. Louis could look to replace fifth-year safety Craig Dahl. In 2012, Dahl ranked 63rd in pass coverage efficiency among all safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. Dahl, a free agent, also tied for fifth in missed tackles by safeties with 16. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins had a steep learning curve to overcome in his rookie season, but carries tremendous upside with his ability to excel in press coverage. At tight end, the Rams could look to provide competition for Lance Kendricks, who finished with 42 receptions in an up-and-down 2012 season.
Ideal free agency and draft strategy: With four picks in the first three rounds, including two in the first the Rams could move up to select a bookend left tackle in Round 1. Three left tackles -- Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma -- are ranked in the Top 10 of CBSSports.com’s latest NFL Draft projections. At No. 22 overall, the Rams could consider a highly-ranked offensive guard such as Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina or a wide receiver such as Keenan Allen of Cal or DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson. In the middle rounds, a linebacker such as Sio Moore of Connecticut, Khaseem Greene of Rutgers or Arthur Brown of Kansas St. could be a solid addition. Moore put up freakish numbers at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.
A replacement for Dahl in free agency could be costly, but the Rams are roughly $11 million under the salary cap. A deep safety class includes: 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, Falcons safety William Moore and Giants safety Kenny Phillips. The Draft isn’t top-heavy with safeties, but has tremendous depth beyond the first round.
What will happen: The Rams’ weakness at left tackle is so glaring that general manager Les Snead will find a way to select one of the aforementioned franchise tackles at the top of the Draft. St. Louis may not be able to pluck Goldson away from its NFC West rivals, but will add a dependable veteran at safety in free agency. Amendola will return to man the slot and the Rams will provide him with help by adding another receiver in the early rounds. Once the Rams address needs at tackle and wide receiver, they will focus on guard and strongside linebacker in the next several rounds.
-- By Matt Rybaltowski
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