|Rick Osentoski / US Presswire|
|Quarterback Sam Bradford and the Rams will try to bounce back from an awful 2011 season.|
With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Injuries, a lack of depth -- and play-makers -- and a not-so-ready-for-prime-time roster made the Rams a catastrophe (again), just one season after the team (and young quarterback Sam Bradford) had shown so much promise. After a stellar rookie campaign, Bradford was bothered by a high ankle sprain, and the offense was abysmal overall. The Rams averaged 12.1 points per game, which is about how many the Packers can score before brushing their teeth in the morning. The disaster cost coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney their jobs. On top of all that, there was the mounting fear, which is somewhat well-founded, among the fan base that the Rams will be relocating in a few years.
What Went Right: Running back Steven Jackson overcame an early-season thigh injury to gain 1,145 rushing yards and 333 receiving yards, despite being the only real offensive threat. He also had to play with A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens at quarterback after Bradford went down with an ankle injury. It's amazing that the eight-year veteran has soldiered through so many losing seasons without it seeming to take much of a toll, but at some point, the wear and tear will. It would only be fair for Jackson to get a taste of success before he runs out of time.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis continues to shine in obscurity, and the addition of Quintin Mikell at safety gave St. Louis some much-needed toughness and smarts. New coach Jeff Fisher loves cerebral players and new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams always gets the most out of his safeties. Look for the quality of play at those positions to skyrocket.
What Went Not So Right: Injuries, especially to the secondary, started the downturn. Cornerback Ron Bartell suffered a fractured vertebrae in the season opener, and it only got worse from there, with offensive tackles Rodger Saffold and the frequently injured Jason Smith ending up on injured reserve.
Bradford's ankle sprain prevented him from getting anything going with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (who has since returned to the New England Patriots). A lack of receiving options didn't help, either; Brandon Lloyd was somewhat of a threat for St. Louis, but he's a free agent and might be moving on.
Defensive end Robert Quinn, the Rams' first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, had five sacks, but he didn't have nearly the impact Spagnuolo and Devaney imagined when they added him to a line that included ends Chris Long and James Hall.
Offseason Crystal Ball: There's a lot of speculation that Smith, the right tackle who was drafted with the second overall pick in 2009, could be released outright or asked to take a sizeable pay cut. Bartell's injury and high salary could also hasten his exit from St. Louis.
Williams wants ballhawks and won't settle for players who won't mix it up or are afraid to unleash "remember me" shots from time to time. New secondary coach Chuck Cecil will also demand defenders who play at the edge.
New offensive line coach Paul Boudreau demonstrated for years in Atlanta that he could mold a solid unit out of marginal talent, and he might be able to get things going in St. Louis again. He'll also be reunited with his favorite roughneck, guard Harvey Dahl.
Fisher brings instant credibility, and players will listen to him. The Rams will make far fewer mistakes and will be much more physical in every area. New GM Les Snead is coming from an Atlanta franchise that historically wasn't afraid to make a splash in free agency but also drafted for need.
Team Needs and Draft: The list is long, but St. Louis has to acquire some bona fide receivers for Bradford. The team could conceivably trade down a few spots to add some picks and still have a shot at Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. Snead helped draft Falcons slot receiver Harry Douglas, who is set to become a free agent, and he might try to lure Douglas to the Rams.
The offensive line is another major area of concern, especially regarding Smith, who has had concussion problems. If a salary cut can't be worked out, he'll be sent packing, but finding a replacement won't be easy. Still, Smith hasn't played much because of injuries, and Boudreau was known in Atlanta for favoring players with heart and durability.
St. Louis also has to get some speed at outside linebacker and add talent to the secondary. The Rams could also use a play-making running back to spell Jackson, especially given Fisher's proclivity for using two backs. Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood just can't provide enough help.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89