Inside the NFL  

 

St. Louis Rams' investment in young talent paying dividends

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» DeMeco Ryans' return to form.
» An unexpected encore of Fitzmagic.
» How RGIII's past is creating drama in the present.
» And much more, beginning with a look at one emerging team that's bursting with young talent ...

As Jeff Fisher came off the practice field Wednesday afternoon, you could just about hear him bursting with anticipation.

Can't blame the second-year St. Louis Rams coach much if he can't wait to see what's next.

"It's really fun, watching them develop, watching them mature from Year 1 to Year 2, and this year seeing how it all fits," Fisher said. "Who'd have thought Stedman Bailey would've had one of our best special-teams plays of the year -- spinning off a block on a punt and taking down Devin Hester? Now we're expecting them to do that stuff."

In the bare-knuckles boxing circuit that the NFC West has been the last two seasons, Fisher's bunch has played the role of scrappy upstart -- at 5-6 not yet a threat to steal the title but plenty feisty enough to send tremors through the division. The Rams were 4-1-1 against West foes last year, and while they're just 1-2 in division play this season, they still get a shot at each of their rivals in December, beginning with the 49ers on Sunday.

But that's not what has Fisher smiling. It's the idea that his group is on the verge of a whole lot more.

The team Fisher took over in 2012, after he returned to the NFL following one year off, was the youngest group he'd ever coached, as the Rams fielded the youngest roster in the league. They got even younger this season.

Twenty-four of the 53 players on St. Louis' roster are 24 or younger, and 28 are rookies or first- or second-year players. Conversely, just 15 guys remain from the pre-Fisher/Les Snead era. This year's group took the Seattle Seahawks to the wire last month, has won four of its last seven games and is coming off resounding victories over the playoff-contending Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. Better yet, the players are developing an identity.

"It's the speed," Fisher said. "And what happens on occasion, you pull them up in the locker room before introductions, and you say, 'Here's what we're going to do: Win the toss, defer, kick it off, get a stop, and then go down and score.' Then that actually happens, and they say, 'You're right.' They start believing you and believing it'll happen."

While it's been most obvious the last two weeks, Fisher said he's seen a different team since a 35-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 26. The numbers bear it out, too.

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In the seven games since, the Rams have rushed for 1,063 yards on 217 carries (4.9-yard average), posted 24 sacks, eight forced fumbles and 11 interceptions, and seen their special teams become a legitimate strength, which, Fisher explained, is as important as anything: "We'll have the whole team in the meeting room and have them watch the special-teams effect, and the Jake Longs of the team get to see the effort, and (it) pulls things together for everyone."

The formula has become pretty clear, too: Physically attack the opponent, build a lead and then turn Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Co. loose.

All that allowed the Rams to ride out losing Sam Bradford to a season-ending knee injury one month ago. The Wednesday after the quarterback went down, Fisher challenged the rest of the team. "Give 'em hell with Kell," he said, referencing backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.

The players no doubt answered the bell.

"They handled it well," Fisher said.

Fisher pointed to veterans James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Will Witherspoon, Chris Long and Jake Long as leading the charge, but the younger players also have taken ownership. Buoyed with extra draft-pick firepower via the trade that allowed the Washington Redskins to draft Robert Griffin III, Fisher pushed the Rams' 2012 class to stand out last fall, then called on the 2013 group to do better than its predecessor had. So came the implicit message that those players would grow up together and, along with the draft class to come, shape the Rams' future.

"They know that's the deal," Fisher said. "And they're close, which is what makes it fun. We challenged last year's class to be the best, and we challenged this year's guys to outdo them, so there's rivalry, there's competition and they all are better for it."

There's plenty left to do in St. Louis. The Rams haven't been to the playoffs since 2004, at the tail end of the Mike Martz era, and the quarterback situation still has to play out. Fisher steadfastly said "Sam's the guy" and will be when he returns from his injury next season. That's fine, but it's still unclear where Bradford's ceiling is.

What's clear is, behind Snead and Fisher, an impressive overhaul has taken place over a 22-month period. The Rams very much believe the foundation is there.

"We feel like this is the core," Fisher said. "We still have holes and needs, and fortunately, we'll be in a position to address that."

That, of course, is a reference to the fact the Rams have a 2014 first-round pick (from the Redskins in that RGIII trade) that seems to be steadily rising in the draft order as Washington stumbles.

The Rams' other first-round pick isn't rising, which is just fine with the St. Louis braintrust. Maybe they're not quite ready to jockey for position with the Seahawks, 49ers or Arizona Cardinals, but having to fight through the NFL's toughest division has its benefits for a young team, and there are plenty of signs that the Rams aren't far off.

"And the other side of it is they don't know any different, they really don't, when they look at the matchups," Fisher said, building on the thought. "But yeah, it does help. Last year, we were 4-1-1 (in the division), and this year, we're not quite there, but we played Seattle pretty well and beat Arizona. I actually think everyone's getting better in our division. The question is, who's getting older? It's certainly not us."

Ryans' renaissance

DeMeco Ryans easily could've stomped his feet this offseason when Chip Kelly hired Billy Davis to install a 3-4 defense in Philadelphia. After all, only one year earlier, the Houston Texans traded the linebacker to the Eagles because he was deemed a poor fit for Wade Phillips' -- yup -- 3-4 defense.

Good thing Ryans didn't.

"I seriously wasn't skeptical," Ryans said after the Eagles' practice Wednesday. "I was looking forward to it. I knew there were going to be changes, going to a 3-4 on the defensive side, and I treated that as a good thing. It's a new challenge, learning something else, and I love those kinds of mental challenges."

Ryans has been equal to this one, so much so that he might be headed back to the Pro Bowl after a three-season absence. Eagles coaches have Ryans down for 133 tackles (officially he has 96), and he has hit double digits in eight of 11 games, recording 15 tackles on three different occasions. He also has two interceptions, two sacks and four passes defensed, and makes impact plays all over the place.

Connor Barwin, who was the linebacker's teammate in Houston for three years before joining him in Philadelphia this season, says he's never seen Ryans -- who's no longer dogged by the lingering effects of elbow and Achilles injuries -- play better. Barwin says a big part of Ryans' recent success is his ability to levy the proverbial impact-that-doesn't-show-up-on-the-stat-sheet plays.

"He's as smart a guy as I've ever played with," Barwin said. "And my personal favorite thing about playing with him: He is a physical presence on the field. I mean, he gets walloping hits.

"Playing Green Bay, we were talking about Eddie Lacy all week. He's a big, downhill runner. He's going to run hard. He's going to run people over. All this stuff all week. I think it was the second series, DeMeco took the gap and just killed him. Just walloped him. That kind of presence from your middle linebacker changes the game."

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Meanwhile, the much-maligned defense that Ryans is captaining is coming around.

After a horrendous start to the season that has the group still languishing at 31st in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed, the Eagles have held their last seven opponents to 21 points or less and shut out the Redskins for three quarters in Week 11. The contrast between August and September and now is growing stronger by the week.

"No one expected anything from our defense, and rightfully so, we didn't (give) a reason to expect anything after the first couple outings," Ryans said. "Everyone talks about the offense with Chip, and we were a little jealous. We wanted people to start talking about us. And it's coming together. We're playing more together. We're more familiar with the scheme, more comfortable in it, and we're playing better. We're in a comfort zone now. And we have so much room to get better and turn into a dominating group."

At 29, Ryans finally is starting to realize his own potential as well, after so much promise in his first four NFL seasons.

He hasn't taken the most direct route to get here. But playing in four different defenses in the last four years -- and fighting through the aforementioned injuries -- has allowed Ryans to find himself again.

"After I got traded, it was like I was a rookie all over again," Ryans said. "I was trying to get comfortable with the move, the new team, new city. Second year in, I'm comfortable. I feel great. I'm healthy and coming into my own and making the plays I expect to make. It's a good feeling."

Second chance at some Fitzmagic

Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't come to Tennessee to coach, but the Titans made no bones about why they signed the eight-year veteran quarterback in March: mostly to have young starter Jake Locker's back.

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"That was the main part of it, to help him," Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. "We have a great relationship. He had a good thing going, he was making a lot of progress from last year. And you never want to see a guy get hurt, especially a guy like him. He put in the work to improve, and you could see it on the field. It was really, really disappointing."

The flip side: With the disappointment of Locker's season-ending foot injury came an opportunity Fitzpatrick never expected. And he's taking advantage.

The 5-6 Titans now are squarely in contention, having entered this week holding the AFC's final playoff spot via tiebreaker in a mediocre field, and Fitzpatrick is at the center of it all. Before Locker went down for the season, Fitzpatrick had played in three games and started two. One month later, with three more games (two of them starts) under his belt, the former Buffalo Bills starter looks like a different guy. Check it out:

  Games Comp/Att Percentage Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Passer Rating
September/October Fitz 3 41 of 78 52.6 526 2 4 61.2
November Fitz 3 74 of 103 71.8 806 5 0 110.7

 

Part of it is competition. In October, Fitzpatrick faced the Seahawks, Chiefs and Jets. In November, he got the Jaguars, Colts and Raiders. Even taking that into account, there's an unquestionable difference in Fitzpatrick, and it's played out with the Titans scoring in the mid-20s each of the last three weeks.

"I'm more comfortable, and that's a big thing as a quarterback," he said. "I'm more comfortable in the system and with the guys I'm throwing to, and it's also (offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains) being more comfortable with me as a player. That's shown up the last few weeks. We have a good feel for each other."

Now the roles in Tennessee's quarterback room have been reversed. When Locker has been around -- he's been away some for his surgery and rehab -- he has watched tape to give Fitzpatrick a second set of eyes on the game's situational aspects, most commonly prepping the Titans' new starter for third-down and two-minute spots. And even when Locker isn't around, the quarterbacks constantly text each other.

"It's been amazing, the selflessness here," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick wasn't willing to go into whether or not he believes this run might be an avenue to his rebirth as an NFL starter. That makes sense because there's plenty on his plate now -- much more than he ever thought there'd be in Tennessee.

"I felt like, as a Day 1 starter, yeah, it was over for me," he said. "I entered a different chapter of my career as a backup, figured I could get spot duty here and there and get to play in mop-up duty maybe. Now that I'm starting, not that I ever took it for granted before, but I appreciate the fact that I'm getting this chance that much more."

Four downs

1) RGIII's background explains current Redskins drama. Last week, colleague Judy Battista and I wrote a joint story on the respective raisings of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Along the same lines, I think it's fair to consider the impact of Robert Griffin III's background on his NFL career. Redskins coaches have noticed an insecurity with Griffin this season, and some in the organization believed part of his motivation to quickly return from ACL surgery was driven out of fear that Kirk Cousins would make a run at his job. It might sound a little strange, given what the Redskins yielded to land RGIII, but that dynamic isn't uncommon, and it's something we touched on with Brady in last week's story. Consider RGIII initially was committed to the University of Houston and had Stanford as his highest-profile suitor. The University of Texas did offer him a scholarship -- but as an athlete, not a quarterback. Considering that where you come from is a part of who you are and that Cousins was running the Redskins' offense through the entire offseason, it's not hard to see the source of some of this friction. Part of why RGIII went to Baylor was to start right away, and he never really had his job threatened, even after his first torn ACL. The NFL simply is a colder place, and knowing how intelligent Griffin is, there can't be much question he recognizes that. The fix? Probably a full offseason, when RGIII and the Redskins can get back to building together.

2) Arranged marriages working for the Panthers and, to a lesser degree, the Jets. Last year, Phil Emery dropped the hammer on Lovie Smith even though the Bears won 10 games. The assumption had been that similar situations would unfold in Carolina and New York, respectively, with the coaches whom new GMs Dave Gettleman and John Idzik inherited. Safe to say, Ron Rivera has changed the narrative in Charlotte, and word is Gettleman has been impressed with the identity that's been forged. Rex Ryan, on the other hand, has another month to make his GM's decision a difficult one. And Ryan swears now that he's enjoyed the arrangement, awkward as it might've been initially. "We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, there's no doubt. He's been fantastic, no question," Ryan told me about Idzik. "He's been great, great to work with and great to be around. Shoot, it's funny; both our dads are former Jets. So we look at this team the same way and with that kind of drive and desire to get this team back where it should be." Can these arrangements work long term? Sure. But it's worth noting that, looking at the last 20 Super Bowl champions, there really aren't any examples of GMs coming in, keeping the coaches they inherit and winning at the highest level.

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3) A heartbreaker for Denver to build upon. When Peyton Manning is your quarterback, moral victories don't really exist. Still, there were plenty of positives to take from the Broncos' devastating Week 12 loss at New England. No, it wasn't a banner night for Manning, but the rest of the team flashed an ability to play out John Elway's vision. The Broncos boss told me last year: "Taking the burden off of (Peyton) is getting the best people we can around him. And blending the team, and trying to get as good as we can and quick as we possibly can, with the idea of having been through and seen what world championships look like." So the idea has been to create a lot of what Elway had as a player in the late 1990s -- a team that could win without 300 passing yards. The Broncos rushed for 280 yards, forced six fumbles and recovered three, and generated early pressure on Tom Brady, which is how they built their 24-0 lead. If the pieces around Manning are working like that, it'll be enough to win most days. It wasn't enough in Foxborough, mainly because of the Patriots' superior quarterback play. But should these teams face off again, with Manning receiving that kind of help, Denver probably will feel pretty good about its chances for revenge.

4) Dice rolls sometimes come up snake eyes. The Patriots took a pretty heavy PR blow over the summer with the Aaron Hernandez situation, and the Seahawks' suspensions that came to light this week also won't help their image. What do those teams have in common? Both are willing to draft at-risk players and have taken chances on veterans with checkered pasts. What else do they have in common? Both are winning a lot in spite of all that. In each franchise, there's a belief the head coach can assimilate problem players into the locker room and that the culture ingrained will keep issues to a minimum. The downside is what you're seeing now. Obviously, the associated pitfalls haven't been quite enough to knock either of those freight trains off their tracks.

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Three checkdowns

1) There's been some natural dot-connecting with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and the Texans. We'll see what happens there. Sumlin bolting College Station, whether it's for the NFL or a school like USC, appears to be a decent bet.

2) While Joe Flacco made waves with his comments on the Wildcat, there's no question he spoke for plenty of other QBs. Most I've talked to think it disrupts the flow of the game for an offense. The flip side here is the Ravens gave their opponents something else to prep for.

3) It's fair now to look at league-wide play -- and in particular, the mediocrity of most of the AFC -- and wonder if economics are at work. Teams generally have been forced to get younger because of the flat salary cap. In many cases, it's meant fringe rookies replacing middle-class veterans.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Michigan LT Taylor Lewan (vs. Ohio State, noon ET, ABC): Coming into the season, many considered Lewan to be jockeying with Texas A&M's Jake Matthews (and perhaps Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio) for the label of best left tackle prospect in college football. Lewan has lost ground since, and that makes this week's game against unbeaten Ohio State -- sure to be the first tape NFL folks pop in on him during the spring -- vital for his future. He'll be matched up most often against Buckeyes star sophomore Noah Spence. One AFC college scouting director said Lewan still is a first-rounder and has a chance to build himself back up against Spence. Conversely, an NFC personnel executive questioned if Lewan has enough of a mean streak, saying he sees him as a third-round prospect. It seems certain now he'll be picked after Matthews. How far after is the question.

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2) Alabama QB AJ McCarron (at Auburn, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Assessments of McCarron are all over the map, which is strange for a player with as much film out there in such a strong conference. It might be because many of his strengths aren't tangible. The aforementioned AFC college scouting director said he doesn't understand how McCarron isn't the overwhelming Heisman favorite, then offered this assessment: "Good size, outstanding touch on all throws, can make all the throws but only has average arm strength. Average running ability but very good feet and movement in the pocket to avoid sacks. Outstanding progression-read quarterback, makes throws to his second and third reads consistently. Doesn't turn the ball over. Winner. Mentally tough. Has the moxie and cockiness most great QBs have. Very similar to Tom Brady in stature, athletic ability, arm strength, touch and the most important category -- wins." The college director said McCarron is a solid first-rounder who has a chance to be the first QB off the board. An AFC area scout added: "I'd draft him in the latter part of the first. He's better than some of the guys who went in the first -- (Christian) Ponder, (Jake) Locker, (Blaine) Gabbert. Maybe he doesn't do anything great, but he has a lot of good qualities, and he works at it." Meanwhile, in some circles, McCarron is seen as a third-round type. So it'll be interesting to watch him go through the process in the spring.

Extra point

The Green Bay Packers' collapse following Aaron Rodgers' collarbone injury is just another example of a quality backup QB's value -- and how far a team can fall under the weight of a single injury.

"Some teams are literally one injury away from their season being over, and quarterback is the No. 1 place it happens," an AFC personnel executive said. "In my mind, when you're building a team, it's always worth the money to pay for that insurance. Just look at how many quarterbacks have missed starts this year."

Indeed. Just 20 of the league's 32 teams have started the same quarterback in every game this season, and you see the advantage gained by clubs that have a good backup (Tennessee, St. Louis) over those that don't (Green Bay).

It's why the Colts gave Matt Hasselbeck a two-year, $7.25 million contract, why the Chiefs forked over a three-year, $10 million deal to Chase Daniel, and why Fitzpatrick received $6.25 million over two years from the Titans. These seem to be prescient decisions, looking at recent injury reports.

One crucial point: The Colts, Chiefs and Titans all have starters signed to manageable contracts, allowing them to pour more money into their backups. No doubt it's a lot more difficult to budget a few million per year for a backup when you've already sunk more than $20 million into that spot. But growing evidence indicates it's worth it.

If you're in, say, a five-year window of opportunity with a star quarterback, and that quarterback goes down for one month, then maybe it's the difference between the No. 2 and the No. 6 playoff seeds. Maybe it's the difference between making the postseason and sitting at home in January. Either way, you'd be putting one of those five years in peril, which would be pretty tough to swallow.

My guess is teams with big-ticket quarterbacks will take a hard look at their backups after the season. With the likelihood that experienced starters such as Matt Schaub and Mark Sanchez will be looking for work, and the expected depth of the upcoming draft class, there certainly will be options.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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