Pat Kirwan recently visited Rams camp in Earth City, Mo. Here's what he saw.
1. The offensive line is pretty good. As I watched every play of the last 10 practices on tape, I became more impressed with the Rams offensive line. Left tackle Roger Saffold is a star in the making. Left guard Jacob Bell is trying to keep Renardo Foster from taking his job. Center Jason Brown has his moments, like when DT Gary Gibson threw him aside, but in general he competes. Right guard Harvey Dahl is just what the doctor ordered to instill toughness. Right tackle Jason Smith needs to be more consistent and not get caught waist-bending, but he's better than average. The Rams can get away with a significant amount of five-man protections this season and putting five receivers in the routes will make it tough on defenses.
2. There isn't a No. 1 receiver, but there are a number of quality No. 2s. There's no Calvin or Andre Johnson on this team, but there wasn't one last year either as Bradford threw for 3,512 yards as a rookie. This year, Bradford has better weapons and is taking more shots down the field. Brandon Gibson, Mike Sims-Walker and Danario Alexander (when he gets healthy) give the Rams three guys who can all go deep. Also, get ready to see Danny Amendola playing the role of Wes Welker in the newest imitation of the Patriots offense.
3. Sam Bradford is getting the new system. I've watched every throw Bradford has taken in practice, and it's clear he is really starting to understand the Josh McDaniels offense. In the intersquad scrimmage Wednesday he threw a seam route touchdown to TE Billy Bajema that was second to none. Bradford needs plenty of reps in this new offense but the progress is remarkable.
4. The Rams have a plan to help Steven Jackson. Jackson has touched the ball 746 times the past two seasons and he has delivered solid production, but the team needs to take care of him. As head coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "Steven wants the ball and he carries this team on his back but we can be smart with him." Being smart means signing of Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood to spell Jackson. Williams has looked good in camp and can clearly take on some of the third-down duties. Norwood can do some of the same, plus he may return kicks. Jackson will probably get close to 300 touches because he has the heart of a lion but look for the other two backs to combine for 100.
» Lance Kendricks. The second-round pick from Wisconsin is a fast learner and is already handling multiple positions, including his natural position at tight end. He has caught the eye of management and coaches, to say nothing of what Bradford thinks of his new weapon. Expect to see Hendricks on the field creating match-up problems for Rams' opponents this year.
» Harvey Dahl. The unrestricted free agent, who played in Atlanta the last four seasons, is a solid offensive guard and an outstanding leader for the Rams offensive line. He brings passion and it looks contagious on the field. An awful lot of Steven Jackson runs will cross the line of scrimmage behind Dahl.
» Quintin Mikell. As Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said about the free agent who comes over from Philadelphia, "That guy knows how to blitz from the safety spot." Mikell brings a new dimension to the Rams defense.
"We have signed 12 unrestricted free agents but there are still a number of veteran free agents on the street that we valued months ago, and we will continue to put players on the roster to make things more competitive, but we will not jeopardize our future doing it."
--Rams COO Kevin Demoff on free agency
The Rams went down to Week 17 last year in search of a division title and lost to the Seahawks. As one veteran player said to me, "Our inexperience showed down the stretch but this year will be different with all the solid veterans (general manager) Billy DeVaney has brought in." You could make the case that the Rams have the best quarterback in the division and that gives them a leg up on the competition, but they also play a brutal first-half schedule that includes Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees in six of the first seven games. If they weather that storm, they will be battle-tested and ready to take on the division. Right now, the Rams may be the team to beat in the NFC West. I can see an 8-8 record and division championship if Bradford, who went 3-3 in the division last year, doesn't take 15 sacks in those six division games like he did in 2010.