General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher have been busy pulling weeds since walking onto the grounds of Rams Park in early 2012.
They’ve pruned the roster and trimmed aging players, slow players, mediocre players, broken-down players, inconsequential players, overpaid players, draft-day busts and just about any player that didn’t have genuine potential to blossom.
Only 15 of the 59 players on the Rams’ current roster were in place before Fisher and Snead were retained to rebuild a flimsy, mismanaged, incompetently coached jumble of a team that had collapsed to the worst five-season record (15-65) in NFL history.
After two drafts and two offseasons, Snead and Fisher have amassed a collection of talent so youthful and inexperienced, the Rams ought to wear green uniforms in 2013. Team parties may be held at Chuck E Cheese.
Of the Rams’ 59 players, 44 are age 25 or younger.
Only two – offensive linemen Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells – are in their 30s.
Twenty-six of the 32 names in the Rams’ offensive cast are 25 or younger, including starting quarterback Sam Bradford and 11 of the 12 running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
Nine of Bradfords backs, wideouts and tight ends are age 22 or 23. The old man of the group is tight end Jared Cook, a geezer at 26.
It will be fun, fascinating and perhaps a bit frustrating to watch these Boy Scouts grow and mature together. But the talent level is on the rise. Rapidly so.
The Rams had the NFL’s youngest team in 2012 and will undoubtedly be even more youthful in '13. Obviously Fisher is remaining true to ownership's intelligent mandate to draft and develop players instead of recycling other team's leftovers.
“Give the coaches credit,” Snead said. “It’s a young team. We may have improved the talent – we think we did – but you lessen the experience so I give these guys credit. ... a lot. To go compete in this league, even though you’re more talented, sometimes the wiser people can outfox you, but the staff did an excellent job last year and I think that will continue this year.”
The Rams went 7-8-1 in 2012, and I don’t know how many games they’ll win in 2013. Fisher and his assistants are very good at what they do, and several franchises that appeared near the top of the annual youngest-roster rundown have reached the playoffs in recent years. Anything is possible.
But I doubt that any playoff team in history was as young as the Rams will be in 2013. Fisher is OK with that. He enjoys coaching 'em up.
“The rewards come from watching them improve, watching them become pros. Watching them improve from year one to year two,” Fisher said.
In my opinion the Rams had a strong 2013 draft. The seven selections not only addressed specific roster needs but enhanced team speed, athleticism and big-play capacity.
The West Virginia whirlwinds, rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, will break out their moves and go against 2012 draftees Chris Givens and Brian Quick in an entertaining competition for airborne footballs.
Rookie running back Zac Stacy (Vanderbilt) has a chance to carry a heavy share of the load; it’s not as if his path is blocked by future Hall of Famers. Stacy is added to a backfield rotation that includes 2012 rookies Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Terrance Ganaway.
Rookie Alex Ogletree (Georgia) should start right away; the Rams have been looking for a cornerstone outside linebacker for years and he possesses the speed to chase and apprehend the expanding fleet of mobile NFL quarterbacks. And the physical rookie T.J. McDonald (USC) should plug in and start at an undermanned safety position.
As for the other draft picks, Barrett Jones (Alabama) is likely the team’s starting center of the future and for now projects as an effective guard-center swingman. The Rams, thin at cornerback, added a fast one in Miami’s Brandon McGee who will also be a factor on special teams.
This is the rare draft class that you can look at and declare: they will not only make this team; they will improve this team. “I believe that in time this group is going to be special,” Fisher said.
The rookies will rush in carrying an immediate upgrade in speed and talent, but here’s something else to like about them: their classic pedigrees.
All seven picks distinguished themselves in power-conference programs. Four of the seven were team captains. All but one (McGee) were All-Conference or All-America selections. Austin and Stedman helped WVU make a solid transition to the Big 12 conference. Stacy played a lead role in the dramatic ascent of Vanderbilt football.
The seven combined to start in 14 bowl games, and Jones started on three national championship winners at Alabama. As starters the seven had a combined 162-72 record, and that included 36 wins over Top 25 programs and an 81-48 mark in conference play.
The Rams drafted young stars that are accustomed to leading teammates, competing in important games, making big plays and excelling when under pressure. Those are good qualities to add to a developing roster.
Obviously it will take time for all of this new talent to settle in and coalesce, and that’s especially true of the skill-position players.
The four running backs have combined for only 108 career NFL rushing attempts. The seven wideouts have combined to make only 17 NFL starts.
No question, the Rams have given Bradford more playmakers to work with now. And he'll be held to a higher standard, even among reasonable and intelligent observers. (The short attention span crowd doesn't qualify.) But it's also true that with all of these young players having so much to learn, the progression could move slowly.
Oh, you don’t think so? You expect Bradford to start putting up Drew Brees numbers in 2013? I’d really like that. I did some homework to get an idea of what to expect from the Rams’ first-year, and second-year, wideouts.
A total of 627 wide receivers were chosen in the last 20 drafts through 2012. Only seven of the 627 had 1,000-yard receiving seasons as rookies. And only 27 had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in their second years. The biggest jumps in productivity came later on; 44 wideouts had 1,000-yard seasons in NFL Year Three and that number grew to 50 in Year Five.
The Rams' youngblood receivers don't have to have 1,000-yard outbreaks to enliven this offense. They each bring special skills to the field, and as a whole the ensemble cast can make a difference. Bradford will benefit from this infusion of talent, but the magnitude of impact depends on the RBs and WRs getting up to speed as soon as possible.
Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and his position coaches will really earn their money now.
Snead and Fisher have pulled most of the weeds at Rams Park. And now it’s up to the coaches to show that they know how to grow flowers.