RAMS EXTRAS

Playing catch-up not easy for Rams

2013-05-06T00:40:00Z 2013-05-22T16:02:54Z Playing catch-up not easy for RamsBy Jim Thomas • Jthomas@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

Rams fans are buzzing about the team’s offseason moves, particularly on offense. But given what’s transpired out West, have they merely been keeping pace with division powers San Francisco and Seattle?

The bandwagons are getting so crowded in those two NFL precincts, the entire West Coast might just tip over and fall into the Pacific Ocean. The 49ers and Seahawks engaged in a fascinating arms race that began with the start of the free agency/trading period in March.

You trade for Percy Harvin, Seattle? OK, we’ll trade for Anquan Boldin.

And that was just the beginning. The 49ers bolstered their already formidable defense by adding former Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey in free agency.

The Seahawks countered by adding much-needed pass-rush help in defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency.

And so it went. Amid all the early talk about Seattle and San Francisco, Rams coach Jeff Fisher was asked weeks before the draft if he paid attention to what the rest of NFC West was doing this offseason.

‘Yeah, you pay attention to it,” Fisher said.

But then, as if a little weary of hearing all the 49ers and Seahawks hype, Fisher added: “I’m thinking they’re paying attention to the moves we make as well. They’ve gotta play us too.”

The Rams went for quality over quantity in free agency, adding a pair of potential impact players in Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long and talented tight end Jared Cook. Not to be overlooked was the re-signing of super sub defensive end William Hayes.

Last week, the Rams added the top skill-position player in the draft in wide receiver/return man Tavon Austin and then doubled up on West Virginia wideouts by adding Stedman Bailey. Linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald are instant starters, and fifth-rounder Zac Stacy figures into the running back mix.

Will all of that be enough to close the gap on Super Bowl contenders San Francisco and Seattle? Or are the Rams merely treading water? By the way, don’t forget about Arizona, which has a legitimate NFL quarterback (Carson Palmer) for the first time since Kurt Warner.

With the draft gone, and most of the offseason wheeling and dealing finished, here’s a look at how the rest of West shapes up in what once again should be one of football’s toughest divisions:

SAN FRANCISCO

The 49ers are scary deep on offense. Boldin is a big reason why the ‘Niners didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February as one of Baltimore’s Super Bowl heroes. Now the savvy veteran joins Michael Crabtree to give the 49ers a pair of big, physical wideouts.

Promising Vance McDonald was drafted out of Rice to replace the underrated Delanie Walker in two tight-end sets with Pro Bowler Vernon Davis. The 49ers ran fewer three-wide receiver sets than anyone in the league a year ago, but that might be changing.

The early read in the Bay Area is that the 49ers are going to lean less on their running game and defense, and morph into a more aggressive, wide-open offense as quarterback Colin Kaepernick enters his first season as a full-time starter.

The read-option with Kaepernick will remain a staple, but coach Jim Harbaugh seems to have a lot of confidence in Kaepernick’s throwing ability, too. So in addition to Boldin and Crabtree, 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, veteran Mario Manningham and 2013 draft pick Quinton Patton all are in the mix for the No. 3 wide receiver role.

At running back, Frank Gore remains the lead dog, but behind him is talent stacked up like planes on a busy airport tarmac in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and now Marcus Lattimore.

There is some concern on defense, however. That unit didn’t look the same down the stretch following end Justin Smith’s triceps injury. The former Mizzou standout turns 34 in September and is entering the final year of his contract.

Despite the additions of Eric Reid (draft) and former Ram Craig Dahl (free agency), departed Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson will be tough to replace.

SEATTLE

The Seahawks ran the ball more than anyone in the NFL last season. But not unlike the 49ers, coach Pete Carroll is talking about being more balanced. That makes all the sense in the world given the addition of Harvin.

After all, the Seahawks didn’t trade for the dynamic mighty mite to use him as a blocker. Not unlike Rams rookie whiz Austin, Harvin will be an X-factor on offense. He’ll line up almost everywhere and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The difference from Austin? Harvin has done it in the NFL; Austin hasn’t.

Harvin will get his touches, but the ball will be spread around to tight end Zach Miller, plus the improving Golden Tate and the revived Sidney Rice at wide receiver. If the Seahawks want to open the throttle, they have more options to do so.

The same holds true in the running game behind bell cow Marshawn Lynch, elusive quarterback Russell Wilson and even change-of-pace back Robert Turbin.

With the final selection of the second round, the ‘Hawks took big back Christine Michael, the type of one cut-and-go runner Carroll prefers.

A quick word about the defense. The No. 1 offseason priority on that side of the ball was improving the pass rush, and Avril and Bennett are proven veterans in that area.

ARIZONA

After a 4-0 start a year ago, horrendous quarterback play doomed the Big Red. No one will confuse Carson Palmer with Joe Montana, and he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but the former No. 1 overall draft pick remains a respected passer.

Palmer’s presence should put a smile on the face of great receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He’s getting open as much as he ever, but hasn’t had anyone who could consistently get him the ball lately. Under new general manager Steve Keim, the Cardinals drafted speedy wideout Ryan Swope of Texas A&M. He joins a unit that includes the ascending Andre Roberts and the still-developing Michael Floyd (a first-round pick in 2012.)

The party line in Bidwill Country is that Arizona will go to more of a power running game under new coach Bruce Arians. Truth be told, Arians loves to throw the ball, throw it downfield, and take chances.

He wasn’t a dink-and-dunk guy last season in Indianapolis, and wasn’t as coordinator in Pittsburgh.

That means his quarterback will take some hits and that’s probably one of the reasons why nimble, mobile Jonathan Cooper was drafted at No. 7 overall rather than powerful Chance Warmack at guard.

Former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall is the new feature back; Stepfan Taylor (Stanford) and Andre Ellington (Clemson) were drafted to provide depth.

The biggest changes on defense came at safety with the release of fixture Adrian Wilson and the risky addition of Tyrann Mathieu in the draft.

Follow Jim Thomas on twitter @jthom1

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