Preview: Rams building a contending roster

The Rams weren't expected to be in playoff contention this soon, but they are. They are doing it with a young nucleus, especially the rising stars on defense.

At the end of last season, the Vikings finished with a 3-13 record, setting themselves up for the third pick in the 2012 draft. Only two teams had a worse record – the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams, who both finished 2-14 and put themselves in line to draft Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

The Colts held on to their pick and used it on Andrew Luck. The results have been extraordinary, as the Colts sit just one win away from locking down a playoff spot. The Rams went a different route with new head coach Jeff Fisher looking to build the franchise back up. They traded out of the No. 2 spot, getting first-round picks in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 drafts from the Washington Redskins for the right to draft RG3. It was thought the Rams would need a couple years minimum to become a contending team, but they have surprised many with how quickly they have become relevant – remaining in the playoff chase in mid-December at 6-6-1.

The Rams are extremely young – 33 of their players have fewer than three years experience, including 18 first-year players – yet they have come together quickly as a group.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams don't have any rookies as starters, but have key offensive contributors in wide receiver Chris Givens and running back Daryl Richardson. The focus of the offense remains running back Steven Jackson, who has 214 carries for 836 yards and five touchdowns. Jackson has been the centerpiece of the St. Louis offense since he took over for Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and remains the primary offensive weapon of the Rams team. However, the Rams are developing a young nucleus around him.

Former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford hasn't had the impact that young QBs like Luck, RG3 or Cam Newton have had, but he is a solid game manager who is improving with each passing season. Danny Amendola, a poor man's Wes Welker, has developed into his top receiving threat and wide receiver Brandon Gibson and tight end Lance Kendricks have become significant passing options as well. As the Rams continue to grow as a group, these players will be critical components to the improvement of the offense.

Defensively, it's a different story. The Rams used their first two picks in April's draft to take defensive tackles Michael Brockers and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Both have had an immediate impact and Jenkins has returned two interceptions for touchdowns, living up to his pre-draft hype as a playmaker. The Rams have talent up and down the defensive side of the ball. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are both former first-rounders, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is a tackling machine and Fisher brought in a pair of former Tennessee Titans that played under him before he came to St. Louis – cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

The youth movement in St. Louis is also evident on special teams, where both kicker Steve Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker are both rookies and Zuerlein has earned the nickname Greg "The Leg" because he has made 14 field goals from 40 yards and beyond and helps put the Rams in scoring position any time they get past midfield.

The Rams have proved they have the talent to be a contender. They've beaten and tied the San Francisco 49ers this season and have wins over playoff hopefuls Seattle and Washington that have put them in the position to be a strong playoff contender if they can continue their current hot streak. They have won their last four games and could deal the Vikings a death blow with a win Sunday.

When the season started, many national analysts viewed the Vikings and Rams as two teams that would be vying for a blue-chip draft pick in the 2013 draft. Neither was predicted to win more than four or five games, but, with just three weeks to play in the 2012 season, the Vikings and Rams are both in the hunt for a wild card spot, which will make Sunday's game a virtual playoff elimination game – a far cry from what most thought this game would be when the schedule first came out.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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