By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
QUARTERBACKS – C+
Sure, Kurt Warner was not very good this season, but much of his problem was due to injuries, other than his first four games, and he wasn’t bad against Denver in the opener. The early season struggle could be spread among lots of players other than Warner as well, like the line, or the soft defense, not to mention the failure to have a fourth receiver who could play up to NFL quality.
Marc Bulger emerged as a quality backup with future potential to start at the very least, and even Jamie Martin finished on a positive note, though Bulger’s move up the depth chart and Jamie’s inability to stay healthy will probably end his stay in St. Louis. The Rams could look at finding a good passer that fits their offense in the late rounds, and there are a few good prospects at quarterback this year that could be very interesting to Mike Martz on the second day of the draft.
A lot of credit should go to the Rams most underrated coach; quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell, who has been with the team since they moved to St. Louis, through three different head coaches. That’s a tribute to his abilities, and he has had offers to go elsewhere with a promotion and a raise in pay, but has opted to remain with the Rams instead. The play of the quarterbacks overall may just rate a strong C, but Ramsdell gets an A-plus for his work.
RUNNING BACKS – D-minus
When a team has Marshall Faulk in its stable of running backs and finishes at the bottom of the NFL in rushing, there is a big problem, and you can’t lay it on Mike Martz for not running the ball enough either. Faulk got off to a sluggish start, and then came alive during the winning streak, only to get hurt and basically finish him as a big factor in the offense.
The team has still not developed an alternative to Marshall, let alone a possible successor, when #28 ends his Hall-of-Fame career, despite spending a first and a third draft pick on the position since 2000. Right now that’s a huge concern for the Rams, and calls to serious question the job that running backs coach Bobby Jackson has done.
Jackson is a Martz favourite, from their days with the Redskins, and the fact that Martz made Jackson also offensive coordinator is testament to his place in the heart of the Rams head coach. Jackson really does not do the job for which he holds the title of coordinator, and the lack of any level of improvement in the young Rams backs, Trung Canidate and Lamar Gordon, must fall on his shoulders.
Jackson is an old school kind of coach, and his approach has failed completely with those two youngsters, which is a real critical problem for the 2003 Rams, since Faulk has been getting hurt much more than when he was younger. Jackson should well have gotten his pink slip along with linebackers coach Mike Haluchak and defensive backs coach Carlos Mainord, if you go by the performance of their unit.
Jackson appears to be to Martz what Lynn Stiles and mike White were to Dick
Vermeil, and does Martz really need someone to agree with him to salve his ego?
Not when it means losing games because backs are not coached on ball protection
or knowing the down and distance needed for a first down. The young backs have
also struggled in pass protection, forcing Faulk to play all too often when
he could not really go, and should have been in street clothes healing.
The numbers say it all; with Gordon gaining just 228 yards on 65 carries and Canidate a measly 17-48. Between the two, they scored one rushing touchdown, but contributed mightily to the Rams 29 total fumbles in 2002, eighteen recovered by the opponents.
Jackson should at the very least be replaced as RB coach, and a younger coach who can relate to Trung and Lamar as well as backs brought in the next couple seasons, who like those two will need to be properly coached on the basics of playing the position in the NFL. Martz commented late in the season about the two backup halfbacks putting their arm out to brace falls to the turf, which left them open to fumbling. Should that flaw not been taken care of in training camp, if not sooner by the position coach? If the answer is yes, then Jackson should be relieved of his duties in that area immediately.
Fullback James Hodgins was missed when he was out of the line-up with a broken foot, but even his return didn’t help the offense that much, as he was not much of a factor when he came back. The backups at fullback, Chris Hetherington especially, were dreadful and a young fullback or two needs to be brought in that have more offensive skill than Hodgins and can still block effectively, as well as play special teams.
WIDE RECEIVERS – B
Torry Holt, in an “off” year, had 91 catches for 1302 yards, but only 4 scores as teams took away the Rams deep threat for the most part. Holt dropped too many balls, and he may have tried to do too much in his role as offensive captain instead of worrying about his own play. He really showed some heart in the final game however, and signing him before he is a free agent is a top priority for Rams President Jay Zygmunt.
Isaac Bruce rebounded from a very slow start to catch 79 balls for 1075 yards and seven went for touchdowns as Ike elevated his game and put to rest the mutterings about his age maybe catching up to #80, who has become the Rams best receiver ever with this season’s numbers.
Ricky Proehl came in on a one year minimum deal and did just what he always has; make one big first down catch after another. He scored four times this year as well, mainly due to becoming the third receiver after Terrance Wilkins flopped. If Ricky wants to return again, the Rams should welcome the dependable veteran with open arms.
Troy Edwards came to the Rams late, and he was injured when he arrived, so he was not much help for much of the season as he learned the Rams offense and became accustomed to his team-mates. By the end of the year, however, Martz was solid in his praise of the former Steeler #1 pick, anointing him as the fourth receiver for 2003 already near the end of the season.
Terrance Wilkins came in with the reputation of having good physical tools and nothing upstairs, and he did little to squelch that bad label as a Ram. By season’s end, Martz had given up completely on the ex-Colt, and Mike probably had a cab waiting to take Terrance out of town permanently the minute the season was over.
Martz talked up ex-NFL Europe star Dane Looker late in the season, but he never showed enough apparently to get any playing time to speak of, and he did not catch a pass in 2002, other than in practice. With a new group of rookies coming in, it’s doubtful that Looker will be a factor next year either, because the Rams need some receivers with size, and Looker is another smurf.
The Rams are planning on bringing in another WR coach with ex-superstar receiver Henry Ellard staying as well in a secondary role, but overall the group was still pretty strong, at least the top three, in 2002.
TIGHT ENDS – B-minus
Ernie Conwell had his best season, despite some injury problems, and 34 catches for 419 yards and 2 scores is not too bad for a guy who is also a very good blocker, especially when he is 100%. The Rams should consider bringing the free agent back in 2003 a must, or a huge hole will be all the Rams have at tight end if one of the longest tenured Rams departs.
Brandon Manumaleuna was horrible early on, and the Rams obviously missed departed Jeff Robinson in the red zone. Brandon did some stuff late in the season to at least keep him around, but another tight end, preferably one with height and speed that can play special teams is really needed to upgrade the position. Daunte Finger showed some talent on the practice squad, but he certainly is more project than prospect.
OFFENSIVE LINE – D
The Rams started the season with Adam Timmerman playing on one leg, and ended it with Orlando Pace missing a good part of the last half of the year. Center Andy McCollum, another free agent in 2003, was the only relatively injury free lineman, but his lack of size and strength really showed up as the guard play suffered. The Rams need to find a young tough guy to back up McCollum if he is re-signed, and hopefully take his starting job away more sooner than later.
Tom Nutten was having a decent season until injuries finished it, but he may be allowed to walk now that he is a free agent. The Rams need to find a top young free agent veteran guard this off-season, and also draft one in the top three or four rounds to groom for the future. The fact that Timmerman will probably be the starting right tackle adds to the need at guard, even if restricted free agent John St. Clair, a relative failure in his first year at tackle, is re-signed and moved inside.
St, Clair struggled in 2003, especially against the best left defensive ends, but many in the Rams organization, including former star tackle Jackie Slater, feel he has a bright future on the line somewhere. It could be inside at guard or maybe even center, his college position. He also can back up at both right and left tackle, and that versatility adds to his value. Grant Williams was basically just a guy, and now he will be coming off a badly broken leg if he is brought back in 2003.
Pace will get the franchise tag if he isn’t re-signed to a long deal; the Rams top priority right now. He had some injuries for the first time in his career, but nothing major, which is why retaining the All-Pro, is an absolute must.
The deep snapper, Chris Massey had a very good year, really great for a rookie, and that was very fortuitous for the Rams. Just ask the New York Giants how important the deep snapper is.
The Rams would like to bring free agent Heath Irwin back, because he did enough good work at guard to be a real factor in the 2003 battle for the starting guard positions. Frank Garcia did all right when he had to play, but he should be replaced with a younger, bigger player with more upside in 2003. Travis Scott is still in the picture as well, if he is recovered from his rookie season-ending injury. Scott has the look of a mean guy the Rams desperately need in a passive, almost nerdy group of offensive linemen.
KICKERS – C-plus
Mitch Berger proved to be the best Rams punter since Sean Landeta was allowed to leave because he and then special teams coach Frank Gansz didn’t see eye to eye. In the early part of the year, Berger was the team MVP, but late in the season his play really fell off.
Jeff Wilkins went through his own soap opera on a team full of them, with his shoe off, shoe on routine, and he had a poor year to be sure, ending with a public flailing by Martz near the end. Jeff came off the mat and out of Martz doghouse by kicking a game winner the week after Martz attack, and his ability to make saving tackles on special teams should not be discounted when judging his value.
Chances are that Wilkins will be back in 2003, but there will probably be some real kickers brought in to challenge him in camp, not just a couple “camp legs”. When you look at the entire league’s kickers, and the number of misses they had in 2002, Wilkins stats are not that horrible at all.
DEFENSIVE LINE – C-plus
This unit had its ups and downs in 2002, some of it due to injuries, and assistant coach Bill Kollar made sure they at least gave their all on Sundays. If the defense has any tough guys, they are in this unit, and the future looks pretty bright with Ryan Pickett really coming on and Damione Lewis now recovered from foot surgery. An injury free off-season and camp are a must as Lewis goes into a make or break 2003 season for the ex-Hurricane.
Brian Young is a free agent, and though a bad knee kept him from playing up to his very promising 2001 level, he should be brought back, because he is another tough guy on a team that needs more. The same for run stuffer Jeff Zgonina, whose heart and grit can’t be allowed to leave on the cheap just to save a bit of cap room that could be another Wilkins or Jamie Duncan.
Another free agent veteran is Tyoka Jackson, whose versatility and ability to make big plays at the key moment with so few opportunities would be hard to replace. Plus he is a stand up guy who never ducked the media when things were rock bottom at Rams Park. The Rams should ink the ex-Buc to a new deal as well. At 32, he is still young enough to keep on board to help the younger guys learn how the game is played, something D’Marco Farr did in his days in St. Louis.
The starting ends, Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom, had decent, but not great seasons, but better coverage by the cornerbacks and safeties and especially by the linebackers could have given their sack numbers a boost. Wistrom is another 2004 free agent, so he will be playing for his next contract in 2003, an added incentive to a player who needs very little extra.
The Rams liked Bryce Fisher a bit as a pass rush specialist backup, but he needs to show he can play special teams too to earn further employment as a Ram. Fisher only dressed for a game or two after being signed early in the season.
There is a need for another very good defensive end on the roster for 2003, one that can rush the passer well, which teams can pick up in the draft and use for that limited role right away. If the guy they come up with in this draft or as a young second line free agent is really good, it certainly puts the team in better position when it comes to making a decision on Wistrom’s future as a Ram.
This is a good draft for defensive ends, at least as far as some depth with decent size, and the Rams could well grab one earlier than some may predict, especially if an impact guy falls to them. Anyone watching the playoffs so far can see that having no pass rush late in games makes no lead safe, and the Rams need more talent at end so they can rotate more like the tackles do.
With basically just one spot open for a defensive lineman as of now, provided Jackson, Young and Zgonina are retained, the Rams don’t need a bunch of sixth round guys to choose from, or an athletic guy who played another position in college for that matter. There have been some excellent defensive ends that have made it to the middle of round two in the draft in recent years, and this year should be no exception.
The Rams will need to take a possible impact DE in one of the first three rounds to get someone who really has a bright future, that has the size, speed and college stats to make him a solid pick in April, and really after round two the pickings get very slim on pass rushers.
LINEBACKERS – F
Giving this group an F happens only because it’s the lowest you can give a unit. There are ten college teams who have linebacker groups who would have been a better unit for the 2002 Rams. Tommy Polley was injured too much, and he was the only NFL quality linebacker on the squad. Don Davis showed why he never got a shot at starting in Tampa, and Jamie Duncan showed why the Bucs happily opened the door for him to leave. The top draft pick, Robert Thomas, showed why most rookies can’t be counted on for anything, especially linebackers changing position in addition to being rookies.
When a team ends up with their 210 pound strong safety playing linebacker, even when others are healthy, then they have a very serious hole in their defense, period. When Mark Fields, who the Rams cut loose to save a few cap bucks, has a solid year in Carolina, it makes you think that the Rams were clueless when building their linebacker group in 2002. That’s surprising, considering that defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is an ex-linebacker coach.
It was Smith who talked Martz into selecting Thomas in round one last year, along with Charlie Armey. Martz wanted Andre Davis, the Virginia Tech wide out who had a very good rookie year in Cleveland, but bowed to the other two. It was also Smith who gave the A-OK to bringing in Duncan, who he coached in Tampa, who he convinced his head coach would be a replacement in the middle of the defense for Fletcher. If the Rams do pick a linebacker in 2003, I would not do it on Lovie’s recommendation alone, based on his history judging talent.
More than anything else, the Rams linebacker corps lacks any player with a
real warrior mentality, who has the size and athletic ability to be a scary
presence in the middle, and that is what must be addressed above almost all
else, except the same type player at guard maybe. Chances are the Rams could
take one of the top two middle linebackers available in this draft in round
one and fill that hole nicely in the future.
Though London Fletcher did give the Rams some inspirational play and attitude, he did not have the size to really throw a scare into a quarterback or running back or receiver.
Whether or not that guy can take over the meek linebacker corps and turn them into fellow killers is in question, but not all linebackers have the passive nature of Robert Thomas either. The Rams could also try to sign one of the top free agent linebackers, Takeo Spikes of the Bengals and Chris Claiborne of the Lions, but Spikes will get a transition tag and would cost the Rams at least their #1 pick if they want him, plus a huge contract.
In a market with so many teams having cap room and bad defenses, you can bet Claiborne and all the other top guns available as free agents will cost a pretty penny, maybe more than the Rams are willing or able to spend on the position, no matter how dire their need. That means the draft, and early in the draft, will be where the Rams find the violent MLB they need to make this defense more feared by the opponents.
SAFETIES - D
Adam Archuleta is a very productive and solid safety that sometimes struggles in pass coverage, but should get better over time, as he played linebacker in college. The Ram should be able to live with that at strong safety for a while. At free safety, Kim Herring started horribly, and though he came on some at the end, with his job obviously on the line, there still remains a big question as to where the Rams are at the position.
Will Herring revert to his past ineffective play if he is kept around instead of cutting him after June 1 for a nice cap savings? One thing for sure is that the sometimes flaky ex-Raven provides no physical presence whatsoever at his position, and doesn't make enough plays athletically to make up for his lack of a violent tendency on the field that so many of the NFL’s top safeties possess these days.
Nick Sorenson, who never really got much chance to show if his size would make him a better alternate to Herring as the starting free safety, played very well on special teams, and could still take the job in training camp if he improves over this off season as much as the ex-Hokie did in 2002.
The Rams are thinking about moving Aeneas Williams to safety if he returns and they re-negotiate his contract, going into its final year in 2003. If Aeneas is recovered fully from his broken leg, then the safety position should be just fine next season, even if Herring is cut loose. The Rams still hope the draft pick who used to be a college quarterback that didn’t quit and go home; Steve Belisari, out all season on the injured list, will be a factor in the mix as well in the mini camps on into training camp.
CORNERBACK – C
Though this unit certainly was not good enough in 2002, they survived the loss of their leader and tough guy, Aeneas Williams and gave it all they had last year. Travis Fisher was thrown to the wolves far too early, but he showed he has the mentality and talent to someday be a very good player. Dre Bly is the Rams second most important unrestricted free agent, and with the league hungry for play makers at the position, and so many teams knowing that a team needs four very good corners to survive in the pass happy NFL, Bly will not be cheap to keep.
In fact, with the other to available corner of note, Chris McAlister of the Ravens, headed for a transition tag at least, Bly would become the top guy on the list of free agents cornerbacks on February 28th. That means the Rams could get into a bidding war they can’t win, and losing Bly would be a crippling blow, as he is one of the few true playmakers on the Rams defense, not to mention their punt returner.
The Rams may have to put their transition tag on Bly, to keep him from leaving, and thus creating another huge hole in the roster, one that truly cannot be filled even with a first round draft pick. Just look at how Mike Rumph, a first rounder of the Niners in 2002 has played as a rookie and you will get the picture. With one second year guy already penciled in as a starter for 2003, the last thing the Rams need is a rookie on the other side.
The Rams could leave Williams at corner too, if he is still able to play after coming back, and draft his replacement in round one or two, or they could take some guys lower in the draft and hope they develop. Still the best bet is to keep Bly, and also add at least one more talented, and hopefully big, corner in the draft. The cost may be high with a transition tag number of $4 million, but it may be necessary to throw the tag on to make Bly easier to sign without other teams bidding for his services. If a team still wanted Bly, they would have to want him enough to give up high draft picks to get him.
James Whitley made a name for himself in 2002, after Williams went down, and he will be back in 2003 to try to stay in the top four on the depth chart.
Dexter McCleon in the middle of a high priced contract, lost his starting job to Bly, and showed the Rams with a mediocre season that he needs some new surroundings at this point in his career, and the Rams will surely oblige by cutting him June 1.
The Rams had just 12 picks all season, for a pathetic 74 yards in returns, compared to 27-492 for their opponents, which as much as anything, doomed the Rams in 2002. The fact that five of those 27 interceptions thrown by Rams QBs were returned for scores, with the Rams having not even one scoring returns on their 12 picks, adds to the losing equation.
Those numbers add to the reason why getting some impact players on defense is such a big deal for the Rams this next four months.
HEAD COACH -D
Mike Martz tried to rewrite the book on how the off-season, training camp, and pre-season should be run. And his method failed miserably as the team stumbled out of the gate like the favourite in the Belmont last year that lost the Triple Crown in the process. Martz closed practice the first month of the season to the media, and was grumpy and uncooperative for most of September and October.
Then Martz somehow got even nice guy MVP Kurt Warner to fall into his doghouse, something that had been reserved for the lesser lights on the team in the past. Martz flip flopped on things like the progress and future of Terrance Wilkins for four months, then turned on the guy like a wolf on a hunk of meat. He went after his kicker after a game lost by 39 points, a guy he supposedly loved in the past as “his guy”.
Martz was in a funk from the criticism he got from mostly the national media after the heavily favoured Rams lost the Super bowl, and he let it change the team chemistry, that along with more poor decision making on personnel by the head coach. His ability to keep young players from being too disheartened to perform for him seems to be a pattern, and he needs to discover what Vermeil knew about bringing along the scrubs and rookies and not just crushing them while pampering the stars.
There were areas of game management where Martz struggled again as well, and still he often seemed like those gaffes were of no importance, or at least not enough to work to improve in the future. Martz also has somehow gotten Charlie Armey off his game as well, which is certainly a detriment to the organization. Martz needs to rely on Armey like Vermeil did, rather than look at him as a foe in some ego driven power struggle. He needs to rely less on guys like Bobby Jackson, who tell him what he wants to hear, and he may be forced into a change in power structure by team President John Shaw very soon.
Martz, who just signed a high priced long term deal this year, has got to get more into what he does best, designing an offensive attack that can score 500 points in a season, and he will need to delegate far more responsibility in many areas to get that accomplished. Mike says he will be more into the offense this off-season and that his geeked up to do just that, which is a positive, but the other stuff more about dealing with all of his players week to week, win or lose, needs to be addressed in his own mind.
Even if Mike learns to better control those precious time outs, something the Browns wish they had done Sunday even with a big lead, he will still need to better know the psychology of being a head coach over 50 or so highly diverse men before he will really reach his potential as a head coach in the NFL. A bad temper is a hard thing to control, but if NFL teams must show discipline to win, it makes sense that their coach must be even more in control in dealing with those around him.
The 7-9 record is as much about the injuries the Rams endured to so many stars
as anything, but the problems that cropped up surrounding the record are what
give Rams fans cause for concern as to what the future will bring under “Mad