The Rams made significant progress in 2012, going 7-8-1 for their best record since 2006.
There will be a lot of things to keep an eye on in camp.
This is a subjective list, but here are five players that I find especially intriguing as the Rams begin to prep for the new campaign:
1. Tavon Austin: Austin was a berserk little bee in his final two seasons at West Virginia. He piled up:
825 yards rushing, 4 TDs ...
2,475 yards receiving, 20 TDs ...
2,184 return yards, 4 TDs ...
Aw, to heck with the numbers; see for yourself. If you have about 10 minutes of free time, do yourself a favor and watch a You Tube video of Austin highlights. And then imagine this guy infuriating assorted 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals as he turns the NFC West into his Olympics.
2. RB Zac Stacy: You may have heard that the Rams have an opening at running back. Granted, we're most likely to see the ensemble-cast approach. But I'm thinking the rookie from Vanderbilt will be a nice surprise. Running behind a finesse O-line that was built for pass protection, Stacy finished 4th among running backs in net yards rushing in the SEC last season (conference games only). Tough runner between the tackles. Smart. Fairly experienced at pass protection. Can catch the ball. Was a team captain at Vandy. Stacy has underrated speed for a brawny back. His "speed score" -- a forecasting metric developed by Pro Football Outsiders -- made Stacy one of the better NFL-ready backs in the 2013 NFL draft.
3. LB Alec Ogletree: GM Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher are smart football men. The Seattle and San Francisco defenses are bulked up with big, physical corners? Fine; say hello to the ridiculously elusive Tavon Austin and have fun chasing him around. San Francisco (with Colin Kaepernick) and Seattle (with Russell Wilson ) tormented defenses with quarterbacks that aren't welded to the pocket. Fine. If Kap and Wilson want to run around and make plays, the Rams used a late first-round draft pick to land a solution in Ogletree; he should be able to hunt down mobile QBs, and/or deny their escape angles.
4. WR Brian Quick: Just two questions ... did the dude learn the playbook? Is he ready for liftoff in his second NFL season?
5. WR Stedman Bailey: At WVU he was Austin's teammate, pal, and co-conspirator in the plot to ruin defenses. I have a friend that's an avid WVU fan, and he's been dropping clusters of emails and texts about Bailey's excellence since the Rams drafted him 92nd overall in April. "Austin is exciting," my buddy says. "But don't overlook Bailey. He'll become the guy who consistently gets open and makes the tough catch on third down." In 2011-2012 combined, a WR led the NCAA in receiving yards (2,901) and TD catches (37.) That was Bailey.
Others on the Watch List
Left OT Jake Long; the durability test will come over time, but it's never too early to get a read on his athleticism and spryness; can he return to Pro Bowl form, or is he on the downside?
Jared Cook: The way we've all built him up, you'd think Cook could outjump an in-prime Hakeem Olajuwon, outrun Bob Hayes (circa 1964), and is tougher than Anderson Silva -- well, at least before Silva was turned into a helpless carcass by Chris Weidman. So, yeah, it's time to see what all the fuss is about.
Safeties: All of 'em. Is there a true player in the house?
RB Isaiah Pead: The 50th overall pick in the 2012 draft is right there with B. Quick (33rd overall choice in 2012) as two overly hyped Rams' skill players that have to make a second-year move. Some rookies need more time to develop; I understand that. I'm pretty patient.
But it's not as if these guys were drafted in 2000 to compete against Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az Hakim, Ricky Proehl for snaps and touches. Pead and Quick have to start making impact.
QB Austin Davis: is he ready to be the No. 2 quarterback? If so, he'll become more popular than Yadier Molina should Sam Bradford arouse the lunatic fringe with a bad game.
Ray-Ray Armstrong: is he an OLB? Could he be converted to safety? You have to love the name Ray-Ray. ... he's 6-4, 225 pounds. ... has a compelling storyline. ... was headed for greatness (or at least goodness) at Miami until getting mucked up in the soiled mess of boosters, inappropriate fringe benefits, wrong crowd, etc. The "U" gave Ray-Ray the boot, and he didn't play at all in 2012. This should be a hungry, highly motivated young man. ... And besides, we in the sports media have to come up with a "redemption" narrative, just to reaffirm our predictable ways. Seriously, though: this is a prospect.
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