Life in the NFC West ain’t easy, not with three of the NFL’s top six defenses lurking. But the Rams’ schedule in the year ahead isn’t actually as nightmarish as you might expect, at least for fantasy purposes. This team’s non-division opponents include a half-dozen squads that ranked in the bottom-third of the league defensively last season, including Dallas (dead-last) and Minnesota (next-to-last). Fantasy owners will also appreciate the fact that St. Louis doesn’t travel to Seattle until Week 17, after most league titles are decided.
So if you’re bullish on this franchise for 2014, it’s understandable. The Rams fortified both the offensive and defensive lines with high-end talent in the draft, plus the team has depth at the skill spots. If quarterback Sam Bradford can simply play at the level at which he opened 2013, prior to his ACL injury, then St. Louis should contend for … well, something. Probably not a division title. But something better than the usual sub-.500 season.
[Smack talk season is back at Yahoo Sports: You don’t have to love the guy (or his receivers), but hopefully you can appreciate Bradford’s steady if unspectacular multi-season improvement. When he checked out last year, late in a Week 7 loss at Carolina, he was on pace for a 3,856-yard, 32-touchdown season. His completion percentage was a career-high 60.7, his passer rating was a career-high 90.9, and he’d thrown just four picks. He’d already delivered four multi-touchdown games. Bradford had been one of the league’s best passers off play-action according to Pro Football Focus, completing 34 of 52 attempts with six TD passes, averaging 9.7 Y/A.
Again, I’m not trying to convince you that Bradford is some sort of stealth superstar, but he’s not a train wreck, either. Remember, the Rams had a shot at every quarterback available in the 2014 NFL Draft — the team held the second and 13th overall picks — and they stuck with Bradford. Basically, they chose competence and continuity over the thrill of the unknown — a sensible approach for this franchise. I’m on board with Bradford, fantasy-wise, as a no-cost quarterback in a deep format.
St. Louis’ receiving corps is loaded with guys who seem like decent secondary options and role players, but a true No. 1 is conspicuously absent. You won’t find a Rams wideout among the position’s top-50 in the Yahoo consensus ranks. In plenty of standard-size fantasy leagues, none of the WRs or TEs on this team will be drafted. We’ll spend the year chasing St. Louis wideouts on the waiver wire, though, because every week a different player on this roster is going to give us 80 yards and a touchdown or two.
Second-year burner Tavon Austin is arguably the most interesting receiver in this uninteresting group. As a rookie, he gave us two big games (this one and this one), and almost nothing else. The hope is that OC Brian Schottenheimer will follow through on offseason promises to get creative with Austin’s usage…
“Moving [Austin] around to a lot of different spots,” Schottenheimer said. “You’ll see us hand him the ball, do some different things. He’s playing so much faster just because he knows what we’re doing. He has the system down cold.”
…but we’re not necessarily talking about the game’s most inventive or successful coordinator. And at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Austin is perhaps not built for an every-snap, do-it-all role. If you’re drafting him, think of this player as a weekly lottery ticket — you might get 3-5 big weeks, with 11-13 dud performances.
Chris Givens has flashed big-play ability in the past (though not last year), Brian Quick impressed during OTAs (not for the first time) and Austin Pettis had his moments last season (all in the first five weeks). But if you’re looking to take a flier on one of this team’s depth chart receivers, the guy I’d recommend is Kenny Britt, a longtime reclamation project for head coach Jeff Fisher. Britt has had a relatively quiet offseason by his standards — no injuries, no known legal issues, one regrettable video — and we know he’s a dangerous receiver when healthy and focused. He’s had hamstring issues in the past, and he was slow to recover from an ACL/MCL tear, but he’s also a guy with size (6-foot-3, 223) and big-play ability. As an end-of-draft upside pick, he has some appeal. St. Louis signed him to a one-year, low-dollar, no-risk deal, and you can do the same.
[I don’t need to tell you that tight end Jared Cook is the sleeper who inevitably sleeps, right? Great. Cook actually led this team in receptions and receiving yardage last season, but the totals weren’t anything special (51-671-5). He blew up in Week 1, finishing with seven catches for 141 yards and two TDs in a win over Arizona, then faded into mediocrity. Fantasy owners, you should really aim higher at tight end. Moving on…
Running back Zac Stacy was a revelation last season, a bruiser with yards-after-contact ability (2.45 per attempt) who invariably delivered us a useful fantasy day when given a significant workload. He also gave us a few run-of-the-year candidates, including this gem. I’m completely sold on Stacy, willing and eager to draft him at his current Yahoo ADP (22.4). I’ll concede that Stacy’s 3.9 YPC average doesn’t look great, but please note that he was at a respectable 4.1 before the Seahawks throttled the Rams in the finale last year.
St. Louis used a third-round pick on Auburn’s Tre Mason, a talented runner coming off a huge season (1,816 rush, 23 TDs) in the nation’s toughest conference. Mason is certainly a player of interest for dynasty drafters, and it’s easy to imagine him as a fantasy-relevant committee member down the road. But for now, he’s a back with everything to prove. Mason faces a significant system adjustment, plus he had ball-security and pass-pro red flags on the scouting report. He was rarely used as a receiver in college (19 career receptions), so this isn’t a case where we’d expect the player to quickly claim a passing-down role. In my eyes, he’s more handcuff than committee member. Again: I’ll take Stacy with few concerns, thank you very much.
The Rams D/ST was a legit fantasy weapon last season, as the team ranked third in the league in sacks (53.0), first in fumble recoveries (15) and fourth in defensive TDs (5). St. Louis added disruptive DT Aaron Donald to a line that already featured Robert Quin (19.0 sacks), Chris Long (8.5) and Michael Brockers (5.5), so opposing passers are in for some long, awful afternoons against this front. IDP drafters will want to target volume-tacklers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, too.
And that’s all I’ve got, gamers. Feel free to Ram It! in comments…
2013 team stats: 21.8 PPG (NFL rank 21), 210.0 pass YPG (29), 22 pass TDs (20), 109.5 rush YPG (19), 26.6 rush attempts per game (17), 31.6 pass attempts per game (28)
Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay