Can St. Louis compete in upgraded NFC West?
On the eve of NFL's free agency period, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers each made a push for dominance in the NFC West. Seattle dealt for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin, while San Francisco acquired Baltimore Ravens wide out Anquan Boldin. With Larry Fitzgerald still catching passes from a rotation of quarterbacks for the Arizona Cardinals, the St. Louis Rams are left looking for an answer.
In St. Louis, free agency is going to sting, at least initially. Wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, as well as running back Steven Jackson, are free agents. The offense is going to be depleted in the early days of the offseason action.
In 2012, the Rams showed signs of improvement, finishing 7-8-1 with a 4-1-1 divisional record. Their pass defense finished 15th in the league, giving up an average of 225.1 yards per game and keeping them in a lot of close games. In games decided by a touchdown or less, St. Louis was 4-2. The defense is going to be hurt by free agency as well, however. Safety Quintin Mikell and defensive end William Hayes are both free agents.
This does not mean that the rest of the division will be able to pass at will against the Rams. Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Jenoris Jenkins are more than capable of covering top receivers. Both players fit in well in during 2012, their first season in head coach Jeff Fisher's system
Finnegan had three interceptions and over 100 tackles, while Jenkins had four interceptions (three returned for touchdowns, an NFL rookie record) and a fumble returned for a touchdown. The young, physical defensive backs will be ready to take on the big passing attacks of San Francisco and Seattle.
While St. Louis needs help at the safety position, it has bigger issues to deal with this offseason. Its two top receivers in catches are gone, leaving second-year receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick as quarterback Sam Bradford's remaining targets, along with newly signed tight end Jared Cook. Givens and Quick combined for just 53 receptions in 2012.
With this in mind, the Rams may consider pursuing a veteran number one wide receiver in free agency. The question is, which one? Mike Wallace signed with the Miami Dolphins Tuesday, taking arguably the biggest name off of the market. He would probably have been too expensive for St. Louis anyway, with the Rams carrying just $11 million of cap space into free agency.
Former Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings would be a better fit, giving Bradford a sure-handed target. But Jennings is looking for a contract similar to Wallace's deal. Jennings won't get the years Wallace did due to his age (30-years-old) and injury issues in 2012, but Wallace's deal has set a steep market price for wide outs.
New England's Wes Walker is also a good option for the Rams. Welker has more receptions from 2009 to 2012 than any other wide receiver, and caught 118 balls in 2012. Welker is, however, more interested in going to a contender than he is interested in getting paid, according to reports. St. Louis has not had a winning season since 2003, so this may be a tough sell.
The Rams may have to turn to the draft to address the wide receiver position. St. Louis holds the 16th and 22nd overall picks, and there will be some good options at those spots in the first round. Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson is widely considered the best receiving prospect in the draft, and may be on the board for the Rams at the 16th pick with the Dolphins signing Wallace. Patterson is unrefined and has plenty to learn, but his playmaking ability and 37-inch vertical make him a very intriguing name.
Another option could be West Virginia's Tavon Austin. He dazzled scouts at this year's NFL Combine, running a 4.34-second 40-yard dash. Originally recruited by the Mountaineers as a running back, he would be a great replacement for Amendola in the slot, using his speed to stretch the field for Bradford. Austin also gives the Rams a special teams weapon who can return kicks and punts.
The Rams most certainly need to do something if they want to remain competitive in an increasingly tough NFC West. And there are ways for St. Louis to accomplish this without a top pick or major free agent move. Still, Sam Bradford is going to need weapons to compete against the tough defenses in San Francisco and Seattle, and the Rams need to provide for him.
Kris Rogers is a sophomore majoring in journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.