Before the St. Louis Rams play their preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints this Friday, we’ll be ranking every player on the team, from the last man on the roster all the way up to number one. Obviously, it’s difficult to rank some of these guys because they don’t actually have any NFL game experience, so some of the players here could ultimately be far above or far below where they should be.
Today, we’ll rank the players who are significant contributors, but aren’t quite superstars. These players, the ones we’ve ranked 30th to 10th, are always the foundations of winning teams; they’re not necessarily going to be the guys who get all the press, but they do the dirty work and represent the depth that is going to enable the team to succeed. Luckily for the Rams, this seems to be a quality group, and among the players listed here there are actually three Rams first-rounders. If you have any disputes or disagreements, feel free to let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @ArchAuthorityFS.
30. Rodney McLeod, S
McLeod is perhaps the most perplexing player on the Rams’ roster this season, as he looked out of place in a starting role for most of 2013 but improved down the stretch to the point where the Rams felt comfortable keeping him as a starter this year. McLeod, who was an undrafted free agent in 2012, had 79 total tackles in addition to two forced fumbles and two interceptions last year (both of which came during the second half of the season). The Rams will certainly be hoping that he can be more of a playmaker in 2014 while also providing more consistent coverage in the defensive backfield. If he can’t show that he’s capable of doing that during the preseason, he may be pushed by guys like Lamarcus Joyner and Mo Alexander as the season goes on.
29. Cory Harkey, TE
Harkey was one of the Rams’ most improved players last season, and he’ll look to play a key role in the Rams’ offense this season. In addition to providing depth behind the primary tight ends, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, Harkey serves as the Rams’ primary lead blocker out of the backfield on run plays. Unlike most of the Rams’ previous fullbacks, however, Harkey can also make some plays. He proved that last year, when he caught 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. While he’s by no means a superstar, Harkey’s ability to essentially play two different positions—one of which is very necessary in the Rams’ run-based offense—makes him one of the more valuable players on the roster.
28. Eugene Sims, DL
Sims is quite possibly the best fourth defensive end in the NFL, and on top of that he’s been valuable as an interior pass rusher over the past several years, creating a hassle on the inside which has made it easier for Robert Quinn and Chris Long to get pressure on the outside. Sims had a career-high 27 tackles last year, although he was only able to manage two sacks on the season, which was a decrease from the three sacks he had in 13 games in 2012.
Sims’s role will probably be decreased a bit this season, since the Rams will now be relying on rookie Aaron Donald to be an interior rushing specialist on passing downs. However, Sims still provides great depth behind Quinn, Long, and William Hayes, and should work with Hayes to keep the starters fresh throughout the game.
27. Chris Givens, WR
Givens is in a difficult spot right now. After having a down 2013 season in which he caught just 34 passes for 569 yards and no touchdowns, he’s now been demoted to third-string on the Rams’ first depth chart, and he may be fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster. Despite that, though, Givens is just 16 games removed from a rookie season in which he caught 42 passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns, while also catching passes of at least 50 yards in five straight games. The fact of the matter was that Givens couldn’t up his production when handing a starting role in his sophomore season, and that appears to have hurt him. If he can recover his form, though, Givens still has the power to be a legitimate deep threat and a powerful weapon in the Rams’ offense.
26. Lance Kendricks, TE
If he can keep himself healthy, Kendricks will be an important part of the Rams’ offensive attack. He’s a solid blocker who gives the Rams’ run game a boost, and he’s improved as a receiver since coming into the league in 2011. Kendricks had a career-low 258 receiving yards in 15 games last season, but he equaled the four touchdowns that he had as the Rams’ primary tight end in 2012. He’s behind Jared Cook on the depth chart, but Kendricks should get a lot of snaps when the Rams go into ace packages.
25. Greg Zuerlein, K
Zuerlein has been very solid through his first two years in the NFL, and while his leg strength, which previously enabled him to hit field goals of up to 65 yards in practice, has tapered off a bit, he’s still a significant weapon for the Rams. After a shaky second half of his rookie year, Zuerlein was more consistent in his sophomore season, making 26 of 28 field goal attempts. For what it’s worth, his long was down to 54 yards from 60 as a rookie, but he was reliable whenever the Rams needed him. Obviously, Zuerlein will be hoping that he has the same consistency he had last year, but maybe he can recover some of that distance this year too.
24. Scott Wells, C
The 33-year-old Wells has missed 16 of the 32 games for which he’s been on the Rams’ roster, and at 6-foot-2 and 302 pounds, he’s not the most crushing blocker in the world. What Wells does provide, however, is an intelligent veteran presence in the middle which will be very beneficial for the Rams’ line. In particular, it will be good to have Wells around to help out rookie left guard Greg Robinson and right guard Rodger Saffold, who has been playing guard for less than a year. His presence has seemed to create a sense of cohesiveness for the line in the previous two years, and having him around should be a benefit to Sam Bradford and the rest of the Rams’ offense. With that said, he needs to avoid injuries, or else he runs a high risk of losing his job to a younger player such as Tim Barnes or Barrett Jones.
23. Greg Robinson, OL
Robinson has been kind of spotty during his first NFL training camp, which is completely fair considering that he’s just 21 years old and declared for the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, and now is having to learn the guard position while still moonlighting at his college position of left tackle as Jake Long completes his recovery from ACL surgery. Robinson may move a step slow during his rookie year, but the fact that he’s 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds and extremely physical means that he should give the Rams a big boost in the run game. Robinson will almost certainly be an upgrade over previous starter Chris Williams, who despite his plus size was more of a finesse player, whereas Robinson is a road grader who will really punish defensive linemen. He still has strides to make as a pass blocker, but that shouldn’t be as much of an issue so long as the Rams can keep Long healthy and prevent Robinson from having to kick outside to tackle.
22. Kenny Britt, WR
Depending on if he can translate his practice production to games, Britt could be a big addition to the Rams’ offense and one of the best free agency steals of the offseason. The 6-foot-3, 223-pounder provides a strong physical presence and plays with a visible passion that previously had been somewhat foreign to the Rams’ receiving corps. For now, it seems like Britt is ready to replace Chris Givens as the Rams’ primary deep threat and also will serve as a frequent option over the middle. However, it will be important that the 25-year-old avoids injuries and off-the-field issues, which have prevented him from becoming an elite player since he was taken in the first round six years ago.
21. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB
Dunbar has been somewhat of a ticking time bomb over the past year, receiving an untimely drug suspension which triggered his temporary release before the regular season last year, then getting into a fight with former NBA player Donte Greene at a club in Miami which got him arrested right before training camp. Dunbar had a bad season after he returned in 2013 and clearly fell behind Alec Ogletree in the pecking order, but he’s only one season removed from a career year in which he had 115 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, and two interceptions. Dunbar’s probably not going to get a lot of time on the field since he’s the third linebacker in a defense that likes to go nickel more often than not, but if he can display that level of production from 2012 relative to the time that he’s getting now, he’ll be an important weapon for the Rams’ defensive attack. It is worth noting that Dunbar appears to be the Rams’ backup middle linebacker, and he could end up getting time there if James Laurinaitis continues to struggle with the ankle injury that has limited him during training camp.
20. T.J. McDonald, S
McDonald, who flashed potential during his rookie year despite dealing with a broken leg that caused him to miss six games, is going to be the Rams’ starting strong safety this year and will be counted on to be a major part of the defense. The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder has the opportunity to thrive in Gregg Williams’ defense, because he’s a hard hitter that also has the ability to make plays. After taking last season to be baptized under fire in the Rams’ defensive backfield, McDonald will be expected to play like a veteran this year and be a more complete player. He’s going to want to retain the quality pursuit skills and physicality that he showed last year, but ideally he’ll be able to improve in coverage and give himself more opportunities to come up with interceptions.
19. William Hayes, DL
Despite the fact that Hayes is not a starter, he’s one of the more valuable players on the Rams’ defense. The 6-foot-3, 278-pounder can provide a powerful pass rush from all four defensive line positions, and he’s especially important because he frequently spells starter Chris Long at left end and keeps him fresh throughout the game. Hayes was slowed by an injury last year and missed two games, which limited him to five sacks. He should be back to full health this year, though, as he had collarbone, ankle, and hip surgeries over the offseason. If those keep him healthy throughout the year, Hayes will be an integral part of arguably the best defensive line in the NFL.
18. Janoris Jenkins, CB
Jenkins needs to rebound following a sophomore season in which he regressed from his rookie performance. If he does that, though—which is certainly possible considering that his job should be made easier by Gregg Williams’ aggressive scheme—there’s no reason to believe that Jenkins couldn’t become one of the better corners in the league. Obviously, since he’s only 5-foot-10 and less than 200 pounds, Jenkins isn’t going to have the natural size advantage that a guy like Richard Sherman has. But he’s quick, athletic, and aggressive, and if he can channel that aggressiveness into an ability to make plays—like in 2012, when he had four interceptions and a fumble recovery, four of which resulted in defensive touchdowns—he can be a great player. On the flip side, however, Jenkins could end up as a guy who is limited to covering the slot if he can not resume his playmaking at a quick enough rate to offset his slight deficiencies in coverage.
17. Stedman Bailey, WR
Bailey, a third-rounder in 2013, didn’t have a pass thrown his way until the ninth week of last season, but since then he’s looked like the most reliable receiver on the Rams’ roster. The 5-foot-10, 194-pounder caught 17 passes for 226 yards (all but one of them over the season’s final six weeks) and he also rushed for a 27-yard touchdown in Week 15. While a four-game PED suspension that Bailey received over the offseason threatened to halt his progress (and still very well may), he’s looked great during training camp practices and really seems to be forming a quality connection with Sam Bradford. If they can carry that over to the regular season once Bailey returns, don’t be surprised in the least to see Bailey starting for the Rams this year.
16. Trumaine Johnson, CB
After being given his first extended opportunity to contribute last season, Johnson was very effective and established himself, at least for the time being, as the Rams’ best cover corner. He was very sound in pretty much every facet of the game, as he led the team with three interceptions and also led Rams corners with 68 tackles despite the fact that he only started 12 games. Johnson’s going to need to replicate that success in his second year as a starter, but at face value his 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame would seem to be a major asset against some of the division’s big, physical receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and Anquan Boldin. The Rams would probably prefer to have Jenkins as their chief playmaker in their defensive backfield, but if he can’t get the job done hopefully Johnson can be a suitable alternative.
15. Kendall Langford, DT
Langford’s probably going to have his role reduced a bit this year because of the addition of rookie Aaron Donald, but look for him to remain a significant contributor, as Langford was arguably the Rams’ best defensive tackle last year. While the 6-foot-6, 313-pounder had five sacks—a half sack less than his fellow starter, Michael Brockers—he had 49 tackles, including six for loss. It was an important year for him, as he had previously struggled a bit as he transitioned into the Rams’ defense after playing a 5-technique defensive end position with the Miami Dolphins. At 28 years old, Langford has reached his ceiling, but he’s a big part of the defense.
14. Tavon Austin, WR
Though he didn’t live up to the sky-high expectations that had been placed upon him, Austin still had a pretty successful rookie season. It took a while for him to adjust to the Rams’ offense—as it also took time for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to figure out how to use him—but he turned it on as the season progressed, particularly flashing his potential against Indianapolis in Week 10, when he caught two passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns and also ran a punt back for a score. Austin accumulated 1,247 all-purpose yards over 13 games in his rookie season, but that number should increase this year as he develops into a more seasoned receiver. All indications are that that will happen, as Austin is now listed as a starter on the Rams’ depth chart.
13. Jared Cook, TE
Cook was another guy who didn’t live up to the lofty expectations set forward for him in 2013, but he played a more active role in that disappointment than Austin did with his. Despite the fact that he led the Rams in receiving yards and touchdowns with 671 and five, respectively, Cook also led NFL tight ends with eight drops and was quite lacking at times as a blocker in the Rams’ run-focused offense.
The good thing is that now that the Rams have had more time to build up the run-based attack, which was instituted five weeks into 2013, Cook has had more time to sharpen his blocking skills, and he’s also more of a deceptive weapon in a more balanced offense as opposed to the spread-style attack that the Rams tried to use early last year. And the fact of the matter is that even though Cook struggled last year, he still was the Rams’ leading receiver, and that’s difficult to ignore. Perhaps with more viable receiving options this year, Cook will become a greater weapon and improve his numbers from last year.
12. Joe Barksdale, OT
Barksdale got kind of a bad rap in the lead up to the draft this year because national analysts either didn’t know who he was or still viewed him as the player that was enough of a disappointment with the Oakland Raiders to be cut early on in his second season. But anyone who watched Barksdale closely last season will recognize that he’s now one of the best right tackles in the NFL. Barksdale, who will be going into his fourth season, is perhaps the best pass blocker on the Rams’ line. Last year against the Houston Texans, he caused J.J. Watt, perhaps the best pass rusher in the NFL, to have one of the worst games of his career—only the second game in his three seasons during which he has had no tackles. Jeff Fisher recently praised Barksdale with the media, saying “he’s reliable, dependable, smart. He’s everything you want in a right tackle.” Barksdale could stand to improve as a run blocker, especially in an offense that is still so reliant on a successful ground game, but he truly is a major part of a line that has a good chance to be one of the better groups in the league this year.
11. Aaron Donald, DT
I couldn’t bring myself to put Donald in the top ten because he hasn’t played in an NFL game yet, but he could very easily break into that group over the next few weeks. It looks like the Rams may use Donald in a fashion similar to the way the 49ers used outside linebacker Aldon Smith in his rookie year—not starting him, but taking full advantage of his pass rushing abilities in any obvious passing situation. The 6-foot-1, 285-pounder has looked unstoppable during camp and if he translates that production to games, he’s going to do wonders for his fellow defensive linemen such as Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, and Chris Long, allowing them to be single-teamed on every play and have an easier path to the quarterback. Donald may not be as good of a run defender as the Rams’ other defensive tackles, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, but his playing style indicates that he could quickly become one of the best interior pass rushers in the league.
Join us tomorrow as we count down the Rams’ Top 10 players for the 2014 season.