The 5 Toughest Decisions the St. Louis Rams Will Have to Make This Offseason
And as hard as these decisions may seem from where we're sitting, we can only imagine what it's like for Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. They'll be forced to make life-altering decisions for players they know on a personal level.
But the NFL is a business, so the Rams will have to put personal feelings aside for the greater good. The NFL is a cutthroat world and certainly not kind to the sentimental.
With that in mind, here are several difficult decisions facing the Rams this offseason.
Who Will Back Up Sam Bradford in 2014?
Kellen Clemens stepped in for the injured Sam Bradford last October and surprisingly finished with a respectable 4-5 record—including back-to-back wins against playoff contenders Indianapolis and Chicago.
Clemens exceeded expectations and performed about as well as you can expect from a backup. He is a perfect No. 2, as long as the team is satisfied with its starter.
But here's the million-dollar question—are the Rams 100 percent satisfied with Bradford?
Do the Rams prefer a career backup as their No. 2 or a young backup with starter potential?
Before the freak-out begins, let me clarify these thoughts by saying Bradford is definitely the starting quarterback for 2014. He was one of the few players meeting expectations early in the season, and he deserves another competition-free season as the starter.
But even if we assume production is not an issue for Bradford, what about his health? He has just two healthy seasons in four years. No NFL team can survive when the starting quarterback—the most important player on the field—is injury-prone.
Also, lets not forget his season-ending shoulder injury during his final year at Oklahoma. If you factor in his 2009 college campaign, Bradford has been healthy just two full seasons in the last five years.
Bradford has the arm, tools and smarts to be a special player. But as mentioned in the opening slide, the NFL is a business. And smart businessmen plan for the worst.
If the Rams pursue a quarterback in the second or third round—such as AJ McCarron (Alabama) or Tajh Boyd (Clemson)—it's a sign that the front office has similar concerns regarding Bradford.
If Clemens is back in 2014, it's a sign that this regime is all-in with Bradford.
The Wide Receiver Conundrum
There's no question that St. Louis needs more production at wide receiver. But what makes the issue difficult and confusing is determining where that help should come from.
Should the Rams use a high draft pick on a rookie, pursue a veteran or simply hope one of the current receivers is capable of a breakout year?
Brian Quick was drafted No. 33 overall in the 2012 draft to be a No. 1 receiver, but with 156 yards as a rookie and just 302 yards in 2013, patience is running thin.
There's obviously a chance Quick will ultimately break out and live up to his lofty draft status. He possesses the necessary talent, but it's a bit risky to play the "wait and see" game.
If the Rams move on and pursue a receiver in the offseason, do they go after Clemson standout Sammy Watkins? Watkins is an impressive talent, but the Rams already have a surplus of promising youth at the position (Quick, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Stedman Bailey).
There are several options to choose from when it comes to solving the issue, but it's a tough decision. All of the options come with considerable risk.
In the end, the decision will fall on Mr. Snead—the same man who handpicked Quick in 2012.
Snead has repeatedly defended Quick, and there's a slim chance his ego is ready to abandon his pet project.
However, if he does pursue another option at receiver, he needs to get it right. If he whiffs on another one, his reputation will take a serious hit.
Will the Rams Draft an Offensive Tackle?
Between Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale, the Rams have a trio of competent offensive tackles, but it's doubtful all three players will be on the opening-day roster.
Jake Long suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December, and his Week 1 status is questionable.
Meanwhile, Saffold is set to become a free agent this March, and he may be out of St. Louis' price range.
Barksdale is a capable right tackle, but the uncertainty at left tackle leaves the Rams with few options—they need to either re-sign Saffold or draft a tackle.
Assuming Saffold can stay healthy, he's certainly worth the money. But that's a risky assumption, considering he has missed 17 games in the last three seasons.
The Rams cannot afford to fork out a sizable contract to a player who can only stay on the field for 10 to 12 games per season.
The other option—drafting a tackle—will require Fisher to step out of his comfort zone. In his 19 years as a head coach, he has never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round.
However, this year could be an exception. Fisher's son plays football at Auburn, and Snead is a former Tiger himself. So Auburn's standout tackle, Greg Robinson, is certainly on their radar.
If the Rams can trade out of the No. 2 spot, don't be surprised if Robinson's name is called out when the Rams are on the clock this May.
If the Rams are unwilling to make an exception for Robinson, there's no other choice—they must ink Saffold to a long-term deal.
Should Jo-Lonn Dunbar Be Retained?
There's no question that St. Louis linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar provides attitude. He plays with an edge and gets into the head of the opponent.
On the other hand, he was suspended for a PED violation early in the year. And when he stopped A-Rod'ing, his production clearly declined.
Dunbar had 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two picks in 2012. In 2013, he had just 39 tackles without a single sack or interception.
The Rams were a highly undisciplined team in 2013, and parting ways with Dunbar would send a message to the locker room and force other problem players to shape up.
Linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong was signed as an undrafted free agent rookie last season and appears to be a good find. Now that he has a year of experience, it could be his time to step up as the third starting linebacker.
There's a chance the Rams will miss Dunbar's attitude, but the risks far outweigh the benefits in this situation.
What Happens with Kendall Langford?
Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Kendall Langford are among St. Louis' high-profile players in danger of being cut this offseason. Of those four players, Langford probably has the most to offer the team in 2014.
Langford is the most underwhelming starter on the defensive line, and the Rams can save $4 million by cutting him loose, but the 27-year-old has gradually improved since his arrival in 2012.
Langford began his career as a 3-4 defensive end in Miami and switched to 4-3 defensive tackle in St. Louis. The transition has hindered his development, but he has been making positive strides nonetheless.
Langford finished with 36 total tackles and five sacks in 2013—both career highs.
Still, it's not hard to picture either Matt Conrath or Jermelle Cudjo stepping up and having similar success in Langford's shoes. And as long as Michael Brockers continues to improve, the Rams should be solid in the middle with or without Langford.
The Rams must prepare for Robert Quinn's monster contract extension. Part of that preparation requires the departure of veteran players with sizable contracts.
There's no doubt the Rams want Langford back in 2014, but it's hard to picture him returning if it conflicts with re-signing Saffold or extending Quinn.