Rams camp preview: Five questions

Sam Bradford (USA Today Sports)

ST. LOUIS — The Rams go into the third season of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead regime with high expectations following last season’s 7-9 campaign. But when training camp opens officially on Friday afternoon the team will have several questions to answer.

As part of our training camp previews we’ve looked at five veterans to watch, five rookies to watch and five positions to watch.

Now we’ll take a quick look at five questions surrounding St. Louis at the start of training camp:

HOW GOOD WILL Sam Bradford BE?

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft was on his way to his best season, statistically speaking, when he suffered a torn ACL in the seventh game of the 2013 campaign.

Bradford had completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 1,687 yards, an average of 241 per game, with 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 90.9.

But after four seasons — in which the Rams are 18-30-1 in games he has started — we still don’t have a clear picture of what Bradford is and if he is really the franchise quarterback the organization thought when they drafted the Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma.

The Rams won two of Bradford’s final three starts in 2013, which can be seen as a breakthrough for the quarterback and the St. Louis offense, which was beginning to forge an identity as a run-first attack behind Zac Stacy.

CAN THE O-LINE STAY HEALTHY?

The Rams have invested considerably in their offensive line, with big money contracts for left tackle Jake Long and right guard Rodger Saffold and then the selection of left guard Greg Robinson with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

If healthy, this St. Louis group — including Scott Wells at center and Joe Barksdale at right tackle — has a chance to be a strong group that will lead a productive rushing attack. But can they stay healthy?

Long played in 15 games last season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Saffold missed four games with injuries in 2013 and has only played 16 games once in his first four seasons. Wells played in 32 games over his final two seasons in Green Bay but has played in only 19 in his first two seasons in St. Louis, in 2012 and 2013.

Besides backup guard Davin Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler who was cut by the Buccaneers this offseason, the Rams don’t have a lot of experience behind their starting five. That has to be a big concern.

WHICH SECOND YEAR PLAYER WILL BREAK THROUGH?

The Rams’ 2013 draft was a strong one, led by two first-round picks in wide receiver Tavon Austin and linebacker Alec Ogletree and Stacy as a revelation in the fifth round.

St. Louis only selected seven players, because Fisher and Snead traded picks to move up for Austin and Stacy, but it’s possible that in time all seven players could emerge as starters.

Austin and third-rounder Stedman Bailey, teammates at West Virginia, both impressed at times during their rookie campaigns and could be breakout candidates this season. Bailey is suspended for the first four games but the organization liked what it saw from him late in 2013.

Ogletree didn’t get much attention league-wide last season but he could become one of the better outside linebackers in football before long.

The other two draft picks, fourth-round center Barrett Jones and fifth-round cornerback Brandon McGee, should contribute more this fall. McGee could win the job as the team’s third cornerback.

Linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates weren’t drafted in 2013 but made the team and made an impact on special teams. Armstrong could make an impact as an outside linebacker this season.

WHAT Will Williams’ IMPACT BE?

Fisher obviously wasn’t happy with the direction of the defense last season, which caused him to fire defensive coordinator Tim Walton and hire old friend Gregg Williams.

The Rams are excited about Williams’ aggressive scheme, which will include blitzing much more than we saw under Walton a year ago. The St. Louis pass rush was good in 2013 because of a strong front four led by Robert Quinn, but should be better this season with linebackers and defensive backs also applying pressure.

The Rams still remain young in the secondary, but an improved pass rush combined with another year of experience for Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod can only help.

WILL ROOKIE MASON WIN BACKUP SPOT?

The Rams’ first three draft picks this season — Robinson, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner — all figure to have a role on this team early on.

The next draft pick, third-rounder Tre Mason, will have to earn his playing time as a running back in a crowded backfield with Stacy and second-year back Benny Cunningham.

Mason was a record-setting performer at Auburn and Fisher and Snead got to see him plenty with their ties to that program. Unseating Cunningham as the backup behind Stacy won’t be easy, considering Cunningham is a bigger, stronger back with experience, but Mason could bring an added dimension as a smaller, speedier option.

The sooner Mason proves he can pass protect, the easier it will be for the Rams to be able to give him more regular playing time. They won’t throw him out there if he can’t protect Bradford.

You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter at @NateLatsch or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com

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