The national media may already have anointed the San Francisco 49'ers and the Seattle Seahawks as the favorites to win not just the NFC West, but the NFC. St. Louis Rams fans should know, however, that Jeff Fisher's team just might have a little bit to say about that.
While the Rams and Arizona Cardinals have already been relegated to also-ran status by the national publications, most are missing some telling signs that indicate that the Rams might just be the team to beat in the West this year.
1. Quarterbacks: It's chic to tout the emergence of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick as the next NFL superstars, but let's not forget the Rams own the number one overall draft pick from just three years ago in Sam Bradford. Unless Carson Palmer gets the starting job in Arizona, Bradford will be the only starter in the division who was picked in the first round and would also be the division's elder statesman with just three seasons at the helm.
Bradford's rise hasn't been nearly as meteoric as that of Wilson and Kaepernick, but he's progressing steadily nonetheless. Bradford has shown steady increases in yards per attempt, yards per game and quarterback rating in his three seasons. This season, with hopefully some actual weapons at wide receiver, Bradford should continue to improve on those numbers.
Wilson and Kaepernick, meanwhile, have to prove that 2012 wasn't just a fluke. Both posted admirable QB ratings and completion percentages, but neither was asked to carry the offense. Wilson averaged just 195 yards per game through the air and Kaepernick just 173.7 yards. Not exactly Peyton Manning-esque numbers there.
Meteors are also known as "shooting stars" and that very well could be the case for Wilson and Kaepernick.
2. Running Backs: Wilson and Kaepernick succeeded in no small part due to the running of Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore respectively. Both of these backs are getting toward the back end of their peak production if the lifespan of recent NFL backs is to be considered.
Lynch turned 27 this off season which is where many backs with his build and heavy work load begin to drop off. Lynch topped 300 carries last season, a career high. While he's probably got at least one more productive season in him barring injury, Seattle fans should remember the quick demise of Shaun Alexander, who virtually disappeared from the NFL landscape at age 30, despite having a much bigger build than Lynch.
Gore turned 30 in May. His downside may be right around the corner. Few great backs have managed to stay productive over the age of 30. Look for the Niners to diminish his work load this season and start to incorporate Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, although Hunter will open training camp on the PUP list rehabbing an Achilles injury.
If either of these feature backs isn't ready to tote the rock 300 plus times, that puts more pressure on the quarterbacks, something that they haven't proven they can handle.
3. Turnover Margin: Both the Niners and the Seahawks rode positive turnover differentials to their playoff runs last year. The Niners finished +9 for the year while Seattle was an amazing +13.
A closer look, however, shows just how important causing turnovers was to their respective success. The Niners were +14 in their 11 wins and -5 in their four losses and the tie to the Rams. Seattle was +15 in their 11 wins and -2 in their five losses.
By comparison, the Rams were +8 in their seven wins, but -9 in eight losses and a tie. Look for that number to change considerably for the Rams this season.
Jeff Fisher built his Tennessee Titans' teams on ball security and forcing turnovers. Fisher's Titans finished on the plus side in turnover margin six times during his tenure there. They made the playoffs six times.
One of those times, of course, was in 1999 when they met the Rams in the Super Bowl. The Titans were +18 that season, just a year removed from a 1998 season where they were even in turnover margin. What changed? The emergence of a young cornerback, Samari Rolle, and a young pass rusher, Javon Kearse. The Rams have such players in Janoris Jenkins and Robert Quinn. Could they be the catalysts for a much more disruptive Rams defense?
Time will tell if any of these statistical trends bear any fruit, but they all point toward the Rams having a much improved 2013. It could even mean a return to the post season for success-starved Rams fans.
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