Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for the Steven Jackson show.
The Rams' offseason dealings set the stage as such: They bulked up on the offensive line with rookies John Greco and Roy Schuening and free agent Jacob Bell. They lost a key receiver in Isaac Bruce, taking some of the focus off the receiving game. But, most importantly, they added a proven name, Al Saunders, as offensive coordinator, one whose focus over the years has been mostly on the running game.
Saunders' offense created monster numbers in his days in the same position in Kansas City. From 2001-05, the Chiefs ranked among the NFL's top five in total yards every season, tops overall the final two years. Priest Holmes amassed some of the greatest years in NFL history by a running back, and when he went down with injuries, Larry Johnson took the helm of the offense and didn't skip a beat. Now, Saunders gets his hands on the Rams' prolific offense ... well, at least it was prolific. Heading into 2008, one must wonder if this is merely the shell of a once-great offense.
Bruce's departure and past injury questions surrounding Marc Bulger and Torry Holt make this year's Rams look more like a running team than they have in years, but that's OK. Jackson is a special back, and with a little chemistry and more fire in this team, his chances at a bounce-back season should be good. Of course, how these new parts mesh with Saunders' system will need to be tracked in the preseason.
What to look for in camp
Tight end is another under-the-radar battle to track. Again, there's a clear favorite for the role in Randy McMichael, a potential deep-league sleeper if Saunders' offense utilizes the tight end more in the passing game with Bruce's departure. But we'd first need to see both proof of that happening in the preseason, and McMichael holding off challenges by Anthony Becht and Joe Klopfenstein for his job.
Fitting in: There isn't a lot to get excited about here, either. The aforementioned Becht and Green hopped on board, but would you believe that one of the most notable fantasy newbies to St. Louis is actually the kicker, Josh Brown? He finished fifth in fantasy points in ESPN leagues in 2007 (135), and he leaves the sometimes rainy environment in Seattle for the comfort of a dome in St. Louis. Not that that's going to amount to a huge change to his fantasy value, but we'd be amiss if we didn't mention that Jeff Wilkins, who retired February, had a pretty nice run as the Rams' kicker, largely due to the support of his offense. In three of his final seven seasons, for instance, he topped 125 points. Twice during that span, in fact, he led the NFL in field goals (2003 and 2006).
The other intriguing newcomer is Chris Long, the No. 2 pick in this year's draft and son of Hall of Famer Howie. He provides a much-needed boost to the right side of the defense. With a quick adaptation to the NFL game, something we'll get a read on during the preseason, he could be quite the sleeper for tackles and sacks.
On the line: Many feel that Bell's addition should pay big dividends to the Rams' offensive line, and while it's not an elite unit, it's certainly a serviceable one that should provide better results than what we saw in 2007. Of course, a lot of that depends on how quickly rookies Greco (third round) and Schuening (fifth round) adapt to this level of competition, and most importantly, how healthy Orlando Pace looks when camps open. Keep tabs on those four in particular, as in Saunders' offense, everything flows through the running game, making the O-line's performance critical.
On the mend: And what of Pace's health? He is 32 and coming off a season in which he appeared in only one game due to shoulder problems. In the past two years combined, he has played in a grand total of nine contests. Pace won't resume practicing with the Rams until camp opens, but all reports indicate he should be fine for the regular season. Still, it's unclear whether his injuries are chronic, so close attention to his health as the season nears will be an important task for the fantasy owner.
The bottom line
The performance of that offensive line could not be more important to the Rams this season, as they're coming off a year in which they averaged a dreadful 3.8 yards per carry, while serving up a whopping 18 sacks, sixth-most in the league. Pace's health couldn't be more critical; he's the guy Bulger trusts to protect his blind side, and need we remind you how often Bulger gets hurt as a result of the rough hits he takes? This team has enough on-paper talent to make Bulger a respectable matchups or deep-league option, and Jackson a fantasy standout. All it needs is the offensive line to mesh nicely and stay healthy, and we'll see better on-field results.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.