- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Things haven't gone so well for the St. Louis Rams the past few seasons, which is stating the obvious, but let's at least try to be positive. The Rams won five games the past two years combined, and the last time the franchise delivered more wins than losses was in 2003, when Marc Bulger led the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL. Since then? Well, the
Rams outscored two teams in 2008.
Now that the coaching/management team that replaced Mike Martz years ago is out the door, the Rams can begin to start over again. Of course, Bulger is still there, amazingly still able to walk after years of defenses teeing off on him with alarming regularity. Steven Jackson is still here. Donnie Avery is emerging. After that, well, there's not much to watch.
New coach Steve Spagnuolo understands there are no easy fixes, but he seemed to do a nice job rebuilding the offensive line this offseason, and maybe the defense can avoid embarrassing itself from week to week. Yep, these are the St. Louis Rams, and there's nowhere to go but up.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Jackson is a potential top-five fantasy draft pick this season, a monster who not only piles on the rushing yards and touchdowns but also is a legitimate receiver out of the backfield who can score from anywhere. The West Coast offense run by coordinator Pat Shurmur should suit him well. Jackson hasn't been the most durable fellow the past two seasons, missing eight games since the start of the 2007 season and leaving a number of other contests early, which is why it's so critical to determine who stands next in line for touches.
The Rams hope Jackson stays healthy, but they seem confident in the other options. Antonio Pittman ran well at times last season, including when he produced a 95-yard effort against the 49ers in Week 11, but he didn't score a touchdown in nearly 100 touches from scrimmage last season. Of course, during that same loss to San Francisco, Kenneth Darby caught eight passes out of the backfield for 83 yards and ran for 26 more. Those two seem to be battling for the first backup role after the offseason trade of Brian Leonard to the Bengals. The Rams also have Samkon Gado -- fantasy owners remember him, right? -- and rookie Chris Ogbonnaya. Look for Pittman to earn the nod behind Jackson, and obviously there could be many unhappy fantasy owners -- those who own Jackson -- if Pittman plays a lot.
Fitting in: Torry Holt is currently fitting in with the Jacksonville Jaguars, meaning Avery becomes the top guy (and potentially picks up the double-teams that went Holt's way last year). The second-year wideout seemed to be taking off after a huge Week 8 at New England when he hauled in 163 yards' worth of passes plus a touchdown, but his second half was pedestrian. If he ends the 2009 campaign with "only" 53 catches, it will be a disappointment.
Not only does Avery need to step up into the No. 1 role, but one of the other receiving options Bulger will look for also has to be a factor. Last season Holt, Avery and Jackson were the only Rams to reach as many as 40 receptions. Dane Looker, fourth on the squad in receptions and yards, also is gone.
Keenan Burton and Laurent Robinson seem to be vying for the other starting role, with Burton probably in the lead. Burton caught only 13 passes as a rookie but was hampered by a knee injury. He was used as a starting receiver during the team's minicamp. Robinson comes over via trade from the Falcons after playing in six games and missing the end of the season with a hamstring problem. Don't laugh. These guys might not seem like much, but if Avery gets a lot of attention from opposing defenses and Bulger is well protected, a sleeper could be born. Another veteran in the mix could be Ronald Curry, who was acquired from the Lions in late July. Other wide receivers with a chance to attract playing time are Tim Carter, Derek Stanley and Brooks Foster.
Because Bulger is injury-prone, be it from his lack of protection or just because he's brittle, it's important to note that Kyle Boller probably is the new backup quarterback, replacing the retired Trent Green. Brock Berlin likely is the No. 3 option. Boller never was a fantasy star in Baltimore, and he missed all of last season having the torn labrum in his throwing shoulder repaired, but he has experience.
On the line: Fantasy owners seem to think Bulger can still be a reliable option for them, but for that to happen, a few things need to change. First, the play calling needs to be better to give Bulger a chance to throw the ball down the field. The Rams have had so many different gentlemen running the offense since the Martz era that it's difficult to find consistency. Stability would be nice. Of course, it's a new start for much of this offensive line, as stalwart Pro Bowler Orlando Pace is a Chicago Bear -- wow, that will look weird -- meaning second overall draft pick Jason Smith from Baylor has some really large shoes to fill. Spagnuolo is confident in Bulger but realizes the quarterback can't do much unless he's upright. Richie Incognito and Smith should be strong on the right side of the line, while Alex Barron and John Greco will need to step up on the left side. Having former Saints fullback Mike Karney under contract also should help Jackson.
The bottom line
Nobody said it would be easy to rebuild a franchise that has struggled so much the past few seasons, but there certainly are some interesting pieces on this Rams team for fantasy purposes. Jackson should be a first-rounder in every fantasy league, but Avery, Bulger and possibly tight end Randy McMichael also will receive attention in drafts. The defense might have the furthest to go to earn respectability, but as fantasy footballers know, sometimes that can work to our advantage if points are scored. Don't expect to see the Rams playing in late January, but this bunch could surprise for fantasy.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell looks at the fantasy prospects of the St. Louis Rams, which return Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger but need Donnie Avery to step up to replace the departed Torry Holt.