Shutdown Countdown: St. Louis Rams are improving, just stuck in a treacherous division

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In a few other divisions, the St. Louis Rams would be a darkhorse to contend for the title.

In the NFC West, the Rams are pretty much resigned to a third-place finish barring something weird happening in Seattle or San Francisco (or something weird happening in Arizona, in a different sense).

St. Louis played well in Jeff Fisher's first year as coach. The progress was shown against those Seahawks and 49ers. The Rams tied and beat the 49ers, and would have swept them if not for a couple really bad penalties in overtime at San Francisco, including one that wiped out an 80-yard catch. St. Louis also beat Seattle once, although that came early in the season before the Seahawks fully trusted Russell Wilson at quarterback.

The Rams took a huge step last season and added some interesting pieces this offseason. That won't result in a division title, but the arrow is pointing up for the franchise – finally.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Although the Rams lost receivers Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola, running back Steven Jackson and safety Quintin Mikell, Gibson and Amendola are overrated, Jackson has to hit the wall at some point and Mikell still hasn't signed with anyone. The additions have been good. Tackle Jake Long has been an elite player when healthy, tight end Jared Cook has great ability and the Rams' draft class is very interesting. The Rams are better on paper than at the end of last season.

Best offseason acquisition: Long is a bit of a risk because his play has not been the same the last two years, likely because of injuries. But before that he was one of the best players in football, and he's only 28 years old. The Rams have had problems at tackle since Orlando Pace was in his prime. This signing could solve a lot of issues.

Biggest hole on the roster: The Rams are set at cornerback, but safety is another issue. Darian Stewart wasn't good in 2011 and barely played last season. T.J. McDonald is a rookie third-round pick. Those are the two likely starters after Craig Dahl and Mikell weren't retained. This area could be a big problem.

Position in flux: For many years Jackson was the only bright spot on the roster. He is gone, and the Rams don't have a clear plan to replace him. Isaiah Pead did virtually nothing as a rookie last year, Daryl Richardson has good physical ability and averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy had a good career at Vanderbilt. Someone will emerge, but it's wide open going into camp.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Good luck projecting the Rams' backfield this year, but Stacy has a shot to be a late-round find. Anyone who can average 5.7 yards per carry over two seasons in the SEC, as Stacy did, deserves a long look. He doesn't have a ton of speed, but his production and the Rams' lack of great options means he has a shot to be a rookie surprise. Richardson, if he wins the job, could also surprise, because he had some very good moments last year before he was phased out of the offense to give Jackson more touches.

Stat fact: Rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree played 10 games for Georgia last year, and had at least 10 total tackles in eight of them. Ogletree didn't slip to the 30th pick because he can't play. If his head is on straight, the Rams will have an all-rookie team linebacker on their hands.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: If the Rams finish first or second in the NFC West, you know they've done some good things. It's probably not going to happen, but another season holding their own against Seattle and San Francisco would be positive for the franchise. The trade that gave Robert Griffin III to Washington has resulted in a lot of good players, but the Rams need to see Bradford make some strides to ultimately feel that move was unquestionably the right one.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The offense still wasn't great last year. First-round pick Tavon Austin is exciting, but he's a rookie and nobody knows if he'll be durable enough in the NFL (although that wasn't a problem in college). The Rams don't have the greatest playmakers around Bradford, especially without Jackson, so they need guys like Austin and Cook to play well right away, and second-year receiver Chris Givens to continue to progress. If not, St. Louis could take a step back in a defensive-minded division.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Despite 1,498 NFL passing attempts, Bradford is a bit of an enigma. He has yet to have a great NFL season. His rookie season was wildly overrated, he was even worse (and hurt) in his second year, but made a lot of strides last year. And, he has never had a good offensive line or good set of receivers so it's hard to evaluate him. His progress last year and the addition of some intriguing receivers should give hope that the former first pick will put it all together in 2013. If he can't, in his fourth season, the Rams will have a problem on their hands.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins

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