St. Louis Rams

St. Louis Rams: Five Things to Watch for Next Season

St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) has been among the team’s major bright spots this season.
St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) has been among the team’s major bright spots this season. AP

The St. Louis Rams have a few things to shoot for this week against the San Francisco 49ers, primarily short-term goals like winning a fourth straight game and finishing 8-8. The Rams (7-8) visit San Francisco (4-11) on Sunday (3:25 p.m.; TV-KMOV Channel 4; Radio: WXOS-FM 101.1)

Those marks might seem pedestrian to some, but consider the Rams haven’t won more than three games in a row since 2003 (never under head coach Jeff Fisher) and haven’t even finished a season 8-8 since 2006.

So instead of focusing on the regular-season finale or how many sacks Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald will collect, this week’s final installment of “Five Questions” will deal with the Rams future in five key areas:

1. The obvious first question is where the Rams will be playing their home games next season?

The NFL owners could vote to move the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles in nearby Carson, Calif., spurning Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s desire to move his team to a stadium site he’s already purchased in Inglewood. The NFL relocation committee is scheduled to meet Jan. 6-7 ahead of a potential announcement by the league during its next meetings Jan. 12-13 in Houston. If Kroenke doesn’t have the votes to move the Rams to L.A., what will he do next? That’s anyone’s guess, but the St. Louis Stadium Task force has done it’s part in remarkably quick fashion by putting together a $1.1 billion stadium project on the north downtown riverfront area. That plan includes $400 million in public financing. While the plan came together nicely, there’s still the matter of the Edward Jones Dome ownership group not living up to its agreement to keep the facility among the elite arenas in the league. Kroenke will file for franchise relocation and even if his relocation plan is rejected, he could conceivably stay in St. Louis through one-year leases while looking for another home. No one knows what Kroenke will do and it would be within his options to keep the team here and build his own stadium with a partnership that purchased land near suburban Maryland Heights. He could also try to broker a team with the Chargers or Raiders in California. Stay tuned, this one could do a variety of ways.

2. Is Case Keenum the answer at quarterback — and does he have a true No. 1 receiver?

Keenum has been the starter throughout the three-game winning streak and former starter Nick Foles, obtained in an attention-grabbing deal with Philadelphia for former first overall pick Sam Bradford, is now on the bench. Keenum is 27 and has shown better mobility and a quicker release than Foles did during Foles’ tenure as the starter. But are the Rams ready to turn their offense over to a quarterback with 16 games (after Sunday) of NFL experience? Keenum is 54-of-88 for 597 yards and four TDs this season with one interception. Rookie third-round pick Sean Mannion got only a small mop-up stint of regular-season experience this season and its clear the Rams still don’t know what they have in the 6-foot-5 former Oregon State star. So unless they are willing to burn a first-round pick on another quarterback — something that would seem almost completely out of character based on previous draft picks by this regime — the offseason could prove interesting indeed. Don’t rule out the pursuit of an NFL free-agent QB or another trade, either. Speedster Tavon Austin showed his playmaking abilities will work at this level and Keenum developed a nice chemistry with veteran wideout Kenny Britt, but the Rams still don’t have the type of true No. 1 game-breaker at receiver that perennial playoff contenders have. That should still be an area of concern.

3. Is rookie running back Todd Gurley as good as he looks?

He may be even better. Though a foot injury will keep Gurley out of action Sunday against the 49ers, he’s an obvious candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors along with Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston. Since moving into the starting lineup in Week 4 against Arizona, Gurley has been nothing short of spectacular especially when considering he was coming off of ACL surgery in his final college season at Georgia. He solved one of the biggest question marks on offense, putting up five games of 100 yards or more rushing including a 146-yard outing in his starting debut in Arizona. Gurley had a couple down games as well with defenses stacking the box knowing the Rams’ feeble passing game would probably not hurt them, but he still finished with 1,106 yards and 10 TDs on 229 carries (4.8-yard average). He is one of only three rookies in franchise history to run for more than 1,000 yards and the Rams were 4-1 in games when he ran for more than 100 yards. Gurley seven carries of 30 yards or more are the highest in the NFL and his 12 runs of 20 yards or more rank second.

4. With two potential unrestricted free agents at cornerback, what should the Rams do with Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson?

Both veteran cornerbacks have turned in solid seasons, also doing so in contract years where they are both in line for significant raises. That might not be a good thing for a team already looking at dealing with other free agents and with potential needs at high-dollar shopping areas like quarterback and receiver.

While it would be nice to bring them both back, can the Rams afford it? Johnson (61 tackles) leads the team with a career-high seven interceptions (second among all NFL cornerbacks) and with his size and athleticism has shown a knack for making big plays. Jenkins (58 tackles, three interceptions) hasn’t been as flashy this season, but remains a solid corner.

The Rams could hope that former starter E.J. Gaines returns after missing this season with injury, or that youngsters Lamarcus Joyner or Marcus Roberson continue their development.

5. Is the Rams’ offensive line finally ready to take a step forward?

An influx of talent in the draft has been force-fed into action and that certainly won’t hurt in terms of gaining valuable experience. Right tackle Rob Havenstein and guard Jamon Brown were penciled in as starters from the beginning, then Brown was lost to a season-ending injury along with veteran Rodger Saffold. The injuries forced the Rams to turn to several more rookies and youngsters, with Cody Wichmann one player emerging from the pack along with former Iowa tackle Andrew Donnal (before he was injured, too). A decision must be made on Saffold and former second overall pick Greg Robinson remains a work in progress at left tackle, but Robinson has shown signs of improvement in his last couple of games.

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

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