ST. LOUIS -- There are plenty of reasons to like the St. Louis Rams as a sleeper during this coming NFL season. One is they play in a division, the NFC West, that has toughened them up. Another is their head coach, Jeff Fisher, knows how to build a playoff contender after spending nearly two decades with the Tennessee Titans.
There's also the fact that no team has invested more in high draft picks over the past three years than St. Louis. The Rams simply are primed to explode, with this fall looking very much like their coming-out party.
There may be laughter in Seattle and San Francisco, but skeptics should recognize the key components that make the Rams capable of taking a huge leap forward.
The 49ers were once a team in a similar position, stocked with first-round talent and no direction. The Seahawks, last season's Super Bowl champions, didn't have a real blueprint for their success until coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider assembled a team built around hidden gems and a smash-mouth philosophy. The Rams enter this season with a team also loaded with youth, talent and enough hunger to take them to places this franchise hasn't been in years.
This squad still has plenty of players who remember what it was like to go 4-1-1 against NFC West opponents in 2012. That same group also has the appropriate desire after securing just one victory against conference rivals while finishing 7-9 last season.
"We're in our third year with coach Fisher and [general manager] Les Snead, so we feel good," defensive end Chris Long said. "Every year we've seen improvement. We've gotten faster and more physical, and we've shown flashes. We've beaten some good teams. We've gone toe-to-toe with teams that have reached the Super Bowl."
If the Rams are going to make that leap into playoff contention after consecutive seven-win seasons, two things have to happen. The first involves the maturation of a defense that features one of the most promising front sevens in football. The Rams have athletic linebackers (headlined by Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis) and a front four that includes first-round picks at every position (along with this year's No. 13 overall pick, defensive tackle Aaron Donald). The superstar of the group is fourth-year defensive end Robert Quinn, who finished second in the NFL with 19 sacks last season.
The Rams were solid defensively in 2013 -- they ranked 13th in the league in points allowed and 15th in total yards -- but they still have significant upside. The arrival of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should help the Rams capitalize on that potential. As much as Williams has been bashed for his role in the infamous bounty scandal that rocked the New Orleans Saints and led to his 11-month suspension from football, the man can run a defense. His teams fly to the ball, force turnovers and leave most opposing offenses feeling like they've been battling in a 60-minute street fight.