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.
Said Long: "[Williams'] intensity is the biggest thing. He talks about every day being an interview. He's giving his best all the time and he expects that same attitude from everybody he coaches. He makes guys accountable."
The second most important variable for the Rams is the development of quarterback Sam Bradford, who is entering his fifth season. Bradford has experienced plenty in his young career -- he's gone from being the league's offensive rookie of the year to struggling in a new offensive system in his second season to being lost after seven games in 2013 with a torn ACL. Through all those ups and downs, the Rams have remained patient and confident he can be the quarterback they envision. As proof, they point to his numbers in the first half of last season, when he threw 14 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.
Bradford doesn't have to be exceptional for the Rams to prosper. He only needs be close to what he was before last year's injury and consistent against the tough defenses of the NFC West. What makes Kaepernick and Wilson so tough is their penchant for making game-changing plays when their teams need it most. Though Bradford lacks their speed and quickness, he does have a cool makeup that suggests he can handle difficult moments when healthy.
The Rams also are encouraged by what they've seen from him so far this offseason. "It was very disappointing last year because of the injury he had," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "But he also knows what he has to do to stay healthy. He's added some upper body mass, and the days he's had during OTAs have been huge. He made five of the nine full sessions, and he looked good. He knows what plays he needs to get us into and get out of, and that's big. We honestly didn't know how much time we'd have with him in the offseason."
Like most teams that finish in last place, there are other little advantages that could aid St. Louis early. They open the season against three teams -- Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Dallas -- that didn't make last year's postseason. After that, the Rams will have to prove themselves quickly, with games against Philadelphia, San Francisco (twice), Seattle, Kansas City, Arizona, Denver and San Diego over the subsequent nine weeks. The Cardinals are the only team in that group that didn't make the playoffs in 2013 -- and they won 10 games before being eliminated from contention in Week 17.
There is every reason to think the Rams could be the equivalent of last year's Cardinals or Carolina Panthers, two teams that enjoyed surprising success with strong defenses and efficient quarterback play.
"I'm hopeful, but without the execution, hope can be dangerous," Long said. "We have to put the work in, and we have to show more growth. I'm 29, and I'm the third-oldest guy in the building now. We're at the point where young won't be enough anymore."
That happens to be a critical juncture that every young team faces eventually. The bad ones tend to find excuses to keep on losing, while the good ones find an identity. The Rams already have enough pieces in place to know who they have to be this season. The only thing that matters now is putting them all together.