While finishing with a losing record once again leaves the franchise, as well as the fans, with a big feeling of disappointment, one should not overlook the fact that there are a lot of talented players on the St. Louis Rams.
And a lot of those players had career-best seasons in 2015, with three of them even making the Pro Bowl.
Here are five players (in no particular ranking) that made the biggest impact for the Rams in 2015.
First, you have wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Since being drafted by the Rams eighth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, the 24-year old from the University of West Virginia has had spurts of strong play overshadowed by lack of proper usage by the coaching staff as well as long streaks of sub-par performances. But despite the quarterback carousel between the disappointing Nick Foles and usual backup Case Keenum, Austin had perhaps his best season, not because of standout statistics in one category, but because of all-around usage on the offense.
This season, through the air, Austin caught 52 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns. At the same time, he rushed 52 times for 434 yards and four touchdowns, by far being the most balanced player on the Rams’ last-ranked offense. He also finished only 208 yards behind Kenny Britt for the team lead in receiving yards (Britt had 681 yards). If he continues to be effectively used in both the passing and running game, opposing teams will have a harder time dealing with him.
Secondly, there is Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker.
Hekker has been one of the best punters in the NFL since being drafted in 2012. Currently, he has punted 336 times for 15,687 yards, with an average distance of 46.7 yards. In the 2015 season, Hekker punted 96 times with an average of 47.9 yards per punt, which was good enough for him to be selected to his second career Pro Bowl. When the offense sputtered, Hekker was able to pin opponents deep in their own territory for the defense to do their job.
Speaking of defense…
The third player is defensive back Trumaine Johnson.
At 26 years old and at the end of his contract, Johnson had himself the best season of his career, and yet was underrated throughout the duration of the entire season. Entering 2015, he only had eight career interceptions. This season alone, he had seven. Forming a defensive back duo with Janoris Jenkins, Johnson also had 71 tackles on the year. With E.J Gaines returning from an ACL injury this upcoming season, the Rams’ front office will have to decide if it’s worth re-signing Johnson.
Based off his performance this season, it would seem wise to do so.
For the defense, it’s no doubt that the player that made the biggest impact is the fourth person on this list… defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
The 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft is heading to the Pro Bowl alongside Hekker and… well… no spoilers. He finished the 2015 season with 69 combined tackles, as well as a team-high 11.0 sacks. With injuries to outside defensive lineman Robert Quinn and Chris Long, it was mainly the defensive tackles (namely Donald and Michael Brockers) that led the vaunted defensive line throughout the season. As a result, Donald has made a huge case for himself to be named Defensive Player of the Year.
And now, last but not least, you have rookie running back Todd Gurley. When drafted with the tenth overall pick in 2015, Rams fans were split. Many loved the decision to bring in a running back who could share the load with Tre Mason (though, that didn’t turn out well for Mason), while others felt Gurley’s health (coming off an ACL tear) was a risk.
After missing the first four games, Gurley entered and made an immediate impact; from his second to fifth game he rushed for over 120 yards. His worst game came in his first start when he only rushed for a mere nine yards in a Rams loss to Pittsburgh. And while he only ran for 100 yards once after week eight, Gurley finished third in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,106, while having a rushing average of 4.8 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns. And on top of that, he has made a case for himself to win NFL Rookie of the Year.
So in the end, the season could have gone a lot better for the Rams, and much like before, there are a lot of things left to be figured out and fixed. But the five players above, as well as other talented players on the team not mentioned, shed some positive light on the future of the Rams’ franchise.
(Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports)