2003 NFL Preview

   St. Louis
2002 Record: 7-9
Head Coach: Mike Martz
31-17 overall, 2-2 postseason
  Passing Marc Bulger
138-214, 1,826 yards, 14 TDS, 6 INTs
  Rushing Marshall Faulk
212 carries, 953 yards, 8 TDs
  Receiving Torry Holt
91 catches, 1,302 yards, 4 TDs
  Kicking Jeff Wilkins
19-25 FGs, 37-37 PATs, 94 points
Schedule | Roster | Statistics | Stadium
By B. Duane Cross,

It's been three seasons since St. Louis' meteoric rise to the top of the NFL universe. Now, coming of an injury-riddled 7-9 season, the bloom is off Rams head coach Mike Martz and, maybe more significantly, QB Kurt Warner.

St. Louis stumbled out of the gate last season, losing its first five games before reeling off five consecutive wins to stand 5-5 entering the stretch. Losses in four of their next five games insured the first losing season for the Rams since 1998. However, aside from a 37-13 loss at San Francisco and a 30-10 setback at Seattle, St. Louis was at least within striking distance in its other seven defeats.

Given a healthy Warner and RB Marshall Faulk, the Rams look to return to the top spot in the NFC West. The division's other three teams -- Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle -- did not make significant offseason improvement, or even enough to suggest they are in St. Louis' class when the Rams are at full strength.

Injuries to Warner's throwing hand robbed him of his accustomed feel for the offense, resulting in only three TDs and 11 interceptions. Now fully recovered, Warner again asends to the top of the depth chart, supplanting Marc Bulger. "We've got to give Kurt every opportunity to return to his form," Martz said as last season wrapped up. "I think we'll give Kurt every opportunity to return where he has been in the past."

For his part, Warner feels battle-ready. "I don't even look at that as a challenge," Warner told the Orlando Sentinel this offseason. "To me, there is one standard: excellence. My goal is to play the way I know how to play. To me, that means just playing. That's all I know."

It's also what we've come to expect from him -- and the Rams.

>> Impact Signing
T Kyle Turley -- It was a deft move by the Rams to acquire a Pro Bowl-quality lineman, especially in light of the ongoing contract spat with Orlando Pace. Turley, either as a right tackle or replacing Pace on the left, gives 100 percent -- much to the chagrin of opponents (and even opposing coaches if you ask Mike Martz, who once had a few choice words for the flamboyant Turley).

"When I first heard that the Rams were one of the teams at the top of the list of teams wanting to make the trade, I was like 'No, there's no way this could be with all the things that have gone back and forth,'" Turley said. " I didn't know how well received I would be up here. But you know what? When I sat down with coach Martz like I talked about, it was just a great conversation and we both were on the same page.

"The things that had been said were in a complete competitive nature in that rivalry atmosphere. I can't say that I regret any of the things I said about this organization, because that's when I was playing for New Orleans. Now that I'm playing in St. Louis for the Rams, I'm gonna give as much as I ever gave to New Orleans for this city and this team."

>> Impact Loss
TE Ernie Conwell -- While Conwell's name doesn't jump to the tongue when discussing the Rams' juggernaut offense, he was a key component to the team's success. He had eight TDs -- two rushing -- during the past two seasons, and hasn't missed a game since 1999, but he jumped to New Orleans in the offseason. Oft-injured former Saint and most-recently Patriot Cam Cleeland, who hasn't completed a 16-game schedule since his rookie season in 1998, was signed to fill his spot.

>> Fantasy Stud
RB Marshall Faulk -- When healthy, he is by far the most dangerous player in fantasy football. He's a great runner who can find ways to score from anywhere on the field. He's also a very dangerous receiver who's as much of a threat as the dynamic duo of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Playing in such a high-powered Rams offense only amplifies those numbers, as seen with his 47 total TDs in 2000 and 2001. However, he's missed games each of the past three seasons, and he was a shell of his former self at the end of last season because of nagging knee injuries. He and Priest Holmes are the top two players in fantasy football if they are healthy, which is a huge question entering this season.

>> Fantasy Dud
QB Kurt Warner -- Just a few years ago, he was a potential No. 1 pick and a slam dunk choice as the top fantasy quarterback. Now, he might not even be the starter in St. Louis after he struggled badly and then was overshadowed by Marc Bulger after he went on the DL with a hand injury. When he's on his game, he's among the best ever, but with Bulger on his tail, the Rams don't have to be as patient.

>> Fantasy Sleeper
TE Cam Cleeland -- As if the Rams offense needed another weapon, they picked up the vastly underrated Cleeland, who's battled all sorts of injuries after a great 684-yard, 6-TD rookie season for the Saints in 1998. He hasn't even matched those numbers combined in the past four seasons, but he should see his share of balls this year as he replaces the dependable Ernie Conwell, who signed with New Orleans. If healthy, he's a top-10 tight end in the St. Louis offense.

>> Rams will make the playoffs because ...
The injury bug has been exterminated and Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk will return to their Pro Bowl-caliber level of play. ... It won't hurt if Orlando Pace's contract squabble gets settled, either.

>> Rams will miss the playoffs because ...
The defense continues to struggle. After showcasing the NFL's third-ranked unit in 2001, St. Louis plummeted to No. 13 last season. The Rams were 12th against the pass and jettisoned CBs Dexter McCleon and Dré Bly as well as S Chad Cota.

St. Louis Rams
Signed  From  Lost  To 
T Orlando Pace  Franchise tag  CB Dexter McCleon  Chiefs 
QB Scott Covington  Re-signed  QB Jamie Martin  Released 
C Dave Wohlabaugh  Browns  FB James Hodgins  Cardinals 
CB Aeneas Williams  Re-signed  CB Dré Bly  Lions 
T David Loverne  Trade w/ Was. RB Trung Canidate  Trade w/ Was. 
T Grant Williams  Re-signed  P Mitch Berger  Saints 
P Sean Landeta  Eagles  G Tom Nutten  Jets 
T Kyle Turley  Trade w/ N.O.  WR Ricky Proehl  Panthers 
RB Leon Johnson  Bears  FB Chris Hetherington  Raiders 
TE Cam Cleeland  Patriots  G Frank Garcia  Cardinals 
C Andy McCollum  Re-signed  G Heath Irwin  Broncos 
DE Tyoka Jackson  Re-signed  DT Jeff Zgonina  Dolphins 
WR Mike Furrey  --  TE Ernie Conwell  Saints 
CB Jason Sehorn  Giants  LB Don Davis  Patriots 
    S Chad Cota  Bills 
Unrestricted  Restricted 
LB O.J. Brigance  DT Brian Young 
  T John St. Clair 

2003 Draft Picks
Rd.  Pick  Player  Pos.  School 
12 (12)  Jimmy Kennedy  DT  Penn State  
11 (43)  Pisa Tinoisamoa  OLB  Hawaii  
10 (74)  Kevin Curtis  WR  Utah State  
9 (106)  Shaun McDonald  WR  Arizona State  
10 (107)  DeJuan Groce  CB  Nebraska  
13 (148)  Dan Curley  TE  E. Washington  
35 (170)  Shane Walton  CB  Notre Dame  
37 (172)  Kevin Garrett  CB  SMU  
11 (184)  Scott Tercero  California  
37 (251)  Scott Shanle  OLB  Nebraska  
40 (254)  Richard Angulo  TE  W. New Mexico