Rams mailbag: Setting expectations for Rams' defense

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In Saturday's mailbag, we discussed what reasonable numbers for new St. Louis Rams quarterback Nick Foles might look like. Today, we turn our attention to the defense and what constitutes a disappointment.

That and much more on the docket today, so we'll get down to business. As always, you can shoot me questions on Twitter @nwagoner. Please use hashtag #RamsMail.

@nwagoner: That's a good question, and there's multiple ways to look at answering it. In some sense, it's unfair to expect a defense that hasn't even cracked the top 10 under Jeff Fisher to suddenly become a top-5 group. But on the other hand, this is a unit that absolutely has the talent in place to reach a top-5 level. But I tend to lean toward making the answer yes. At this point, I think we'd all agree that in the fourth year under Fisher, making the playoffs should be the goal and expectation. For the Rams to get there, I believe they need the defense to play at a top-5 level all season. If that group falls short of that, it's hard to imagine the offense being good enough to make up the difference, especially early in the season. The key for the defense is getting off to a faster start and playing with more consistency, especially in the secondary. If they cut down on the big plays allowed on the back end, that top-5 status should be within reach. One other area to monitor, even in the preseason, is run defense. A slow start in that area last year pretty much wrecked any chance the Rams had of reaching their vast defensive potential. Much like with the rest of the team, seeing will be believing when it comes to this.

@nwagoner: Well, if they aren't, there's a problem. Fisher always says that he and the scouting department will keep their eyes open for opportunities, but when you reach this point in the game, there simply aren't going to be many players available who will make much of a difference. There might be a couple of names out there right now (yes, Evan Mathis is available), but the Rams don't seem to have much interest in going that direction. They certainly could make an addition or two if there are injuries or someone intriguing pops up on the waiver wire, but what you see is mostly what you're going to get with the roster right now.

@nwagoner: It's a good question and one that probably comes with an answer that is seemingly outrageous. For the record, the fifth-year player option would be for 2017, but you're right in that they would have to choose to exercise it before the 2016 season. As it stands right now, it's hard to imagine the Rams would want to spend that type of money for Austin, but if he does have a much-anticipated breakthrough season this year, then maybe it would have to become a strong consideration. The hard part in determining what that would look like is how often he's going to touch the ball and how those touches will be distributed. Coordinator Frank Cignetti said in the spring that Austin is a wide receiver, and they want to use him as such which leads one to believe he won't be in the backfield as much. Right now, Austin is a talented punt returner but hasn't proved to be much more. So let's play the game anyway and try to take a stab at it. Breaking 1,000 receiving yards (something no Rams has done since Torry Holt in 2007) would be a good start. But if he doesn't, tacking on another 400-500 rushing yards would help offset what isn't produced there. Short of that, it's hard to find a realistic scenario in which you'd feel comfortable getting a return on that type of investment.

@nwagoner: Well, of course it's real. But it's also a bit of speculation. There's an open competition at center right now among three players, including Barrett Jones. He's set to battle Demetrius Rhaney and Tim Barnes for that gig. All three worked with the first-team offense in the spring, and all three will continue to get chances with the starters through training camp and the preseason. It's hard to project who will win that battle, and I do believe all three will get consideration, but looking at it in terms of investment, it stands to reason Jones is the one the Rams would like to see win it. He was the one the team spent the most draft capital on, and they've invested two years in him on the roster despite myriad injury issues. That doesn't mean he'll win it by default; he still has to earn it but I do think they'd like to see him emerge.

@nwagoner: I've learned in nearly a dozen years covering the NFL to never completely rule anything out. But I'd say the chances of that happening are very, very slim.