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Preseason power rankings: No 31

The St. Louis Rams are lucky that the Lions were around last year.

If Detroit wasn’t so busy capturing our imagination with the first winless 16-game season, more fans would have noticed how truly awful the Rams have been for two years running.

St. Louis won five games combined over that span, “earning” the right to the second overall pick twice, which is tough to pull off in this up-and-down salary cap era.

New coach Steve Spagnuolo and G.M. Billy Devaney have a huge task in front of them to change the team’s culture without inheriting a great depth chart.

To paraphrase Eagles president Joe Banner, this could be the worst roster in the league.

On offense, Spagnuolo is hoping to build around running back Steven Jackson. The offensive line is talented with second overall pick Jason Smith at right tackle, and mauling center Jason Brown, an excellent free agent acquisition from Baltimore.

Jackson will have to shine because the passing game is a mess. Marc Bulger has been a shell of his former self the last two years and still hears Mike Martz in his ears. Bulger is learning a new West Coast based system and the receiver group may be the weakest in the league, especially with Donnie Avery questionable for Week One.

On defense, Spags will try to create his trademark pressure without the pass rushers he enjoyed in New York. The Rams hope Chris Long can take the next step after a solid rookie season. Aging ends Leonard Little and James Hall will have to do the rest.

The back end of the defense is uneven. Safety O.J. Otogwe may be the team’s best player and Ronald Bartell is a physical cornerback, but there are a lot of questions after that.

Spagnuolo probably wants to change the toughness of this franchise first, then slowly build up the roster. The team has possibly had more live tackling and padded practices in training camp than any other team and the players have sounded quite receptive.

Relief that the Scott Linehan era is over could be worth a few wins.

Key Player: Marc Bulger. The Rams could improve steadily on their offensive line and defense, but it won’t matter that much unless Bulger can improve his performance with pressure in his face.

Rookie to watch: Since we already touched on Smith, second-round middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is the pick. He could give the Rams something they haven’t truly had since London Fletcher -- a reliable quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker.

Best veteran acquisition: Jason Brown. Versatile and nasty, Brown is the perfect fit for what Spagnuolo is trying to do. He was arguably the best free agent pickup of the year after Albert Haynesworth.

Key game: Week Four, at San Francisco. The Rams open with three of four games on the road and need to win in the division to avoid another slow start.

Projected finish (i.e, complete guess I’m compelled to make because the boss did): 5-11.