It is finally here: The Rams’ 2013 training camp opened Thursday. A lot of the speculation, questions and what-if’s will now be answered. Does Sam Bradford have enough weapons, and can he lead this team into the playoffs? Will the Rams’ defense take another step forward and establish itself as a top-10 unit? How will the NFC West shake out? Are the 49ers still the cream of the crop? Will Russell Wilson have the dreaded sophomore jinx? Can the Rams make the playoffs.
I will be looking at these situations and more as training camp across the league morphs into the preseason. The countdown to constructing that 53-man roster will be extremely interesting – particularly for the Rams, who have been given a noticeable face lift for 2013. They have made vast improvements athletically, acquiring more explosive playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Key Players Lost – Jeff Fisher and Les Snead truly believe that filling the vacancy left by Steven Jackson, who is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons, is the biggest challenge for this young team to overcome. The Rams are very young at the position, and it will be hard to replace a Pro Bowler and one of the most productive running backs from the line of scrimmage since 2006.
Receiver Danny Amendola is another significant departure, having left for the New England Patriots. Pound-for-pound, Amendola had been the Rams’ toughest player. Unfortunately, he accumulated more time on the sidelines than on the field. This versatile player was highly productive as a receiver and return specialist. When healthy, in fact displayed Blue traits (playmaker/difference-maker and played at a Pro Bowl level, albeit with spotty consistency).
Brandon Gibson was also a casualty of free agency, picked up by the Miami Dolphins. A true possession receiver who lacked the deep-ball speed, he was a crafty route runner and mastered the double moves within the routes to create separation. Gibson struggled with concentration drops, but on the next play he would make the circus catch for a big play. He also led the Rams in touchdowns with five.
Key Offseason Signings – For the Rams, this area was just as important as the draft. Coach Fisher and staff hope the incoming veterans will make a huge impact.
Jared Cook, blessed with size and speed to clear the seams, presents another bona-fide weapon on offense for Sam Bradford. The 6-5, 248-pound tight end runs like the wind and creates mismatches with his length and acceleration. He will force all opposing coordinators in the NFC West to take notice and defend.
Despite earning four Pro Bowls, Jake Long had some trouble staying healthy in Miami. Yet after a subpar, injury-riddled 2012 season – and no trip to Hawaii – the big man is now healthy and tasked with protecting Bradford as well as opening holes for the running game this season.
Positional Battles – Second-year pros Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are penciled in as the frontrunners to vie for the starting spot, but there are a few rookies who will push for playing time. Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham headline that class, and don’t forget about the largest running back on the roster in Terance Ganaway. This bottleneck of five talented runners will eventually see some separation, as the preseason will showcase varied running, pass protection, receiving and special teams skills. The battle at running back, though, promises to be one of the most interesting to watch entering exhibition action.
Rookie Weapons – Rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will add explosiveness, speed and big-play ability to a Rams offense that lacked the ability to spread the field and create separation from defenders. The dual West Virginia products should ensure that Bradford will finally have multiple pitch-and-catch options.
Defensive Upgrade – Going into the 2013 draft, outside linebacker was a priority for the Rams. For them to have nabbed Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, a converted safety with great movement skills and speed who weighs 243 pounds, was a steal. Ogletree’s well documented DUI prior to the draft knocked him out of the top 10 picks, and the Rams have reaped the benefits in the form of an outstanding prospect to groom for immediate success.
**The Rams ran around and had a very crisp practice for the first day. For me, however, the fans were the biggest surprise on Thursday afternoon. The hill side and area along the fence line was slammed with fans clapping and applauding their team. The excitement has started, and the buildup to the first preseason game is building fast.
“The crowd was great today,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It just gives you a little extra juice when you’re out here. The crowd, they’re cheering. Sometimes they cheer when it’s a three-yard completion, but it’s an exciting time right now. The fans feel it, the team feels it, the community feels it, and it feels good to be a part of something like that.”
**”It’s the same,” said Fisher about his staff’s approach to this training camp. “Sometimes you’ll do things a little bit differently from a format standpoint – a little more walkthrough, little more meeting time – but other than that we’re still trying to do the same year after year, and that’s to get ready for the season.”
Rams’ practice schedule for July 25-28:
July 25: 3:30-6 p.m. (open to the public)
July 26: 3:30-6 p.m. (open to the public)
July 27: 5:30-7:30 p.m. (open to the public)
July 28 – Closed to the public