The St. Louis Rams are the youngest football team in the NFL, as of today. Jeff Fisher, entering his 26th year of NFL experience and 1st year as Rams head coach, joins newly appointed GM Les Snead atop the Rams’ pyramid. Since day one both have stressed that competition breeds success. The positional battles on both sides of the ball have been brewing since OTA’s and mini-camp. It has been highly competitive and these players are pushing each other to get better each and every snap. Let’s take a look at the offensive camp battles.
Offensive Linemen: We all know about the left guard position, which will fall into place after the third preseason game, involves Quinn Ojannaka, Kevin Hughes, Bryan Mattison and the rookie Rok Watkins. Dividing up playing time in the preseason is tough for any position, but for the offensive line it gets a little tricky. If you’re trying to gain continuity, it’s tough. Free agent Scott Wells has yet to practice, missing OTA’s and mini camps. Coach Fisher has said the veteran center, and leader of the offensive line, will see action in the second or third preseason game. For now, back-up center Robert Turner is carrying the load and taking all the snaps with the first unit and doing very well.
The coaches and personnel men want to see pure reps and that’s fine, but depending on the flow of the game these big men may be limited to equal rotation. So each and every rep counts from here on out. The depth of the offensive line is a concern, when it comes to experience, one injury may send a rippling effect. It could lead to shuffling players around in order to close the hole in a dike.
Tight Ends: When you look at the tight end position, there are several questions yet to be answered. Can Lance Kendricks become more consistent in his approach to his game, in both blocking and receiving skills, and take his performance to the next level like we saw in 2011 preseason?
“I think he’s improved. The coaches feel like he’s improved, we feel like he’s improved. Not only in the on-line blocking or in-line blocking with the matchups with the big guys, but also the route running. The hands could become a little more consistent, but he is raw. I think he’s having a good camp,” Fisher said.
Will Michael Hoomanawanui stay healthy through a 16 week schedule after rehabbing his knee injury for most of the off-season? Coach Fisher loves versatile tight ends in his offense that can do a lot of different things (inline blocking, move lead blocking, receiving) but can he stay on the field? The fiercest battle is between Matthew Mulligan, Mike McNeil and college free agent Jamie Childers to close out the position.
Wide Receivers: Surrounding Sam Bradford with weapons outside the numbers was a major goal during the off season. While this team still lacks a true number one receiver, the Rams are building depth at the position with a good mix of veterans and youth for the 2012 campaign. Early leaders at the receiver position are Brandon Gibson, who had an outstanding off season which has carried over into training camp, and it is clear that Bradford has total confidence in Gibson. Last season Gibson showed flashes of good development, but his concentration was not always consistent and that led to dropped passes. He seems to have that issue under control so far this year.
Danny Amendola is back from an elbow and triceps injury which cut his 2011 season short, landing him on IR (injured reserve). This tough and versatile receiver is quickly returning to form and at some point will return as Bradford’s comfort zone on underneath routes. He will also return punts with toughness, vision, production and total disregard for his body to hit the crease. That type of play has earned him the nickname (out of respect) I gave him as the “human crash dummy.” He has a big heart and is extremely competitive.
Others with very good upside are Greg Salas and the rookies Brain Quick and Chris Givens. The Rams signed unrestricted free agent Steve Smith, who spent last season on the Philadelphia Eagles IR list, and missed the season after undergoing a micro fracture knee procedure. Smith displayed a very good skill set with production in 2009 and the Rams are hopeful Smith can regain that level of play in 2012. When healthy, the Rams biggest playmaker outside the numbers is Danario Alexander. Better known as DX, his injury history is well documented and has plagued his development. When he is healthy, he flashes pro bowl qualities for the position. The question is will Coach Fisher and his staff be willing to work through rehabbing, missing practices and games? Alexander has yet to complete a full 16 game schedule.
A player who is developing right before our eyes in Austin Pettis, a second year receiver out of Boise State. He has had an outstanding camp thus far and on Wednesday looked seasoned and ready to take it to the next level. He will, however, miss the first two games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He started his four game suspension at the end of 2011, missing two games. He will finish the suspension by missing the first two games in 2012. The Rams most likely will place Pettis on Reserve/Suspended and will make a decision on his future after the suspension is lifted. Other young receivers to watch are Nick Johnson and Mike Campbell.
When Offensive Coordinator Brian Shottenheimer, who goes by the nickname of “Shottey,” was asked if the team has a clear cut number one receiver he responded, “It really doesn’t matter. I think we have a couple guys that we’re going to put in spots to make plays. Somebody asked me about that. I’ve been other places where you have a so-called No. 1 receiver and it’s easy to double that guy. We’re looking for a bunch of weapons. They’re hard to find when you put them in different spots all over the field. That way, we can take advantage of matchups. But we’re very, very pleased with where we are. A lot of the young guys are coming along. I think you see a guy like Brian Quick picking it up now. For him, third, fourth time he’s starting to get it. Chris Givens is showing up and then of course the veterans, they’re still a little bit ahead because they have a little bit more of the system than the ‘rooks’ do.”
While the Rams youth may hurt them early, the building of a championship foundation has started. Fisher and his staff are preparing this young team for their first preseason game against the Colts on Sunday. The Rams look to establish a true gauge on were the team currently stands in regards to conditioning, knowledge of the scheme and the quality of depth. A lot of questions will be answered.
NOTE: We will examine the defense on Friday, and take a look at special teams.