By Rams Nation’s Barry Waller
No one expected many changes in the Rams roster from the one that finished last season, except for LB Jamie Duncan and WR Terrance Wilkins the replacements for lost free agents London Fletcher and Az Zahir Hakim, to the Bills and Lions respectively, and there have been very few surprises at all as the final cuts were made.
As expected, a couple veterans cut from other rosters were picked up to provide experienced depth, most notably defensive end Bryce Fisher from the Bills and safety Chad Cota from the Niners, as well as Grant Williams, acquired from New England in a trade to finally give the Rams a capable backup at both offensive tackle positions, as well as push new starter John St. Clair to start at right tackle. This week the Rams traded another late rounder for former Steelers #1 Troy Edwards, whose career had gone downhill in Pittsburgh after a fine rookie season in 1999.
That move, seemingly a small risk for such a talented athlete, made perfect sense, even with four very good to superstar receivers ahead of the newest Rams offensive weapon. Edwards has been a good return and special teams man, which is why the young receivers vying to make the team are now ex-Rams, except for Frankie St. Paul, who made the practice squad again in a quest to become the latest Darrius Blevins, hanging around for several seasons, and 3rd rounder Eric Crouch, who will be given time to become another bullet for Mike Martz big gun.
In Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl, Wilkins, and Edwards, the Rams have as formidable a group of wide outs as anyone has assembled in the NFL, with 1508 catches, 21,934 receiving yards and 129 receiving TDs as a group. And wide receiver may be their third best position, though still the class of the NFL. Yo Murphy also has made the team, at least for now.
When you have Marshall Faulk, probably the best player in football and a sure first ballot Hall Of Famer already, the running back position is already at the top of the league. When you add youngster Trung Canidate, who was incredibly productive in Faulk’s absence in 2001, though not as secure with the football, would start for half of the NFL teams if not more, you have the top tandem in the league, and it isn’t close. Add impressive rookie Lamar Gordon to the mix, and the running back depth chart appears set for years, barring a trade if Canidate gets too bummed out backing up Faulk, who is looking to tally over 2000 combined yards for an unbelievable fifth straight year.
If Faulk is the heart and legs of the Rams offense, then two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner is the head and arms. If one wants to understand why the Rams offense is so focused and so great, yet without the arrogance that leads to failure, they need look no further than #13 for the answer. Here is a quarterback who has shattered too many records to mention in three seasons as starter, a guy with a 103 career QB rating and over 12000 yards passing and 98 TD passes in the regular season, not to mention 500 points or more every season for his offense and the two best passing performances in Super Bowl history. Yet Warner feels he can and is getting even better, an idea that is scary at best, and almost ridiculous to fathom, but not a bit to Warner.
“ The biggest thing I have noticed over the years I’ve been playing is my understanding and knowledge of our offense and about what we are trying to do gets better and better,” said Warner in his Wednesday interview with the media at Rams Park, after deservedly receiving the St. Louis chapter of the Pro football Writers Assn. Award for being the most media friendly Rams player. “ I am able to take all the information that comes in that I deal with and decipher it much quicker, as far as who the ball goes to and reading what the defense is doing, and get through my reads quicker” he continued.
In the Rams scheme, playing QB is all about getting the ball to the playmaker
with the best matchup, which Warner explained,
“ SO many more times last year I got to my 3rd and 4th receiver than I ever did my first two years. That’s where I think I am improving the most, in those areas of deciphering things and making decisions quicker, and getting the ball to the right guy in the right situation. That’s what I try to work on, actually being ahead of the game, and getting it to our playmakers where they can do something with it.”
Sure doesn’t sound like a guy who will become complacent, or will rest on his laurels. Warner is 100% healthy as well as the season begins, with no trouble from his thumb that bothered him in 2001, though not enough to keep him from winning his second league MVP trophy. The backup QB situation is also improved in St. Louis, as Jamie Martin and Marc Bulger have a year in Martz’ system.
Even with the best “skill” positions covered, an offense could sputter without a top line, including good tight ends, and the Rams are excellent, though a bit thin in those areas, starting with the best left tackle in the game, according to many NFL publications, Orlando Pace. Pace has lived up to the huge expectations that followed him to the league as the overall #1 pick in 1997, and he anchors a very good line that returns intact except for right tackle St. Clair, who replaces the duo of Ryan Tucker and Rod Jones, let go and unsigned respectively by the team.
The Rams brought in Williams late in pre-season to back up both tackles, and had added veteran guard Heath Irwin over the off season, which made Cameron Spikes and Kaulana Noa, former mid round draft picks, expendable, and both were cut. Veteran guard Frank Garcia may have had trouble holding off rookie Travis Scott, the teams 4th round pick, who was having a good pre-season, but Scott ended up on injured reserve after hurting his shoulder in the Bears game. In fact, all of the Rams draft picks this season made the roster so far, except Scott and safety Steve Bellisari, the 6th round pick.
As long as guards Tom Nutten and Pro Bowler Adam Timmerman, along with underrated center Andy McCollum, stay healthy, the line should be very good again, with John St. Clair showing even more improvement than he has after a dreadful pre season start.
The key word for the Rams tight end duo of Ernie Conwell and second year player Brandon Manumaleuna is LARGE. Conwell, at a super strong 6’2 265, is a bulldozer who can catch the ball and also block better than any NFL “blocking” tight end, but he is dwarfed by the 6’2 300 pound of Samoan descent. Martz has been touting Manumaleuna since last season, though he did not see much action behind departed Jeff Robinson. This pre-season he has shown the soft hands and incredible athleticism for a huge man that Martz has raved about.
If one were to try to think like Martz and wonder what may be going on in the closed Rams practices leading up to the opener, it may lead to considering what two jumbo tight ends could do to a defense stacked with half a dozen 190 pound defensive backs to stop the Rams speed demon wide outs. Any defensive back wanting to show his manhood by smashing Bruce and Holt may think twice if they are “softened up” a bit by the punishing tight ends across the middle.
The Rams will use both tight ends quite a bit early on, as fullback James “ The Hammer” Hodgins rehabs his broken foot. The backup FB, veteran Chris Hetherington, is known more as a runner and receiver than as a punishing blocker. The Rams replaced Robinson as deep snapper with seventh round pick Chris Massey, who has won the job and been impressive doing it in Pre-Season and practice. Massey is taking reps as a fullback as well to give the Rams some depth at that spot, and though he is smallish, he is very scrappy and has been good on special teams overall, just as Robinson has been for the last three seasons.
The kicking game is in good hands, or more precisely, feet, as Jeff Wilkins returns again for his sixth season in St. Louis. Only Bruce and Conwell have been with the team longer than Wilkins, one of the leagues most reliable kickers when healthy, and also a very good tackler, unlike some NFL kickers. Wilkins has been kicking barefoot in pre season, and though he has been successful, one wonders if there is increased chance of injury should he be forced to make as many tackles as he has in the past.
The Rams drastically upgraded their return teams and the punting game by adding Wilkins, Edwards and former Pro Bowler Mitch Berger, which should lead to better field position if the coverage teams can get things turned around after a horrid August.
On defense, Lovie Smith fields an even faster team than in 2001, and now they have a year under their belt. They brought in Jamie Duncan to replace Fletcher, and the difference should not be large in terms of production, as Smith knows Duncan well from his Tampa Bay days.
The other starting linebacker spots are manned by Tommy Polley, off an impressive rookie season, and returning starter Don Davis, who fought off the challenge of top pick Robert Thomas. Fifth round pick Courtland Bullard and Kole Ayi are the other backups. Linebacker remains the thinnest group on the roster, so the starters better stay healthy.
Defensive line coach Bill Kollar has plenty of talent to work with in his line rotation system, lead by defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little, who may be the best pair in the league at their position. Little will have to play more than he has in the past, but the signing of Fisher and the ability of Damione Lewis, Tyoka Jackson, and Brian Young to play outside certainly eases any fear on the outside of the D-line, and the inside group of those three along with former #1 pick Ryan “Big Grease” Pickett and underrated run stuffing veteran Jeff Zgonina should provide plenty of talent for Kollar to utilize. Veteran John Burrough fills the final spot at DE, at least for now.
The defensive backfield looks far better than last season, as dazzling playmaker Dre Bly has finally beaten out Dexter McCleon opposite Aeneas Williams. Still McCleon is a starting quality NFL player, so he will see lots of action as the nickel back as well as backing up at safety. Jerametrius Butler and rookie #2 pick Travis Fisher, along with promising ex-Michigan Wolverine James Whitley will battle for the dime back position, and all have had very good moments in camp and pre-season.
Adam Archuleta and Kim Herring return as the safeties, now with a year playing together, and Nick Sorenson provides not only a backup, but also a player with future starting potential at free safety. Veteran Chad Cota was signed to solidify the position after rich Coady was cut loose and Belisari placed on IR.
Except for Hodgins and Edwards, out a couple more weeks at least with a bum knee, and possibly Little if his thigh bruise is still making running difficult, the Rams are healthy, as Martz gave his top troops plenty of time to heal up in pre-season, so they would be 100% by the opener. Since February, everything Martz has done has pointed towards Sunday in Denver, and finally, at long last for Martz, his players, and Rams fans alike, the time is here.