TSX: St. Louis Rams Preview
Steven Jackson (Getty/Ronald Martinez)
Steven Jackson (Getty/Ronald Martinez)
Special to GridIronGateway.com
Posted Sep 7, 2010


For a team that averaged less than 11 points a game in 2009, it was paramount that the Rams exit training camp with a unit that had the potential to be a lot better.

To do that meant making sure running back Steven Jackson was healthy following April back surgery, putting together an offensive line that could hopefully develop chemistry and, most importantly, getting rookie quarterback Sam Bradford ready to play.

It appears to be mission accomplished on all those fronts, which has resulted in some guarded optimism surrounding a team that has won just six of 48 games over the past three seasons.

There remain questions about the wide receiver corps, but the tight end group looks promising. Still, everyone knows a healthy Jackson is most important.

Said Jackson, three days before the preseason finale against Baltimore, "I'm really excited. I'm ready for Sept. 12. As the days go by, I'm getting more anxious.

"I think as an offensive group, we're making great strides. For us to have so many young guys and be able to move the ball like we have these last two preseason games, it's very encouraging. We're going in the right direction."

Most impressive was how Bradford played in third preseason game against New England. Bradford will be under center when the season opens Sept. 12 at home against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals.

The line is providing the most hope. At the end of OTAs in June, there were six offensive linemen on the sideline, including left tackle Rodger Saffold (knee), left guard Jacob Bell (knee) and right tackle Jason Smith (toe).

When camp opened, Saffold was at left tackle with Smith limited. Bell was sidelined by an abdominal injury and didn't play in the first preseason game. Smith played, but struggled in pass coverage against Minnesota.

However, Bell returned following the game against the Vikings, and since then, the first unit hasn't missed a practice or game.

It all came together against the Patriots as the Rams totaled 462 yards and scored 36 points.

"Much better," Spagnuolo said of the play of the line. "I thought they all worked well together. I think the left side of the line is coming together; the right side is following. The communication is much better."

And with that is the hope that the offense can make three awful seasons a distant memory.

COACHING: Steve Spagnuolo, 2nd year, 2nd with Rams (1-15).

REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 1-15 (4th in NFC West).

PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record 5-11 (3rd in NFC West).

NOTES, QUOTES

- The Rams added experience to their receiver corps with the acquisition of Mark Clayton from the Baltimore Ravens. A first-round pick in 2005, Clayton, 5-11 and 190, had 34 receptions for 480 yards (14.1-yard average) and two touchdowns last season. He had nine 100-yard games in his career with Baltimore, a franchise record.

The Rams will reportedly send a sixth-round pick in 2011 to the Ravens and receive a seventh-rounder from Baltimore.

Clayton became expendable when the Ravens reached an agreement with WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Clayton will be playing under terms of the restricted free-agent tender of $2.277 million that he signed with the Ravens.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of Clayton, "You never reach a point when it's easy to release or trade a player you respect. Everyone here has the highest regard for Mark. He'll help the Rams, and it's good for him that they reached out to get him.

"Mark is a good person who did everything he could to help the Ravens on and off the field. In the end, we have to do what we think is best for the team, but letting Mark go hurts. He was first class all the way, even when we met with him about the trade. This is a tough part of the business."

Said Clayton, "It's a business. You always know that going into anything. I'm excited. Itís a great opportunity. I want to take advantage of it and contribute right away."

On leaving Baltimore, he said, "I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the organization. I had so many great relationships. I did a lot of growing up and maturing here. Now, it's time for me to move on. I'm going to miss everybody."

Clayton suffered a concussion in the Ravens' Aug. 28 game against the Giants, and hasnít practiced or played since then. However, Baltimore had just two practices and a walk-through before their final preseason game against the Rams last Thursday.

- In addition to nine of their 11 draft picks that made the roster as the first practice of the week was held Monday, the Rams also had five rookie undrafted free agent on the team. That gave them 14 rookies among the 53 players.

The undrafted free agents were QB Thaddeus Lewis, RB Keith Toston, WR Dominique Curry, S Darian Stewart and DT Jermelle Cudjo.

On Saturday, the Rams had a short practice, and some players were being tapped on the shoulder to be given the bad news.

Said Toston, "My head was on a swivel. I kept hoping no one walked up to me."

Saying how he believed he continued improving throughout the preseason, Toston said, "Coach (Sylvester) Croom helped me out a whole lot. I feel I got better every game."

In the preseason finale against Baltimore, Toston had 47 yards on 10 carries.

Lewis said he knew he had made the team when coach Steve Spagnuolo entered the quarterbacks meeting room before practice, mostly to inform them that Sam Bradford would be the starter. Spagnuolo told the trio, that also included A.J. Feeley, they would be the three quarterbacks on the roster.

Keith Null was not in the room, but Lewis didn't take anything for granted until he was told, knowing he could have been ticketed for the practice squad if the team decided to have just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

"You never know," Lewis said.

Said Spagnuolo, "Those guys (undrafted free agents) earned it. We kept what we felt were our best football players."

- At one point in the preseason, it appeared as if WR Brandon Gibson might have an uphill battle making the roster. A hamstring injury limited him during OTAs, and also cost him several practices in training camp and the first two games of the preseason.

But Gibson got healthy, played well in the final two games, and then more opportunity developed when Donnie Avery tore the ACL in his knee in the third preseason game against New England.

Gibson had four receptions for 40 yards, including a leaping touchdown catch in the end zone.

Asked about Gibson and WR Keenan Burton, Spagnuolo said, "Keenan is a pro. He is what you want all your guys to be like on and off the field and in the meeting rooms and with the other players. Now, he's had to battle some injuries, but he's done it. That tells you a lot about the character of that guy. He made a nice catch (against Baltimore) and certainly going back to last week, I still go back to that third-down play where he willed himself to get the first down, and that says a lot about him. Brandon stepped up. "He's a competitor, so both of those guys have done a nice job."

- The Rams will be patient with WR Danario Alexander, who was waived in the cut to 53 players and added to the practice squad. Alexander has had four surgeries on his left knee, including one after the Senior Bowl, and wasn't cleared to practice until early July. He practices with a brace on his leg.

Said Spagnuolo, "The knee where he had the surgery, the thigh and everything there is still atrophied. It's not the muscle mass around (and) it is not ready and if you put somebody out there that is in that situation, you run the risk of another type of injury: a groin, a hamstring. I like the way he handles himself and the way he works. He's got a lot of good things about him, but just health-wise right now, he's got a long way to go."

- Does QB Sam Bradford have a strong arm? Just ask WR Danny Amendola. After the game against New England, Amendola had to have six stitches to repair a gash between his fingers that was the result of a Bradford pass. And Amendola was wearing gloves.

"(He) can wing it," Amendola said of Bradford. "I think it was the first (pass). I just looked down and my glove was all bloody. At the time I didn't feel it. At halftime I took my glove off and it was sliced pretty good, so I got some stitches."

Amendola showed the cut to Bradford after the game. Said Bradford, "It did look pretty nasty."

Said coach Steve Spagnuolo of Amendola, "You've got to kind of keep him from hurting himself. He just wants to go, go, go, which is a good problem to have. I love the way he plays and competes. ... I think it's great for our team, and the other guys see it, too. And I think they feed off of it."

- The thumb injury suffered by QB A.J. Feeley in the second preseason game not only made Sam Bradford the starter for the final two preseason games, but it also enabled Bradford to get all the reps with the first-team offense. Prior to that, he and Feeley had been splitting those snaps.

Said Bradford, "It's definitely helped being in there with those guys. Just being in the huddle with them more, being on the field, getting reps with the same guys at receiver, it just helps. I'm really kind of starting to jell with those guys out there a little bit. Any time I can get more reps, it just makes me feel more comfortable with those guys."

BY THE NUMBERS: 14 - Number of consecutive division games the Rams have lost.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was great to see Mr. Kroenke come in, talk to the team. Talk to us about how he's excited about taking over the ownership. He's in it for the long haul. He's been a part of the Rams' organization for quite some time, and he just wanted to reassure us that he's a big supporter of us." -- RB Steven Jackson on the presence of new majority owner Stan Kroenke at the team's third preseason game against New England.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Rams had yet to make a move Monday after the addition of WR Mark Clayton because the trade wasnít officially reported to the league. A player will have to come off the roster Tuesday.

PLAYER NOTES

- S James Butler practiced Monday and looks like he might be available for Sunday's game against Arizona. Coach Steve Spagnuolo still termed his availability "day-to-day."

- TE Daniel Fells, who has been bothered by a knee injury during training camp and tweaked the knee in the final preseason game, practiced Monday and should be fine for the season opener.

- DE James Hall, who has been sidelined with a groin injury during training camp, did "what we consider normal reps for him" Monday, according to coach Steve Spagnuolo.

- DE George Selvie is vying to be the right end in passing situations after coming back from a leg injury that limited him during the preseason.

- CB Justin King might have a leg up on the competition for the job as nickel corner. King has been competing with Kevin Dockery and rookie Jerome Murphy, all of whom had injury issues during the preseason.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/1, QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma - It would be a surprise if Bradford isn't the starter when the season opens. He has showed rapid improvement and, more important, has impressed his teammates.

Rd. 2/33, OT Rodger Saffold, Indiana - He's been the starting left tackle from the first day of training camp and hasn't missed a snap. A natural pass blocker, Saffold should be at this spot for a long time.

Rd. 3/65, CB Jerome Murphy, South Florida - An ankle injury slowed him during training camp, but he's in the hunt to be the nickel corner.

Rd. 4/99, WR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati - Was slowed by missing some OTAs and then was hampered by a forearm injury, but he's coming on strong, and should get even more opportunity after the season-ending knee surgery suffered by Donnie Avery.

Rd. 5/132, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois - The Rams became impressed with his hands during Senior Bowl week, and he hasn't disappointed. Has a chance to be the top receiving threat at tight end.

Rd. 6/170, TE Fendi Onobun, Houston - The coaches are trying to figure out a way to get his speed on the field. Still raw with only one season of college experience, he has the ability to stretch the field.

Rd. 6/189, DE Eugene Sims, West Texas A&M - Is making a late push for a roster spot after an early camp injury, and has a chance to be a contributor.

Rd. 7/226, DE George Selvie, South Florida - Was off to a good start in camp when a leg injury put him on the sideline. He's back now, and could end up being a situational rush end on the right side.

Rd. 7/254, LB Josh Hull, Penn State - Next-to-last pick in the entire draft, but he's played at a higher level than that. Might end up as the backup in the middle, and has special-teams ability.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Sam Bradford. Backups - A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis.

We'll never know what would have happened had Feeley not injured his thumb in the second preseason game, but that enabled Bradford to get all the snaps with the first team in practice. He was outstanding against New England, but coach Steve Spagnuolo is waiting for the final game against Baltimore before making a decision. It would be a shock now if it's not Bradford. Feeley is a big help because of his experience in the offense, but Bradford has quickly made the offense his offense. There was a spirited battle for the No. 3 job between Keith Null and Lewis. Null had one season in the offense, but Lewis brings a dimension of speed that could make him attractive. It did and Lewis won the job.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney. Backups - Kenneth Darby, Keith Toston.

Jackson has exhibited no ill effects from April back surgery, and is ready for the start of the season. He has matured into a leader and never complains that he has been toiling for a bad team. Jackson is invested in the program and believes he can be part of a turnaround. Of course, he needs to stay healthy because of the depth behind him. Darby is OK in brief appearances if necessary, but if Jackson were to miss extended time it likely wouldn't be good. Darby is a solid pass-catcher. Toston has shown some power, and might have potential. Karney has stayed healthy this summer, something he wasn't able to do last year, and remains a banger in the running game.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Billy Bajema. Backups - Michael Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun, Daniel Fells.

Fells' 2009 season ended because of a knee injury, and his knee has limited him this summer. Plus, when Fells plays, while having the ability to make plays, his consistency is lacking. Bajema is a solid blocker, and adequate as a pass-catcher. Hoomanawanui scored two touchdowns in the third preseason game against New England, and is an absolute bargain for a fifth-round pick. Onobun is more advanced than coaches thought he would be, and he could end up being used on the outside as more of a receiver than tight end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola. Backups - Brandon Gibson, Keenan Burton, Mardy Gilyard, Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry.

The loss of Donnie Avery stung. Entering his third season, improvement was expected, and even though he hadn't lived up to expectations, he was still a starter when his knee blew out against the Patriots. His speed will be difficult to replace. Robinson is solid, but the question is how the Rams will deploy the other receivers. Amendola is more of a slot receiver, but he might be needed on the outside unless someone else steps up. Gibson showed promise last season after being acquired in a trade in October, but a hamstring injury affected his OTA work and for times during training camp. He did score a touchdown against New England, and has finally had two weeks of practice. If he can stay healthy, he can be productive. Gilyard will also get a shot on the outside, and it could be that coaches will use a variety of different packages. Clayton was acquired Monday in a trade with Baltimore and will have to be a fast track to learn the offense and his new teammates. Curry earned the sixth spot on the basis of potential ands good special teams play, but might be vulnerable after the addition of Clayton.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Rodger Saffold, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Adam Goldberg, RT Jason Smith. Backups - C/G Hank Fraley, T/G Renardo Foster, G John Greco, T/G Renardo Foster.

Knock on wood: If the starting line can stay together, this unit is a lot better than popular perception. The Rams played their best offense last season when the four starters from Bell to Smith were in the lineup for three straight games. Saffold replaces Alex Barron, and while there will be some growing pains, Saffold wants it a lot more than Barron ever did. The key is staying together, which means avoiding injury. Bell had injury concerns last season and this year in OTAs and early in camp. Smith has had a knee injury, concussion and toe injury since last September. Depth is a major concern. Fraley is the most experienced backup, and after him, there is a void.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Chris Long, DT Fred Robbins, DT Gary Gibson, DRE James Hall. Backups - DE George Selvie, DE Eugene Sims, DE C.J. Ah You, DT Clifton Ryan, DT Darell Scott, DT Jermelle Cudjo.

The biggest surprise of camp was when Gibson moved ahead of Ryan as a starter inside. Could Ryan be in danger of being released because of his $1.684 million contract? Perhaps. Hall, who has missed a few weeks because of a hip injury, is expected to be ready for the opener, and he usually moves inside on passing downs. The wild card is Cudjo, an undrafted free agent who has been impressive. Robbins adds experience to the line, and he also has the ability to penetrate. At end, Long is comfortable on the left side and should be able to reach double digits in sacks. Sims and Selvie pushed Victor Adeyanju off the roster. Coaches still like Ah You, who also can fill in on the inside. Cudjo made the team as an undrafted free agent.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Larry Grant, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Na'il Diggs. Backups - Chris Chamberlain, David Vobora, Josh Hull.

Laurinaitis is the leader of this group and the leader of the defense. Grant was the surprise of the summer, and he has solidified his spot as a starter on the weak side, with Diggs on the strong side. The coaches like Chamberlain as the nickel linebacker, which made Carpenter vulnerable when the decision was made to keep six linebackers.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Ron Bartell, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Oshiomogho Atogwe, S Craig Dahl. Backups - CB Kevin Dockery, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Justin King, S James Butler, S Darian Stewart.

The corners are strong with Bartell and Fletcher, especially with Fletcher apparently having made it back from his season-ending knee injury. The competition is for the nickel corner between Dockery, King and Murphy. Atogwe shows no signs of problems from his 2009 shoulder injury. Dahl holds down the other safety spot until James Butler (knee) is healthy. Stewart stole a roster spot with Kevin Payne (knee) going on injured reserve.

SPECIALISTS: PK Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Mardy Gilyard, PR Danny Amendola.

This remains the unit without many questions. Brown has been kicking as good as ever after missing time in camp with a hip injury. Since returning, he has made seven consecutive field-goal attempts. Jones and Massey remain as consistent as anyone in the league at their positions. One question is how the return duties will be split. With Amendola having a larger role in the offense, it's unlikely that he would return kickoffs and punts. It's possible Amendola will be the punt returner, with Gilyard returning kickoffs.



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