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NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - INSIDE SLANT
It's year two of coach Jeff Fisher with the Rams, and there is a sense of confidence and calm that envelopes the team. That, despite a roster that is overwhelmingly young, especially on offense.
Fisher and his coaching staff aren't afraid of playing young players, as evidenced by last season, and that is expected to continue in 2013.
Thus, aside from position questions, the most important goal of training camp will be getting a young offense game-ready for the regular season.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer loves the pieces he's been given to be creative on offense, and he will likely use them all. While second-year running back Daryl Richardson is listed as the projected starter on the team's camp depth chart, Isaiah Pead and rookie Zac Stacy will have something to say about that.
Of course, while someone has to officially start the game, Schottenheimer will likely find numerous ways to use them all. The question will be whether anyone can keep the defense honest and allow the passing game to be effective.
Defensively, the biggest question mark is at safety, where 2012 starters Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl are gone. Some experience was added with the late offseason signing of Matt Giordano, and he will have to get up to speed quickly.
The current starters are Darian Stewart and Rodney McLeod, but those names are clearly written in pencil. Unknown is whether anyone else can step up and challenge for significant playing time.
Fisher always emphasizes doing well in division games, which the Rams did last season with a 4-1-1 record. However, they were 3-7 in other games, so we'll see if Fisher balances those goals.
On the hot seat: Quarterback Sam Bradford. It's not a make-or-break year for Bradford, as some have described it, but is accurate to say Bradford needs to take more positive steps this season. He is establishing himself as a team leader following the departure of running back Steven Jackson, but most important is that Bradford is emboldened by being in the same offense for the second straight season. Still, the talent around him is very young and inexperienced. No running back has been in the league for more than one season. Austin Pettis is the most experienced of the wide receivers, and he's played just two seasons. Bradford will be challenged to help bring the group together and get the best out of everyone, especially rookie receiver Tavon Austin.
Cause for Concern: How will the young running backs pass protect? Said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, "That will be the biggest question because obviously 'Jack' (Steven Jackson) gave us that. Our defense gives us some really tough looks, which has been good. We ask a lot of our backs, and again, so far, so good, but there will be some things that come up that we'll just coach them up and show them video. That's how these guys are going to learn. They're going to learn by making mistakes and the more that they see now will help them when we get to the season opener."
Breakthrough star: It seems too obvious, but rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin has a load of expectations on his shoulders. He could line up in the backfield, and is also expected to return kicks. His presence alone should create opportunities for other players on offense. Former Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce said of Austin to espn.com, "He's electrifying. I mean, you look at this guy; he can stop on a dime and leave you two nickels. He can get vertical and then run away from you. That's a rarity in the league."
Position battles: Left guard -- That spot was open last summer and is again. Rob Turner eventually won the job, but left for Tennessee in free agency. After he departed, the Rams re-signed Chris Williams, and he will compete with Shelley Smith and Rokevious Watkins to be the starter.
Blocking tight end -- Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are the top two tight ends, and Kendricks improved as a blocker and receiver last season. The third tight end will come down to a competition between Mike McNeill and Zach Potter.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - NOTES, QUOTES
--The four-year contract extension signed by Rams long snapper Jake McQuaide is essentially a minimum-salary deal that also includes a $500,000 signing bonus.
Entering the final year of the three-year deal he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011, McQuaide was scheduled to be paid $555,000 this season, the minimum for a player with two accrued seasons. That remains his salary for 2013.
In subsequent years, his salary is $645,000 (league minimum) in 2014, $750,000 ($5,000 more than league minimum in 2015), $775,000 ($15,000 more than league minimum) in 2016 and $775,000 (league minimum) in 2017.
The value of the extension, including the signing bonus but not including the 2013 base salary is $3.445 million.
Prior to signing the extension, McQuaide counted $555,834 against the salary cap, with the $834 the prorated portion of his original $2,500 signing bonus. With the new bonus prorated over five years, his cap charge now for 2013 is $655,834.
The Rams are currently about $214,000 under the cap.
--Cornerback Janoris Jenkins told NFL Network he's been impressed with the team's rookie receiver Tavon Austin.
"He's pretty fast, he's a dynamic receiver. Great speed, great hands, great quickness," Jenkins said. "I think he can be very special. He's just got to work, stay focused and, like I said, just put himself around positive people. But as far as talent-wise he has it all."
--After OTAs concluded on June 14, the team's rookies stayed around for another week. But the focus wasn't on football. There was conditioning work with strength coach Rock Gullickson, but much of the time was spent helping players with the transition from college to the NFL, as well as participating in several community events.
It began with the opening of the Rams Training Academy, a facility that will have camps and clinics for area youth. On the first day, there was a camp for 175 kids.
Molly Higgins, the organization's vice-president of corporate communications/civic affairs, told the team website, "While Rookie Week began in 2010, it has grown leaps in bounds in the past two years under (general manager) Les (Snead), coach (Jeff Fisher) and (executive vice president of football operations) Kevin (Demoff) as they all place a tremendous emphasis on developing the players in order to put them in a great position to have success both on and off the field.
"It's an opportunity for the staff members who are involved with the players to come together and collectively prepare the guys for that transition from playing football on the collegiate level to becoming an NFL player and all of the various aspects associated with being a true professional. It's something we all take very seriously and are passionate about."
All of the team's rookies, including undrafted free agents, took part. Undrafted free-agent safety Cody Davis told the website, "I think it's valuable to go out and do this. We also get an extra week of working out and conditioning which will help us going into the break."
--Safety Matt Daniels hardly participated in OTAs last year because of a knee injury suffered during his senior year at UCLA. He did enough in training camp to earn a roster spot as an undrafted free agent, but then suffered another knee injury at the end of October that cost him the remainder of the season. So, there he was on the sideline for this year's offseason workouts.
Acknowledging the frustration, Daniels told the Rams' website, "There's a big opportunity at the safety spot and it is frustrating at times knowing I can't be out there to seize the opportunity that is in front of me but training camp comes around and it's wide open. The best will play; it's as simple as that. So all I can do at this point is just focus on getting 100 percent healthy and once I am healthy just go from there and do whatever it is I have to do."
When the team was dismissed after OTAs ended June 14, Daniels said he wouldn't be going anywhere in the time leading up to the start of training camp July 25.
"For the next six weeks I am here," he said. "I don't want to go away and come back not 100 percent and then they are sitting there wondering what I was doing. I'd rather put my health in their hands. I know this training staff will do what they need to do to get me back right and on the field."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's great motivation. You look around the entire defense; the safety position might actually be the youngest within the team, especially on the defense. We are stout at all positions, but everyone does question the safety spot. But I don't question it at all and neither do the coaches or the guys that play the spot. We are looking for the opportunity to go out and make an impact quick and show them just how good we actually are. It's going to be fun come camp time to go out and see who really shines and who is willing to go out and make the plays." - Safety Matt Daniels on the youth and competition at safety.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Sam Bradford. Backups - Austin Davis, Kellen Clemens, Tim Jenkins.
Bradford is comfortable with the team's offense, now operating with the same system for the second consecutive season. That's the first time that is happened in his brief NFL career. Most important, he likes the weapons that have been added. It's obvious Bradford showed growth last season, not only in overall numbers, but also in leading several fourth-quarter comebacks. His red-zone proficiency improved in the second half of the season, and that should continue in 2013. Davis is expected to ascend to the No. 2 job, but Clemens won't let it go without a fight. His experience will still be valuable to have around.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Daryl Richardson. Backups - Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway, Chase Reynolds, Bennie Cunningham, FB Eric Stevens.
Can you spell running back by committee? Carries could vary from game to game, as the best combination is put on the field. Richardson was the most productive of any of the returning backs on the roster last year, but he did tail off at the end of the 2012 season. Pead had a season to forget, plus he will miss the first game of the season because of a league suspension. However, he has the quickness and speed to give the offense additional explosiveness at the position. Stacy will be in the mix for perhaps some of the tough yards, while Ganaway will also compete. Keep an eye on Cunningham, an undrafted free agent who was very productive in college.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks. Backups - Mike McNeill, Zach Potter, Cory Harkey, Cameron Graham, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Colby Prince.
Cook and Bradford were already hitting it off in OTAs, and Cook can't contain his excitement at potentially being a focal point of the offense, something that wasn't the case when he was in Tennessee. He has the ability to get downfield, and that should open things up for the wide receivers. Kendricks is probably the most complete tight end on the roster; he improved as a pass-catcher last season, and is also a proficient blocker. McNeill, Potter and Harkey will compete for the role as blocking tight end, and two could make the roster if four are kept. The Rams are going to camp with eight tight ends and only nine wide receivers.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Chris Givens, Austin Pettis. Backups - Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey, Nick Johnson, Raymond Radway, Emory Blake, Andrew Helmick.
The first five are basically set; the only question is how they will be used. Like the running backs, there will likely be opportunities for all because of the different attributes each brings. Givens established himself as a deep threat last season, and this year added strength in the offseason to become a more complete player. His speed will be utilized frequently. Pettis has the knack for making plays on third down and in the red zone. Austin will get plenty of looks from the slot with his dazzling quickness, and might also be used out of the backfield at times. Quick will work to win a starting job from Pettis, as he looks to make a big leap from a learning year as a rookie. His height should make him a weapon in the red zone. Bailey has the ability to get the ball, and also is expected to contribute as a rookie.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jake Long, LG Chris Williams, C Scott Wells, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Rodger Saffold. Backups - T Joe Barksdale, T Ty Nsekhe, G Shelley Smith, G Rokevious Watkins, G/C Barrett Jones, C Tim Barnes, G Brandon Washington, T Braden Brown, T Sean Hooey, C/G Ryan Lee, G Kevin Saia.
None of the linemen managed to play 16 games last season, and that creates questions. Long (12 with Miami), Wells (seven) and Saffold (10) combined to play just 29 games in 2012. Dahl also missed the final two games of the season. Long said in the offseason he felt as good as he has in years, but he also hadn't played a game since Dec. 2. Saffold is adjusting to a move to the right side, a position he hasn't played since being a teenager. Wells was able to practice in the offseason, but it will be important that continues. Still, the biggest question is at left guard, where Williams will be competing with Smith and Watkins. Jones can't be counted out, but he wasn't able to participate in OTAs because of a foot injury suffered at the end of Alabama's season. Barksdale and the raw Nsekhe are currently the backup tackles.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Chris Long, DLT Kendall Langford, DRT Michael Brockers, DRE Robert Quinn. Backups -- DE William Hayes, DE/DT Eugene Sims, DT Jermelle Cudjo, DT Matt Conrath, DE Mason Brodine, DE Gerald Rivers, DE R.J. Washington, DT Garrett Goebel, DT Al Lapuaho.
Clearly, this is the best unit on the team. The four starters combined for 28 sacks, led by Long (11.5) and Quinn (10.5). Hayes also added seven, to give the top three ends 29 of the team's 52 sacks. Depth is also strong, with Sims able to play inside or outside. Cudjo was stout inside last season, while Conrath showed some promise in camp before suffering a knee injury late in the preseason. That limited him to just one game, but he has a chance to do more this season. Brockers did well as a rookie, and with that first season under his belt, could be a star in the making.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Alec Ogletree, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Backups -- OLB Jabara Williams, MLB Josh Hull, OLB Sammy Brown, OLB Ray-Ray Armstrong, LB Daren Bates, OLB Jonathan Stewart, Joseph LeBeau.
Laurinaitis remains the rock of the defense, calling signals and usually leading the team in tackles. He should also benefit by being in the system for the second season. Dunbar was very productive after being signed as a free agent last year, and is expected to switch sides following the selection of Ogletree in the first round of the draft. Ogletree should be a perfect fit for the defense with his ability to get to the ball. The only question is whether he will get up to speed quickly enough to be on the field in the nickel. Depth is suspect, with Hull the only player with experience. If the Rams keep six linebackers, the battle will between Brown, Armstrong, Williams and Stewart for jobs.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Cortland Finnegan, FS Rodney McLeod, SS Darian Stewart, RCB Janoris Jenkins. Backups -- CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Brandon McGee, CB Quinton Pointer, S Matt Giordano, S T.J. McDonald, S Matt Daniels, S Cody Davis, CB Andre Martin, CB Robert Steeples, S Cannon Smith, CB Drew Thomas, CB Darren Woodard.
Finnegan remains the leader of the secondary, and was instrumental in the development of Jenkins last season. Jenkins has to be more consistent and not take as many chances, but his play-making ability is unique. Johnson will be the nickel back, while McGee and Pointer will also be in the mix. Steeples, an undrafted free agent, will also compete for a job. Safety is wide open. Stewart was expected to compete for a starting job last season, but a hamstring injury in training camp set him back. This year, his offseason work was curtailed by a calf injury. The job is there for him if he can stay healthy. McLeod will receive competition from the rookie McDonald, while Giordano will try and inject himself into the competition after being signed in mid-June. Davis, an undrafted free agent, has a shot at a job. Another big question is whether Daniels will be healthy enough to compete. He made the roster in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, but spent most of the season on injured reserve with a knee injury. He was on the sideline throughout the offseason.
SPECIALISTS: K Greg Zuerlein, P Johnny Hekker, LS Jakes McQuaide, K Brett Baer, LS Jorgen Hus, RS Tavon Austin.
Zuerlein started strong, but fizzled in the second half of the season. He has to show he can be consistent all season, but has the leg to hit field goals from anywhere. Hekker did a solid job learning the directional technique necessary, and is also a threat on fakes. McQuaide signed a contract extension in the offseason, and should be the snapper for many years. Austin is expected to be the punt returner, but the kickoff-return job might be open, depending on how much the Rams choose to expose Austin.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYERS: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--LB Justin Cole (not tendered as RFA).
--LB Mario Haggan (not tendered as UFA).
--DT Trevor Laws (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Rocky McIntosh (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED (all picks signed)
--WR Tavon Austin (1/8): $12,751,002/4 yrs, all guaranteed; $6,653,456 SB.
--LB Alec Ogletree (1/30): $7,030,024/4 yrs, $3,492,748 SB/$5,666,386 guaranteed/$688,638 roster/report bonus 2016.
--S T.J. McDonald (3/71): $2,926,278/4 yrs, $648,000 SB.
--WR Stedman Bailey (3/92): $2,736,102/4 yrs, $527, 400 SB.
--C Barrett Jones (4/113): $2,605,200/4 yrs, $445, 200 SB.
--CB Brandon McGee (5/149): $2,351,160/4 yrs, $191,160 SB.
--RB Zac Stacy (5/160): $2,336,500/4 yrs, $176,500 SB.
--C Tim Barnes: ERFA; $480,000/1 yr.
--QB Kellen Clemens: UFA; $870,000/1 yr, $30,000 SB.
--DT Jermelle Cudjo: Potential RFA; $1.805M/2 yrs, $350,000 SB.
--DE William Hayes: UFA; $10.25M/3 yrs, $3.75M SB/$5.75M guaranteed.
--TE Mike McNeill: ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--S Darian Stewart: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation; $1.323M/1 yr.
--G/T Chris Williams: UFA; terms unknown.
--TE Jared Cook: UFA Titans; $35.1M/5 yrs, $5M SB/$19M guaranteed.
--S Matt Giordano: Not tendered as UFA by Raiders; $840,000/1 yr.
--T Jake Long: UFA Dolphins; $34M/4 yrs, $5M SB/$20M potentially guaranteed/$12M fully guaranteed).
--TE Zach Potter: Not tendered as RFA by Jaguars; $630,000/1 yr.
--WR Danny Amendola: UFA Patriots; $31M/5 yrs, $6M SB/$10M SB.
--S Craig Dahl: UFA 49ers; $5.25M/3 yrs, $700,000 SB.
--CB Bradley Fletcher: UFA Eagles; $5.25M/2 yrs, $1.6M SB/$2.35M guaranteed.
--WR Brandon Gibson: UFA Dolphins; $9.78M/3 yrs, $3M SB/$3.75M guaranteed.
--T Wayne Hunter (released).
--RB Steven Jackson: UFA Falcons; $12M/3 yrs, $3.5M SB/$4M guaranteed.
--S Quintin Mikell (released).
--TE Matthew Mulligan (released).
--T Barry Richardson: Not tendered as UFA/Titans; terms unknown.
--WR Steve Smith: UFA Buccaneers; $715,000/1 yr.
--G/C Robert Turner: UFA Titans; $1.5M/1 yr, $250,000 SB/$250,000 RB.