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Friday, August 20, 2010
Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

By Mike Sando

ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 32

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The quivering hand pressed against Jason Brown's backside belonged to the first player chosen in the 2010 NFL draft.

Alas, the week before St. Louis Rams training camp was tough on quarterback Sam Bradford's nerves.

The No. 1 overall draft choice could not be sure when his agent and the team would reach a contract agreement, and by the time Bradford finally arrived, the other quarterbacks had a couple days' head start on him. All eyes were on the franchise savior from Oklahoma when Bradford lowered himself under center for the first time during camp.

Bradford might have appeared cool and in command from afar, but one veteran teammate had a better, uh, feel for the situation.

"You couldn't see it on his face, but I knew he was nervous because when he got under center and put his hand underneath my rear end, his hand was shaking -- it was quivering," Brown said. "And of course, I didn't say anything, but it's a very awkward feeling for me as well when someone has their hand shaking underneath your rear end."

Brown didn't say anything to Bradford because he figured the quarterback would settle down quickly. Bradford did, and he appears well on his way to earning the starting job heading into the regular season.

Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford's teammates appear to be confident the quarterback can hold his own as a rookie.
In fact, if anyone has reason to quiver at this point in camp, it's the defensive backs trying to defend passes they sometimes do not see coming -- as when Bradford laced one between Oshiomogho Atogwe and Craig Dahl before the safeties even turned around. It's not Bradford's accuracy or timing that have caught defensive backs' attention so much as the combination of those all-important quarterback traits. Early indications suggest the Rams could have the best quarterback in the division sooner rather than later.

"You see a lot of greatness in him -- what he brings, his skill set, very talented, very intelligent," Atogwe said.

Several of Bradford's teammates have experience breaking in first-round quarterbacks elsewhere. Brown (Joe Flacco), tight end Billy Bajema (Alex Smith), center Hank Fraley (Brady Quinn), defensive end James Hall (Joey Harrington), defensive tackle Fred Robbins (Eli Manning) and guard Jacob Bell (Vince Young) pointed to Bradford's maturity, intelligence, competitiveness, demeanor and accuracy.

The way they freely praised Bradford suggested genuine excitement, not the obligatory kind.

"I played with Steve McNair [in Tennessee] and with Ben Roethlisberger [at Miami (Ohio)]," Bell said, "and I thought, 'This guy, the way he throws the ball, man, I haven't seen anybody in person like that on the practice field, ever.' "

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. When will Bradford become the starter? It's an upset if Bradford isn't the No. 1 quarterback from the beginning of the regular season even though veteran A.J. Feeley remains the starter for now. Feeley and Bradford are sharing first- and second-team reps in practice. The team doesn't want to rush Bradford, but all signs point to the rookie grasping the offense quickly. The Rams think he's mature enough to handle what figures to be a rough rookie season. Why delay the inevitable if Bradford is looking good?

2. Can this team defend the pass? The Rams appeared to beef up the middle of their defense by adding Robbins, but the NFL is a passing league and the Rams could struggle to get pressure consistently. They have two pass-rushers -- Chris Long and Hall -- and their secondary has battled injuries throughout camp. Long should continue his improvement. Hall's sacks fell off to 4.5 last season as he transitioned from backup to starter. He is 33 years old. Kevin Dockery has exceeded expectations at cornerback, where rookie Jerome Murphy has also shown promise. But with Atogwe still rounding into form following injury, the secondary is a bit of a question mark.

Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson's health remains instrumental in the Rams' success this season.
3. What happens if Steven Jackson gets hurt again? The Rams do not have a proven running threat behind Jackson, even though 2009 seventh-round draft pick Chris Ogbonnaya performed well against the Arizona Cardinals late last season. Ogbonnaya might be a good third-down back because he protects the passer well and can catch the ball, but the Rams could be in trouble if they needed a starter to replace Jackson for a few games. Jackson appears fully healthy so far, but he's coming off back surgery. Brian Westbrook's decision to sign with the 49ers hurt, but the Rams saw him mostly as a third-down back at this stage of his career, anyway. Expect the Rams to monitor the waiver wire for running backs as teams reduce to 53 players on Sept. 4.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Danny Amendola. There's enough uncertainty at receiver for this position to qualify under the "Hottest Questions" heading, but Amendola appears to have found a home as the slot receiver in the Rams' personnel groupings with more than two wideouts. Injuries forced Amendola to play multiple positions last season. Camp practices have convinced me -- and the Rams -- that Amendola's quickness can make him a threat. Said Feeley: "He has polished his game. Some of these guys discover themselves after a year of playing and realizing what they can do. The guy is a special player. The guy is going to make plays and have a lot of catches this year ... a poor man's Wes Welker trying to establish himself. He fits that mold right now. The guy is cat quick."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Offensive line continuity. The way the Rams' line struggled during the exhibition opener against Minnesota was deceiving. Rookie Rodger Saffold was making his first start at left tackle (against Jared Allen, no less). Right tackle Jason Smith had only recently returned from injury and the team knew he might wear down as the game progressed. Brown was filling in at right guard. These mitigating factors point to a broader problem: continuity. Only this week have the Rams gotten their projected starting five linemen on the field together. That must change as the Bradford era gets under way.

OBSERVATION DECK
Fendi Onobun
Tight end Fendi Onobun has made a positive impression in camp.