NFC West: Mike McNeill
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
In place: The Rams spent big money last offseason to bring tight end Jared Cook to St. Louis from Tennessee. Although technically listed as a tight end, Cook was the de facto replacement for Danny Amendola as a super sized slot receiver.
Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey remain under the team's control for 2014 and join Cook as one of the groups where the Rams seem most settled heading into the offseason.
Pending free agents: Mike McNeill (restricted)
What’s needed: At first glance, the Rams seem to be pretty well set at tight end with the three under contract each bringing a different flavor to the table. Cook will continue as the primary pass receiving threat from the position while Harkey handles in line blocking and fullback duties and Kendricks does a little bit of everything.
However, the big picture beyond 2014 is a little more up in the air. Kendricks is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after 2014 and Harkey will be restricted. McNeill is a favorite of head coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams could likely get him back at the lowest tender number.
Tight end is still far from a pressing need going into the offseason but if the right opportunity presents itself, it's something that could at least earn a second look.
Possible fits: The biggest free agent prize of all is New Orleans' Jimmy Graham but the Rams obviously won't be in that market. Instead, if the Rams wanted to make an addition here it would likely be from the bargain bin. Matthew Mulligan, who was with the Rams in 2012 as a blocking specialist is the type of player who would fit that bill but the Rams replaced him last year and seemed content with Harkey in that job.
Verdict: I don't expect the Rams to make any free agent additions at this position with the possible exception of retaining McNeill on a low tender as a restricted free agent.
The run is ending this week after Bernie hosted his final show on 101ESPN St. Louis. Bernie isn't leaving, fortunately. He's recommitting to his main job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper has created an expanded role for him through its website. We'll stay in touch and collaborate in new ways, I'm sure.
In the meantime, I wanted to share the audio link to our conversation Tuesday. This was a Rams-only conversation primarily about their draft, specifically how the team has changed on offense.
The chart below shows key receivers, tight ends and running backs for the Rams in their final game before coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived. It also shows key players at those positions now. Some of the players from the 2011 regular-season finale were on injured reserve at the time. The last two receivers listed in the right column aren't key players at the position. I included their names to even up the chart.
Tight ends are up next, followed later Wednesday by the offensive lines.
Sando: Five current NFC West tight ends entered the NFL in the first three rounds of their draft classes. San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Seattle's Zach Miller and St. Louis' Jared Cook are playing under contracts featuring a combined $59 million in guaranteed money. Their deals are scheduled to consume $23.7 million in combined cap space for 2013. Still, I could see every team in the division except for the St. Louis Rams drafting one in the first few rounds.
Williamson: I'd be shocked if I moved San Francisco out of the No. 1 ranking, especially if the 49ers drafted one, which I expect them to do. Vernon Davis is clearly the best tight end in the division. Cook may end up being that some day, but I do not trust him yet.
Sando: The Cardinals were the only NFL team without a touchdown reception from a tight end last season. Bad quarterback play had quite a bit to do with that, of course.
Williamson: Arizona has to be fourth even though I think Rob Housler can become a player. Jeff King and Jim Dray are the backups there.
Sando: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has said he "loved" Housler coming out of college and thought about drafting him as a big receiver. Overall, however, he would prefer his tight ends to be multidimensional players -- guys who block and catch well. Davis and Miller fit that profile. Each had 12 receptions, including one for a touchdown, during the playoffs last season. Both will enter the upcoming season more familiar with their young quarterbacks. But with John Carlson leaving Seattle one year ago and Delanie Walker leaving San Francisco this offseason, the Rams could now own the best one-two punch at the position heading into the draft.
Williamson: Miller came on strong. We could argue Cook versus Miller, but I give the Rams the edge over Seattle at tight end overall because Lance Kendricks is a decent backup who still has upside.
Sando: The Rams are obviously going to feature Cook in their receiving game. They gave him $19 million guaranteed while watching their more proven wideouts leave in free agency. Cook is going to serve as a wide receiver in some ways. Does that make Kendricks more of the traditional in-line tight end?
Williamson: Kendricks will never be a true inline 'Y' dealing with the Chris Clemonses of the world, but he can do that moreso than Cook. Cook is very much a receiver.
Sando: I can't argue with your tight end rankings too much, Matt. I'll be interested in seeing whether Miller picks up where he left off last season. This will be a position to revisit after the draft, too.
It's going to be a challenge given the projected state of quarterback play elsewhere in the division, but as I said during the chat, there's a good chance the Rams will break through in the next few seasons.
ESPN's Chris Sprow has written about this very subject at length. His latest piece for Insider expands upon a subject we've discussed quite a bit lately: the impact cheap labor at quarterback can have on a team's ability to build a roster.
The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are benefiting from having low-cost quarterbacks playing at a high level. The Rams are not benefiting from that dynamic, but their 2012 trade with the Washington Redskins will give them cheap labor for years to come -- all part of a plan to build with young talent.
The Rams have 17 total players at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. Those players average 24.5 years old (24.4 median). Backup tight end Matthew Mulligan, 28, is the only one age 26 or older.
"No team is bound to improve more over the next few seasons than the Rams," Sprow writes. "If Fisher is right, they'll get improvements from a deep 2012 rookie class in 2013, then a good 2013 rookie class in 2014, and another good 2014 rookie class in 2015."
Most of those players remain unproven and that can be scary for fans.
I sensed excitement, not trepidation, from the Rams' leadership during my interactions with coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff during the recently concluded NFL owners meeting. They are stocking the roster with young talent. We'll find out over the next couple seasons whether they've stocked wisely.
St. Louis Rams: The Rams held out cornerback Cortland Finnegan (ankle), safety Craig Dahl (head), running back Steven Jackson (foot), middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (back), tight end Mike McNeill (thigh) and center Scott Wells (knee). Linebacker Mario Haggan (elbow) was a full participant. The one player limited in practice, receiver Danny Amendola, is the most volatile variable. Coach Jeff Fisher indicated Amendola needs to be near full strength to function at a high level. That is presumably because Amendola depends on his quickness and ability to change directions, attributes compromised by a foot injury. The Rams have won their past two games without Amendola. Rookie receiver Chris Givens has filled some of the void. But having Amendola in the lineup would certainly improve the Rams' chances.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers listed linebacker Tavares Gooden (ribs), receiver Mario Manningham (shoulder), fullback Bruce Miller (shoulder) and linebacker Aldon Smith (shoulder) as limited. Kicker David Akers (pelvis), linebacker Navorro Bowman (shoulder), cornerback Tarell Brown (shoulder), cornerback Chris Culliver (knee), running back Frank Gore (wrist), cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee), defensive tackle Will Tukuafu (wrist) and linebacker Patrick Willis (shoulder) are listed as full participants. Manningham's status is most compelling. While most or all the other injured players are expected to play against New England, Manningham missed the Week 13 game at Miami, so his status is in a bit more question. Randy Moss figures to play extensively regardless, but if Manningham misses the game, the 49ers could feature Moss a bit more against his former team.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle held out receiver Sidney Rice (foot), cornerback Marcus Trufant (hamstring), safety Kam Chancellor (groin) and defensive end Red Bryant (foot) missed practice Wednesday. The team continues to list running back Marshawn Lynch (back) as limited despite every expectation he'll be able to play. Cornerback Walter Thurmond (hamstring) was a surprise addition to the injured list Wednesday. He's had injury problems in the past. Durability is a concern. Depth at corner isn't as strong with Brandon Browner serving a suspension and Trufant sidelined recently. Seattle is no longer listing linebacker Leroy Hill (ankle). Malcolm Smith could wind up keeping the job.
St. Louis Rams: The Rams held out receiver Danny Amendola (foot), linebacker Mario Haggan (elbow), center Scott Wells (knee), tight end Mike McNeill (thigh) and running back Steven Jackson (foot). Amendola's status is one to monitor closely. He played against Arizona two weeks ago despite being listed as doubtful on the Friday injury report. He did not play against San Francisco last week. Rookie receiver Chris Givens appears to be developing quickly and has taken over some of the shorter routes previously reserved for Amendola. With Amendola out, Givens and Brandon Gibson each played 90 percent of the snaps at receiver. Givens was the player quarterback Sam Bradford targeted. He has 16 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. Austin Pettis (66 percent) and Brian Quick (15 percent) also factored.
San Francisco 49ers: Receiver Mario Manningham (shoulder) and cornerback Tarell Brown (hamstring) missed practice Wednesday. Nickel corner Chris Culliver (illness) was limited, as was kicker David Akers (pelvis) and outside linebacker Aldon Smith (shoulder). The team listed cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee), linebacker Patrick Willis (shoulder), running back Frank Gore (wrist), linebacker Tavares Gooden (elbow, knee), guard Mike Iupati (shoulder) and linebacker NaVorro Bowman (shoulder) as full participants in practice. Depth at wide receiver is more of a concern with Manningham hurting and Kyle Williams on injured reserve. Michael Crabtree (62 percent), Randy Moss (41 percent), Manningham (36 percent) and Ted Ginn Jr. (18 percent) logged snaps at receiver against St. Louis. The 49ers have hinted that rookie running back LaMichael James could make his 2012 debut shortly. Gore played 87 percent of the snaps against the Rams, an unusually high number. Veteran Brandon Jacobs played 11 percent. He does not represent the change of pace Kendall Hunter provided before landing on injured reserve. James would.
Seattle Seahawks: Starting left guard James Carpenter is finished for the season. His absence requires an adjustment, but the change could produce an upgrade in the short term. Carpenter wasn't healthy and it showed in his play. John Moffitt is a natural candidate to start. Seattle has had eight linemen start this season. That is tied for third-most in the NFL behind Philadelphia (nine) and St. Louis (nine). The Seahawks held out defensive end Red Bryant, who surprised the coaching staff by playing -- and playing well -- against the Bears despite a foot injury. Bryant wore a boot on his foot in the locker room after the game in Chicago. Cornerback Marcus Trufant also missed practice. He has a hamstring injury. It sounds like the team will try Jeremy Lane at nickel corner while Trufant recovers. Walter Thurmond is expected to play right corner while Brandon Browner serves a four-game suspension. It's possible Thurmond could play inside as well. Receiver Sidney Rice does not have a concussion, according to the team, but he was listed as limited with a head injury after absorbing a hard hit while making the winning touchdown catch Sunday. Leroy Hill (ankle) was limited. Coach Pete Carroll sounded excited about Hill's replacement, Malcolm Smith.
1. Center of attention. Veteran Scott Wells, sidelined by knee surgery for much of the offseason, made his preseason debut after signing with the Rams in free agency. He called out line adjustments, pointing about the field as centers typically do.
Wells played Jay Ratliff to a stalemate on an early third-and-7 (left guard Quinn Ojinnaka gave up a sack on the play). The Cowboys’ Kenyon Coleman got past Wells with a quick first step, but Wells held on. Coleman did not disrupt the play.
Wells played a couple series and seemed to do fine. There were no botched center exchanges when he was in the game.
2. Offensive draft choices. Rookie running backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson got into the game early. Pead had a 47-yard kickoff return. He didn’t find much room to run while working with the first-team offense. Richardson fared better. The blocking for Richardson might have been better, but he also impressed with powerful strides. Richardson ran with determination through the play. He carried 10 times for 51 yards.
Pead bobbled a pass and couldn’t get away from defenders in the open field. But he did run hard in the red zone during a fourth-quarter drive ending with a touchdown pass from Kellen Clemens to Austin Pettis. Pead finished with nine carries for 22 yards.
The Rams did not get their young receivers involved early. Rookie second-round choice Brian Quick left the game in the second half after taking a crushing hit to the midsection, but he returned and contributed with a 39-yard reception. Fourth-round choice Chris Givens did not catch a pass.
3. Roster battles. Undrafted rookie safety Rodney McLeod seemed to improve his case for a roster spot, although evaluating secondary play can be tricky. McLeod made a positive first impression with an early tackle on special teams. He made a diving pass breakup on a risky third-down pass thrown over the middle in the fourth quarter.
At tight end, Mike Hoomanawanui made two receptions for 23 yards. One of his potential competitors for a roster spot, rookie Mike McNeill, threw the key downfield block on one of those receptions.
Clemens, the No. 2 quarterback, played deep into the fourth quarter. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 68 yards and the one score. Austin Davis finished up and led a quick touchdown drive, completing 4 of 5 passes for 53 yards. Davis showed pocket awareness. The offense perked up when he entered the game.
1. Center of attention. Veteran center Scott Wells makes his Rams debut after recovering from knee surgery. Wells was one of the Rams' key free-agent signings. The team expects Wells to take pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford by handling more of the pre-snap responsibilities. This game gives Wells and Bradford a chance to work together in a game situation. Getting through the game healthy will be important for Wells, who is 31 years old and has started 100 regular-season NFL games. Wells did not miss a start in his final two seasons with Green Bay.
2. Offensive draft choices. The Rams already know first-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers and second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins are going to start. They feel very good about those players' ability to contribute right away. There's less certainty surrounding the team's offensive rookies. Running back Isaiah Pead, receiver Brian Quick and receiver Chris Givens are the three primary ones to watch. Running back Daryl Richardson, a seventh-round pick, and guard Rokevious Watkins (fifth round) could also factor. Coach Jeff Fisher has indicated younger offensive players could get into this game earlier than usual. How will they fare?
3. Roster battles. Teams must reduce from 90 to 75 players by Monday. Tight end and safety are a couple positions with question marks around the fringes of the roster. Tight end Mike McNeill caught my attention -- and just about every pass thrown his way -- early in training camp. Safeties Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl aren't expected to play against the Cowboys. The Rams were excited about signing Matt Daniels as an undrafted free agent. Another undrafted free agent, Rodney McLeod, could get an opportunity as well. The tough decisions come on the reduction to 53 players, scheduled for Friday.
New defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford are big, tall men. The team lists Brockers at 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, which seems about right. The 6-6 Langford is listed at 295 pounds, but he looks every bit as large as Brockers.
Both are taller and considerably younger than the men they're replacing, Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan.
The Rams need them to help improve a run defense that buckled repeatedly last season. The team added Brockers in the first round of the draft. Langford signed from the Miami Dolphins in free agency.
If all goes to plan, the Rams' interior defensive linemen will attract enough attention to free Laurinaitis and the other linebackers to do their jobs without as much interference from opposing offensive linemen.
"When teams have to worry and say, 'Hey, we can't block these guys one-on-one, that’s a big deal," Laurinaitis said. "There are only so many guys who can block. Whether it’s me free or the Will or the Sam or whoever, whenever there is unblocked players in the box, that’s better for our defense."
Additional notes from practice Monday, witnessed by 593 fans on a relatively cool day with some sprinkles from above at team headquarters:
- QB watch: Quarterback Sam Bradford is off to a promising start in this camp. I came to St. Louis wondering whether he'd need time to recover mentally and physically from the punishment he took last season. Those questions dissipated quickly. Bradford appears to be moving without limitation. He said his arm feels stronger than it's felt in a long time, and his passing provides supporting evidence. Bradford rocketed one so hard to Danny Amendola that the usually sure-handed receiver couldn't hold onto it. But there were other times when Bradford showed zip, touch and accuracy, including when he connected with rookie Chris Givens in stride for a touchdown.
- Ones-on-ones: The Rams seemed to practice quite a bit with their first-team offense against their first-team defense. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are putting pressure on tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold. False starts have been an occasional problem. Saffold had a false-start Sunday. Smith had one Monday. Coach Jeff Fisher yanks linemen off the field when they commit false-start or offside penalties. Barry Richardson replaced Smith following Smith's penalty. Smith replaced Richardson under similar circumstances later in practice. Saffold did buckle Quinn and overpower him on one play, but overall, the defensive ends' quickness has been problematic.
- Learning curve: Rookie receiver Brian Quick did a better job securing the football following a reception against tight coverage. A day earlier, cornerback Josh Gordy stripped the ball from Quick after the receiver got a little too casual in his technique. Quick made a couple good catches, as did backup tight end Mike McNeill.
- Coaches see all: The Rams were about to run a play when Fisher suddenly spotted a helmet on the ground behind the end zone about 35 yards away. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar had set it there briefly. Fisher noticed, stopped the offense and called out for Dunbar to pick it up.
- Rookie against rookie: Speed receiver Givens made an impressive initial play on the ball for what was nearly a touchdown, but cornerback Trumaine Johnson, also a rookie, knocked the ball away at the last moment.
- Rookie kicker watch: The Rams released veteran kicker Josh Brown after using a sixth-round draft choice for Greg Zuerlein. I haven't been charting field-goal percentages, in part because the goalposts are short and sometimes it's tough to tell from the sidelines which ones would have succeeded. Zuerlein does seem to have a powerful leg. Quite a few of his attempts have smacked hard off the tower from which the team's video department records practices.
On a side note, it was good getting together with @lannyosu, @SGmosportsmag, @STLphenom @ljramsfan at practice. If you'll be out there in the next couple days, let me know at @espn_nfcwest.
Average number kept since 2003: 2.8
Safest bets: Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens
Leading contenders: none
Longer odds: Tom Brandstater, Austin Davis
Comment: The Rams could seemingly justify keeping just two quarterbacks in the absence of any pressing need to develop a third-stringer. Bradford is the franchise quarterback. Clemens knows the offense from his New York Jets days with new Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Clemens' familiarity should provide some comfort even though the Rams remained in the market for other quarterbacks through much of free agency. Depth will be a concern if Bradford suffers through another injury-shortened season. But with an offense recommitted to the run, the Rams think they can improve the odds for their quarterback.
Running backs (9)
Average number kept since 2003: 5.0
Safest bets: Steven Jackson, Isaiah Pead
Leading contenders: Brit Miller, Daryl Richardson
Longer odds: Todd Anderson, Chase Reynolds, Calvin Middleton, Nick Schwieger, Ben Guidugli
Comment: The Rams got younger and more diverse behind Jackson, breathing life into the position. The team has kept only four running backs on its Week 1 roster over the previous four seasons, but the team had different leadership then. New coach Jeff Fisher could load up on tight ends. He already moved Guidugli from tight end to fullback. There will be overlap between the positions, affecting numbers. Pead projects as a change-of-pace back, as does Richardson, who impressed the team this offseason.
Wide receivers (10)
Average number kept since 2003: 5.6
Safest bets: Brian Quick, Danny Amendola, Chris Givens, Steve Smith, Greg Salas
Leading contenders: Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Austin Pettis
Longer odds: Nick Johnson, Michael Campbell
Comment: The Rams have lots of second-tier options at the position. They need one or more receiver to emerge as a more dynamic option. Quick, chosen in the second round, reminded Rams coaches of Terrell Owens (physically, that is). Smith caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns with the New York Giants in 2009. He's been fighting his way back from microfracture knee surgery. The Rams saw signs this offseason that Smith could be close to recapturing past form. Can Smith make it all the way back? Gibson has been a starter, but it's unclear where he fits after the team used draft choices for Quick and the speedy Givens.
Tight ends (8)
Average number kept since 2003: 3.2
Safest bets: Lance Kendricks
Leading contenders: Mike Hoomanawanui
Longer odds: Matthew Mulligan, Brody Eldridge, Mike McNeill, Jamie Childers, Cory Harkey, Deangelo Peterson
Comment: The position appears wide open after Kendricks. Fisher's teams have generally leaned heavily on tight ends. Kendricks is a willing blocker, but he projects more as a receiving type. Hoomanawanui hasn't been able to stay healthy. That will need to change this season or the Rams will have reason to consider moving on. I've got no idea where Mulligan, Eldridge, McNeill, Childers, Harkey or Peterson fits into the Rams' plans. This position will have to shake out at training camp. Again, the fullbacks and tight ends will be interchangeable in some cases. Fisher said so when discussing the positions recently.
Offensive linemen (16)
Average number kept since 2003: 9.0
Safest bets: Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Jason Smith, Rokevious Watkins
Leading contenders: Bryan Mattison, Barry Richardson, Quinn Ojinnaka, Kevin Hughes
Longer odds: Robert Turner, Michael Hay, Jose Valdez, T-Bob Hebert, Tim Barnes, Joe Long, Ryan McKee
Comment: It's unclear how the team will proceed at left guard. Watkins and Mattison could be considerations. Ojinnaka and Richardson have been tackles primarily, but they could conceivably project at guard in a pinch. Smith is back at right tackle after reworking his contract. The team hopes Smith can benefit from better luck with injuries and fresh coaching from assistant Paul Boudreau. Well's addition in free agency gives the line needed leadership. But with both tackles (Smith, Saffold) coming off rough seasons marked by serious injuries, questions persist. Dahl was the best and most consistent offensive lineman on the team last season.