NFC West: Shelley Smith

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

Almost a week removed from the beginning of the free-agent period, the Rams have retained a couple of starters and seen their share of departures. The normal waves of free agency usually take longer than this year but it seems teams aren't waiting around to make their moves in 2014.

Here's where we stand after five days:

Retained

Saffold
OL Rodger Saffold

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a five-year, $31.7 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed.

What it means: It was a wild week for Saffold but after one of the most bizarre free-agent scenarios in recent memory, the Rams kept their top offseason priority. Saffold will be the team's right guard moving forward and allows them more flexibility moving forward because of his versatility. St. Louis got lucky on this one but it doesn't matter how it happened so long as Saffold can stay healthy and produce.

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.

What it means: Dunbar will get a chance to rebound from a lost 2013 season and reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Rams. While Dunbar's role decreased because of the addition of Alec Ogletree last year, the Rams need more production from him when they do have three linebackers on the field. If Dunbar can return to his 2012 form, he fills another starting job and lessens the need for the Rams to add another outside linebacker in the draft.

Departures

Williams
OL Chris Williams

The deal: Signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed with the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: The Rams lost the one lineman who started all 16 games last year and provided some versatility with his ability to play multiple positions. But Williams was also the team's least effective starting lineman and a clear candidate to be upgraded heading into 2014. The Rams had interest in keeping him but had no intention of offering a similar type of deal. It also speaks to the ability of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to maximize reclamation projects.

OG Shelley Smith

The deal: Signed a two-year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The loss of Smith is another subtraction from the Rams' depth on the offensive line but it's also not cause for much alarm. Smith lost a preseason battle for the starting left guard job to Williams and though he showed some ability as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was often overmatched by the bigger, more physical front sevens in the NFC West. Again, Boudreau should be able to coach up someone else to provide similar production and depth to fill Smith's backup role on the interior. That depth could come from current options like Barrett Jones or Brandon Washington or a veteran free agent such as Davin Joseph or Daryn Colledge, both of whom have visited St. Louis.

TE Mike McNeill

The deal: Signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Terms unknown.

What it means: Losing McNeill doesn't alter much in terms of the Rams' primary options at tight end but it does remove a versatile piece from the depth chart. McNeill was the team's fourth tight end and played sparingly in the offense. He was a trustworthy backup and a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher's but is a piece the Rams can replace rather easily, perhaps with late-season pickup Justice Cunningham.

Finnegan
CB Cortland Finnegan

The deal: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Rams released Finnegan at the start of free agency, creating valuable cap space and a hole in the secondary. The key here is how much the Rams can gain from this contract based on the offset language they had built in to Finnegan's contract. Depending on how Finnegan's deal with the Dolphins is structured, the Rams could gain an additional $3 million in cap space. Assuming he makes the team or possibly immediately based on a bonus, it's reasonable to think the Rams have a good chance at getting all of that $3 million in space back. The team also has an opening for another cornerback.

QB Kellen Clemens

The deal: Signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

What it means: We already knew the Rams were planning to grab a young quarterback in May's draft but this should only serve to reinforce that idea. What remains to be seen is whether the Rams want to carry a third, veteran quarterback to handle the No. 2 job until the unnamed rookie is ready. That's a role Clemens would have been ideal for but he did enough in 2013 to draw interest and land a well-deserved deal with San Diego. The Rams now have just two quarterbacks, starter Sam Bradford and Austin Davis, on the roster.
The three-day negotiating window for teams and free agents began in earnest Saturday, and along with it came the expected rumor and innuendo that will persist until players can actually put pen to paper at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

Like every other team in the league, the St. Louis Rams were connected to a few of those free agents, though a phone call to an agent or two doesn't mean it's going to turn into a transaction when the market opens. Plenty of calls are made over the weekend, some turn into legitimate conversations about a contract while others are simply doing diligence.

Here is a look at what we know and what was reported in the first 24 hours of the negotiating window:

  • It hasn't happened yet but I still expect the Rams to release guard Harvey Dahl in the very near future. Much like with cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the move might wait until the day free agency begins, but it seems almost certain to happen. That would give the Rams about $15 million in salary-cap space (though only about $10 million would be available for free agency since they will have a draft class to sign).
  • [+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsFree agent cornerback Alterraun Verner has ties to Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
    As expected, the market for offensive lineman Rodger Saffold looks to be active. We already knew Arizona and Miami would have interest, and reports indicate both teams made contact with Saffold on the opening day of discussions. Other teams in need of offensive line help such as Tampa Bay, which released guard Davin Joseph and could use upgrades at tackle, could also be in the mix for Saffold.
  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Rams guard Shelley Smith drew free-agent phone calls from four teams on Saturday. Smith was a spot starter for the Rams the past two seasons, but was once a coveted commodity when the Rams initially claimed him on waivers. He's not likely to break the bank, but there is a sense around the league that he might be something of a bargain.
  • Also coming from the "no surprise" department, the Rams reached out to representatives for Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verneron Saturday. Verner is widely regarded as one of the best players on the market regardless of position, but is going to get a contract in line with that status. The Rams have obvious ties to Verner as head coach Jeff Fisher drafted him and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams helped coach him to his best season in 2013. While the Rams could probably find a way to make a contract work with Verner, whether they should pay the hefty price is a different issue. Green Bay's Sam Shields cashed in with the Packers on Saturday night with a four-year, $39 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus. Final details aren't known, but reports indicate he will make $21 million in the first two years. It's probably a safe bet that Verner will meet and exceed that number. And he has no shortage of suitors. The Tennessean reported Verner also received early interest from Minnesota, the New York Jets, the New York Giants, the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling offered a breakdown on the logical match between Verner and the Vikings.

    If nothing else, it's clear the market for top cornerbacks is returning to 2012 levels when the Rams gave Finnegan a five-year, $50 million deal with nearly half paid out in the first two years.
  • The other name linked to the Rams on Saturday was another highly touted, high-priced defensive back -- Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd. NFL.com also reported the Rams inquired about Byrd on Saturday. Byrd has been another popular name amongst Rams faithful and, like Verner, would fill an important role as a veteran presence in the Rams' young secondary. Also like Verner, Byrd figures to break the bank. Considered the best safety available, it's fair to expect Byrd to land a contract worth about $10 million in average annual value.
  • So, what to make of all this before we get into the actual start of free agency? Not much, really. My belief all along has been that the Rams have prioritized keeping Saffold, and if that doesn't happen they could re-direct that money elsewhere, potentially to one of the "splashy" defensive backs on the market. In an ideal world, the Rams could keep Saffold and add a veteran in the secondary, but with prices likely to be through the roof, it's probably unlikely the Rams can bring Saffold back and add one of the top two defensive backs mentioned above.Based on early projection for what players like Byrd, Verner and Saffold could cost, it's possible the Rams could be spending money on a few mid-level free agents rather than one big-ticket item. In the meantime, it does no harm to kick the tires on some of the big names mentioned above and determine whether it's worth getting in the bidding or moving on to the next plan.

Free-agency primer: Rams

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: OL Rodger Saffold, QB Kellen Clemens, OL Chris Williams, OG Shelley Smith

Where they stand: The offensive line is the one area with the most questions heading into 2014. The larger-than-expected salary-cap increase will likely allow the Rams to retain one of their costlier veterans (probably center Scott Wells) to lessen the need a little, but the Rams still have a decision to make on guard Harvey Dahl and his $4 million cap number. Likewise, Saffold, Smith and Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. The Rams badly want to keep Saffold and will push hard to do so with the idea that he can be a starter at one of the guard spots long term. Bringing back Williams or Smith would give them a potential starter inside or better yet, experienced depth. The secondary is the other area in need of reinforcements. St. Louis could probably use a starter and a backup at safety and another top-three-caliber corner with the pending release of Cortland Finnegan. Bringing Clemens back as a No. 3 who can tutor whomever the Rams draft in May might also make sense.

What to expect: The Rams have spent lavishly in free agency in each of their first two years under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. The results of those signings have been mixed at best, and the better signings have been the more midlevel moves, like signing and re-signing defensive end William Hayes and the addition of defensive tackle Kendall Langford. The Rams insist they're coming close to breaking through, and if they truly believe that, they'll have some young talent to re-sign in the next few years. Spending big in free agency isn't usually a path to success, and the Rams probably won't be very active this year, at least compared to the previous two. Many will connect the Rams to Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, but that seems a bit overblown given what Verner is likely to cost. If Saffold departs, perhaps the Rams spend to find a piece on the offensive line or elsewhere, but if they have it their way, expect retaining Saffold to be the "big" free-agent move.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: It's no secret the Rams have some potential moving parts on the offensive line heading into free agency but things are beginning to crystallize before the market opens on March 11. Among the players who started most of 2013, left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Joe Barksdale and center Scott Wells are still in place.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonRetaining Rodger Saffold could be the key to the Rams' offseason plans to upgrade the offensive line.
Long is recovering from a knee injury and his status for the first week is up in the air though the Rams remain optimistic he'll be ready for the opener. Barksdale had a solid season though he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year. Wells has long been considered a potential cap casualty but the larger-than-expected salary cap makes it more likely he'll stick around.

The biggest question here centers on guard Harvey Dahl, who carries a $4 million salary-cap number into next season and is coming off another season-ending injury. The Rams could make a move to create space now or see how other things play out before making a decision.

Beyond that quartet, the Rams have youngsters such as Brandon Washington, Barrett Jones and Mike Person whom they have been grooming in hopes they'll step in to help at some point. Center Tim Barnes started a few games at the end of the year in Wells' place and should be back to compete again.

Pending free agents: Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, Barnes (exclusive rights/already tendered)

What's needed: The Rams' offensive line as a whole outperformed its individual pieces in 2013. A lot of the credit for that should go to offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. The Rams' presumptive starting five from the beginning of the year played just 295 of the team's 968 snaps together last season, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three other units around the league spent less time together on the field.

The thing about the missed time is that it was expected. The Rams entered the year with a veteran but injury-prone group and it lived up to that billing. That's what makes the offensive line the team's top priority heading into the offseason. They need to get younger and more talented so they can finally have a group that sticks together awhile without having some sort of major makeover every offseason.

Beyond that, the Rams want to be a physical, run-first offense in a division loaded with fearsome front sevens. They do just fine with Boudreau maximizing lesser talents but if they want to reach the next level, it makes sense to give him something better than regular old clay to work with.

In terms of specifics, the Rams could use help at both guard spots and a top-tier tackle who could start on the right side and become Long's future replacement.

Possible fits: The best in-house fit is Saffold. The Rams really want to bring him back but they're going to have a lot of competition. Bringing Saffold back would cure a lot of what ails the offensive line. He'd be the long-term option at guard and provide solid depth at tackle. That wouldn't mean they could just skip over the line in the draft but it would lessen the need. Coach Jeff Fisher has also said he'd like to bring Chris Williams back and that could make sense so long as he's cheap depth and not expected to be a starter. Some also are high on the potential of Smith, though I don't see it after watching him struggle against some of the league's better fronts. If Saffold departs, the Rams could look to spend some money on a veteran guard such as Denver's Zane Beadles or Kansas City's Jon Asamoah or Geoff Schwartz. The market for linemen doesn't look very strong, though.

Verdict: One way or another, the Rams are going to make some changes or moves along the offensive line. I tend to doubt Dahl will return though if Saffold leaves, maybe the Rams allow him to play the final year of his contract. Everything that happens here will depend on Saffold but I do expect the Rams to bring back at least one from the group of Saffold, Williams and Smith. When all is said and done, it would be a surprise if the Rams don't spend at least some free-agent money and draft capital addressing the offensive line.

Rams-Buccaneers study session: Offense

December, 24, 2013
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ST. LOUIS – Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams’ 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after reviewing the All-22 film:

- From the very first snap the offense took, there was no doubt what the Rams wanted to do against the Bucs. The plan was simple: run the ball, run it again and run it some more. That’s exactly what the Rams did in this one, though yards were a bit harder to come by than they were against New Orleans last week. The Bucs made it clear they knew the Rams wanted to run it, regularly loading the box with extra defenders. After watching some other Tampa Bay games, it was clear they missed safety Mark Barron’s presence, especially against the run.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesFor the second week in a row, Kellen Clemens set a single-game best for completion percentage.
- Regardless, the Rams spent much of the game in power formations running between the tackles. Even after losing left tackle Jake Long three snaps into the game and turning over the right-guard duties to Shelley Smith, with Rodger Saffold moving to left tackle, the Rams continued to pound away inside. Smith did a pretty good job all things considered; Zac Stacy found his share of yards running inside to the right. Saffold was also solid moving over to left tackle, but he’s simply not as dominant in the run game on the edge as he is when he plays guard. Saffold's ability to combine strength and athleticism when he pulls makes him a destructive run-blocker as a guard. That’s neutralized a bit when he is already outside. Nice job in pass protection, though.

- Center Tim Barnes looked more comfortable as well, especially in the run game, though there was an obvious hiccup when the Rams somehow failed to send anyone to block defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and he waltzed in untouched for a sack. Aside from that play, McCoy was mostly held in check.

- For the second week in a row, quarterback Kellen Clemens set a single-game best for completion percentage. He was on target, got the ball down the field and didn’t make any bad decisions when throwing it. Another bonus, Clemens didn’t run himself into any sacks, as he seems to do on occasion. Overall a strong performance, except for his fumble in the red zone. He’d be the first to say it but the quarterback draw on which he fumbled was a puzzling call, and Clemens made it worse by not recognizing it was going nowhere and just going down to come away with three points. Quarterback draws with Clemens have been successful before, but that wasn’t the time or the place for it.

- One call I did like, and it wasn’t all that meaningful in the grand scheme of the game but one that had me wondering why teams don’t do it more often, was the fourth-down quarterback sneak Clemens executed to keep a late drive going. The Rams lined up with one receiver split wide and everyone else in tight in offset power-I formation. Before the snap, Clemens sent his tight ends in motion and spread the defense out. Tampa Bay’s defense audibled to account for the receivers on the outside, and then Clemens sneaked into wide-open space for an easy first down. I’d be curious to see a similar setup where the defense tries to call the bluff and see if Clemens has the freedom to throw there anyway. Either way, simple design and concept but well done.

- More good work from Cory Harkey not only as a blocker but also in his continued involvement in the pass game. He’s actually become a reliable outlet for Clemens for short gains to help move the chains through the air. The drops that plagued him early in the season have been absent lately.

- Speaking of good play calls: Rookie receiver Stedman Bailey continues to get more opportunities and make the most of them. After getting a sudden change off a turnover at Tampa Bay’s 27, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called for a double reverse. It was a good call because it worked, obviously, but it was also well timed in that the Rams were in position to take advantage of that quick shift in momentum. The Rams blocked it up perfectly, to the point where it was almost shocking how easy it was. Not sure Bailey needed the dramatic leap into the end zone, but who are we to deny him the chance to enjoy his first NFL touchdown?

- Besides, how can anyone hold a grudge against a player who made the catch Bailey did for a 28-yard gain? When analysts talk about a player catching with his hands, a shot of Bailey hauling that one in should be the prime example. Bailey has done nothing to indicate his future is anything but bright.

- Receiver Chris Givens also made a nice catch deep down the sideline, climbing the ladder and getting his feet down for a big gain. One thing that he didn’t need, though, was the jawing with Darrelle Revis. Nothing wrong with not backing down from a challenge, but a little sense of place in relation to the opponent would be good. And that applies across the board. Rams defensive backs have been particularly guilty of it this year.

- They didn’t go for big gains but Brian Quick had a couple of catches in traffic with defenders all over him. That’s a good sign for a player who hasn’t taken advantage of his physical advantage over most defenders enough.

- Zero penalties for the offense in this one. In a game where yards were difficult to find, that’s a hidden number that can mean a lot.

Left guard decision looms for Rams

August, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Expected competition for most of the Rams’ starting jobs never really materialized at most of the anticipated positions. Most, that is, except for left guard.

While position battles are a time-honored training-camp tradition, some battles such as running back crystallized almost before they even got started. But the left guard job has remained an ongoing issue with Chris Williams and Shelley Smith taking turns.

Three games into the preseason schedule and with the training-camp portion of practices over, Rams coach Jeff Fisher hinted Sunday that some closure could finally come this week.

Smith
Williams
“We’re getting there,’’ Fisher said. “We may be ready to make an announcement this week at some point."

What has been a two-horse race really since the spring remains one as the Rams close in on the start of the regular season. Throughout camp, the offense has been fortunate to have mostly the same players on the offensive line healthy and available each day.

Right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder, which cost him a couple of weeks, but left tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl have been together enough to forge at least some semblance of cohesion.

That group hasn’t consistently had one piece in the left guard slot, though, as Williams and Smith have played musical chairs.

In practice, Williams and Smith spent much of the time trading off, with each getting plenty of work with the first-team offense. That balance was mostly unharmed by Saffold’s injury as Joe Barksdale stepped in at right tackle, though Williams has been getting work -- and got a little against Denver -- as a backup option at that spot.

Williams’ versatility is what made him an intriguing option for the Rams when they signed him on Oct. 22 of last year. He played in three games near the end of last season, splitting time at right guard with Smith in a similar setup after a season-ending injury to Dahl late in the year.

For his career, Williams is the more experienced option of the two with 38 starts, including 20 at left guard, 11 at right tackle and seven at left tackle.

Smith has played guard exclusively for the Rams since they picked him up following the final round of cuts in 2012. He made six starts last year, four at left guard and the previously mentioned pair at right guard.

“Chris has been moving around, which is good,’’ Fisher said. “The flexibility at the left guard spot and then a little bit of right tackle here and there; it’s good. Shelley’s moving around a little bit, playing left guard, right guard. We’ve got depth there.’’

The presence of depth is not the primary concern for the Rams, however. Theoretically, the Rams could go with a rotation like they did with the duo at the end of last season, but for continuity sake, it would make sense to make a decision and go with it.

Neither has separated in any clear terms based on playing time in the first three preseason games, either.

Williams has played 17, 11 and 28 snaps in the first three games, starting Games 1 and 3 and working most of those plays at left guard with just a little bit of right tackle mixed in.

Smith has played more snaps with counts of 35, 28 and 16 but he’s also spent more time with the backups than Williams, particularly in the preseason opener against Cleveland.

Following Smith’s lone start against Green Bay, Fisher didn’t exactly offer overwhelming praise when asked about Smith’s performance, saying simply that Smith was "OK" before moving on.

According to Pro Football Focus’ ratings, Williams has allowed a sack, a hit and three hurries while Smith has been responsible for a sack and two hurries. Much like the competition for the backup quarterback job, neither player has grabbed the job by the throat and made the decision a foregone conclusion.

Despite the lack of overwhelming evidence in either direction, Williams probably fits the bill a bit better than Smith given his size advantage (6-foot-6, 320 pounds versus Smith’s 6-4, 297 pounds) and experience level. The guess here is that Williams ultimately wins out.
A look at how the St. Louis Rams fared in five areas worth watching in Thursday night’s 27-19 loss at the Cleveland Browns in the preseason opener.

Running back breakdown

As expected, Daryl Richardson got the start and did nothing to jeopardize his chances to get the next one. He carried four times for 24 yards, helping set up the only touchdown scored by the first-team offense before calling it a night.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Richardson
Rick Osentoski/USA Today SportsDaryl Richardson is expected to get the bulk of carries this season for St. Louis.
Isaiah Pead also got work with the first team but got off to a rough start when he coughed up a fumble to kill the offense’s first drive. Ball security was an issue for Pead in limited opportunities in 2012 when he fumbled twice at San Francisco, losing one. He showed some resiliency by posting 16 yards on his next two carries to finish with 18 yards on three chances.

Rookie Zac Stacy, who didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday, did play and had an up-and-down start before getting it going in the second half. His first three snaps consisted of a catch for 6 yards, a drop and a stout blitz pickup.

Stacy looked more comfortable in the second half though he wasn’t at full speed and finished with 23 yards on seven carries.

Benjamin Cunningham and Chase Reynolds came in for mop-up duty late. Cunningham showed some juice with a late 6-yard run that drew praise from Rams analyst Marshall Faulk and later tacked on a 36-yard kick return to set up the Rams’ final touchdown.

Terrance Ganaway, who appeared to tweak his leg near the end of Tuesday’s practice, was a pregame scratch.

Backing up Bradford

After spending the first couple weeks of camp rotating with Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis got the first opportunity behind starter Sam Bradford.

Davis struggled to gain traction before connecting with receiver Brian Quick for a 16-yard gain to set up a field goal. He was up and down the rest of the way behind spotty protection, finishing 9-of-16 for 96 yards.

Clemens entered with around seven minutes to go and the Rams backed up to their 1-yard line. After he completed his first attempt for a first down, Browns defensive lineman Justin Staples intercepted Clemens to set up the Browns’ final points.

Clemens got those points right back with a 53-yard touchdown pass to receiver Raymond Radway after escaping the pocket and dropping it off to Radway. He finished 6-of-13 for 116 yards with the touchdown and two interceptions.

All told, Clemens looked sharper than Davis as he nearly engineered a rally from down two scores to give the Rams a chance to tie. This battle is far from over, though.

First look at Austin

Rookie receiver Tavon Austin was probably the player everyone was most excited to see debut in the opener. The wait will have to last longer for those hoping to see him with the ball in his hands.

Bradford targeted Austin once and the rookie wideout couldn’t corral a seemingly catchable ball to convert on third down. It was the only time Austin had the ball thrown his way on the evening.

Austin also dropped back to return a punt but the kick came up well short of him and he didn’t get the chance to catch it.

Left guard looks

Chris Williams got the start at left guard over Shelley Smith, though both got their opportunities. Williams was on the field for the first-team offense’s touchdown drive and helped open holes for Richardson to gain 18 yards on two carries to set up the score.

Smith played the majority of the snaps in the second half.

Rookie defenders

The Rams' first-team defense struggled to get off the field, allowing the Browns to convert three third downs on their opening drive and once more for a touchdown on their second.

At the heart of those struggles were the Rams’ two rookie starters. Linebacker Alec Ogletree scuffled in coverage as Browns tight end Jordan Cameron and running back Dion Lewis beat him for big plays. He finished with two tackles in unofficial statistics.

Safety T.J. McDonald got off to a difficult start when he whiffed on a tackle to allow Cleveland’s first drive to continue. He did bounce back to post five tackles, according to unofficial statistics.

Rams reset after 'phase one'

August, 5, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- At the conclusion of Saturday’s scrimmage, Rams coach Jeff Fisher declared the opening phase of this year’s training camp officially complete.

As of Monday morning, the Rams rookies had been in town for two full weeks and the veterans were closing in on that mark after joining their rookie counterparts two days later.

Most of that time has been spent re-installing and familiarizing with schemes on both sides of the ball, a veritable refresher course on what was done during the offseason program in the spring.

The time for slowly wading into playbooks and getting acclimated is now gone.

“Things are going to go fast,” Fisher said. “And now we’ve got to get game ready, get the guys ready to play football.”

The Rams will get their first chance to play someone other than themselves Thursday night when they open the exhibition season in Cleveland. Before they do, let’s take a look at 15 things we know about the Rams as they prepare for their preseason opener.

1. The Rams’ identity is evolving into a faster, more aggressive, up-tempo approach. While the defense started the shift last year, the offense is catching up this year and it’s evident in every practice.

2. Quarterback Sam Bradford is more comfortable in his second season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. He’s spending more time teaching and communicating with his young receivers than he did a year ago when the offense was foreign to him.

3. Rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin is as advertised. His speed and change of direction have been apparent and the Rams are using him in many ways: wideout, running back and returner.

4. Tight end Jared Cook and Bradford have formed a connection that’s carried over from the spring to training camp. Cook has consistently been Bradford’s favorite target.

5. The competition at running back is only just beginning. While Daryl Richardson has seen plenty of action with the first team, Isaiah Pead has had his opportunities to work his way into the mix and rookie Zac Stacy will be heard from before the preseason slate is complete.

6. Likewise with the battle at left guard, which is the only other spot on the offense that is a true time-share at this point. Chris Williams and Shelley Smith have taken turns with the first team but neither has separated at this stage.

7. Receivers Chris Givens and Austin Pettis appear poised to nail down the starting spots at split end and flanker, respectively. Givens is essentially a sure thing but with Brian Quick struggling to find consistency, Pettis is staking his claim as well.

8. Tackle Rodger Saffold is slowly, but surely, getting accustomed to the right side after spending his first three seasons on the left.

9. So far, the team’s many veteran offensive linemen have managed to stay healthy.

10. Competition for the safety jobs never truly materialized as T.J. McDonald and Darian Stewart have consistently worked with the first team. So long as Stewart stays healthy, it appears the starting defense is pretty well set.

11. Rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree is already entrenched as a starter on the outside and is almost certain to stay on the field in nickel packages.

12. The defensive line remains the team’s strongest unit and looks primed to improve on last year’s breakthrough performance.

13. Having Tim Walton take over defensive coordinator duties has allowed the defense to focus on one voice and one direction after playing without a coordinator in 2012.

14. The Rams’ top four cornerbacks are pretty much set with Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and rookie Brandon McGee settled in.

15. Among the undrafted free agents working to make the roster, linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has impressed.
The St. Louis Rams finished 7-8-1 last season with Robert Turner and Barry Richardson leading their offensive line in most snaps played.

They posted that record with Wayne Hunter and Quinn Ojinnaka combining for nine starts (neither player is on a 90-man roster at present). They posted that record with Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale combining for eight starts after St. Louis claimed both off waivers during the season.

I think that context is important when considering what our NFL scout, Matt Williamson, had to say about the Rams' current offensive line.



The Rams are young just about everywhere but along their line. Center Scott Wells, left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Rodger Saffold and right guard Harvey Dahl combined to miss 21 regular-season games last season. All but Saffold are coming off surgeries. Losing Turner in free agency hurt the depth, and Rok Watkins' release for being overweight was another blow.

From the Rams' perspective, however, the foursome of Wells, Long, Saffold and Dahl are all healthy entering camp. Wells started the final six games last season. Jones is a rookie the team can develop. And if the team could compete with the group it assembled last season, just about anything seems possible. I'd certainly rather go with Long-Saffold than Saffold-Richardson at the tackle spots.

The Rams have stocked their roster at the skill positions while building a capable defense with few missing pieces. But as we look into the future, it's clear the team needs to draft and otherwise acquire talent for its offensive line. Keeping Saffold, who is entering the final year of his deal, could be an option if he plays well this season. Developing Jones would certainly help. Even then, the team could use a couple interior linemen and another tackle.

And if injuries strike the line hard in 2013, Williamson is right. The depth is a concern, for sure.
@HavokHawk sized up the previous item and wanted to see the information narrowed for starting lineups.

Lineups aren't set in every case. Injuries are affecting a few situations. We're still able to put together a snapshot visible in the chart at the bottom of this entry.

Among the considerations:
Reid and Ogletree are the youngest projected starters in the division, followed by 22-year-olds Tavon Austin, T.J. McDonald, Michael Brockers, Williams and Bobby Wagner. Wagner, who started as a rookie for Seattle last season, turns 23 later this month.

Seattle's Earl Thomas and San Francisco's Anthony Davis are among three players from 2010 through last season to have started all 48 regular-season games before turning 24. The New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul is the other.

The St. Louis Rams hoped 2012 fifth-round draft choice Rokevious Watkins would compete for a starting job at guard last season.

Watkins reported to training camp overweight, then suffered a season-ending ankle injury. His second shot at winning a starting job took a hit Wednesday when the NFL announced Watkins would serve a one-game suspension for violating its policy on substance abuse.

Watkins becomes the third NFC West player hit with a suspension recently. Arizona's Daryl Washington and Seattle's Bruce Irvin will serve four-game suspensions to open the season.

Suspended players remain eligible to practice and play in preseason games. Watkins is competing with Shelley Smith, Chris Williams and Barrett Jones, among others, for playing time at left guard. Smith would be the favorite to start based on 2012 performance.

Watkins' grip on a roster spot appears tenuous.
Brock Huard, Danny O'Neil and I got together over the phone Tuesday to discuss 2013 draft needs for the Seattle Seahawks on 710ESPN Seattle.

The conversation got me thinking about real and perceived needs for NFC West teams.

Most of the perceived needs are also real ones, but sometimes we focus disproportionately on a few areas while overlooking others.

A quick look at one position to reemphasize for NFC West teams:

Arizona Cardinals: With a disproportionate focus on the offensive line and heavy focus on potential additions to the pass rush, we should note that the Cardinals parted with both veteran starting strong safeties this offseason. They could proceed with Rashad Johnson and Yeremiah Bell as the starters. However, Johnson remains unproven as a full-time starter. Bell is 35 years old, so he projects as a short-term solution. Jonathan Amaya, Justin Bethel and Curtis Taylor are the backup safeties.

St. Louis Rams: So many mock drafts project wide receiver and safety to the Rams in the first round. The offensive line is another position where the Rams could help themselves early in the draft. Yes, they added Jake Long in free agency. But with no established starter at left guard and more questions at tackle than we might initially realize from afar, the line could use reinforcements. Shelley Smith, Harvey Dahl, Rok Watkins, Chris Williams and Brandon Washington are the guards. Long and projected right tackle Rodger Saffold have missed games to injury recently. Saffold is entering the final year of his deal. Joe Barksdale is the third tackle right now, it appears.

San Francisco 49ers: Safety, defensive line and tight end are three positions heavily emphasized already. Looking ahead, the team has only two cornerbacks and three wide receivers under contract for 2014. Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver are the corners. Michael Crabtree, A.J. Jenkins and Ricardo Lockette are the receivers. These could be positions for the 49ers to emphasize earlier than anticipated, depending upon how the draft falls at positions of greater perceived need.

Seattle Seahawks: Defensive tackle, outside linebacker and tight end are three areas I've thought about quite a bit. The offensive line should be set for years to come after Seattle used early picks for Russell Okung, Max Unger, James Carpenter and John Moffitt in recent seasons. However, the long-range picture at guard remains unsettled. Seattle could also use a backup tackle with the ability to push Breno Giacomini for the job on the right side in the future. Here's a supporting note from ESPN Stats & Information: "Including postseason, Seahawks quarterbacks were sacked or put under duress on 29.7 percent of their total drop-backs last season and 26.8 percent of their drop-backs against four or fewer pass-rushers, both worst in the NFL."

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
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Bernie Miklasz asked for an opinion on Steven Jackson's future during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Jackson is the Rams' career rushing leader. If any one player represents the soul of the Rams, Jackson would be the one. He's put together a string of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for a team that hasn't given him near enough help most of the time.

The Rams had nine players start on their offensive line last season. That total ranked tied for fourth-highest in the NFL. The team had nine starters on its line in 2011 as well. Seven of those nine did not start for the team in 2012. That's 16 different starters on the line over two seasons. The 2012 Rams got eight combined starts at three positions on the line from Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale, players the team claimed off waivers in September.

Back to Jackson. What does his future hold? The odds seem in favor of the Rams and Jackson parting amicably. The Rams are getting younger and building through the draft. Jackson is scheduled to earn $7 million in salary this season. He can opt out of his contract, a stipulation the Rams granted him when the sides failed to reach agreement on a contract extension last year.

Jackson turns 30 in July. Running backs generally begin declining by about age 27. However, players 30 and older have reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season 44 times. Willis McGahee was the most recent to do it, gaining 1,199 yards for Denver in 2011.

NFC West Stock Watch

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
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Falling

1. Cardinals leadership. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves lost their jobs following Arizona's second 5-11 season in the past three years. Their inability to upgrade the quarterback position was the No. 1 reason for their demise. Having a head coach with a background on offense should have translated to better play at the position.

2. David Akers, 49ers kicker. Akers missed wide left from 40 and 44 yards during the 49ers' 27-13 victory over Arizona in Week 17. His numbers are down from 40-plus yards. The situation has gotten bad enough for the 49ers to consider other kickers. They signed Billy Cundiff this week.

3. Beanie Wells, Cardinals RB. Wells went into Week 17 saying he would be auditioning for the 31 other teams. Whisenhunt responded by leaving Wells on the bench against San Francisco. Wells, a first-round pick in 2009, had been expected to stabilize the offense upon returning from injury Nov. 25. He finished the season without averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry in a single game.

4. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals CB. Peterson's stock should be rising after his selection to the Pro Bowl. However, he had a rough game against San Francisco's Michael Crabtree. Peterson had issues against the 49ers earlier in the season as well. He pointed to injuries after this one. "I went into the game with a nagging injury that kind of fell over into the game," he told reporters in Arizona. Peterson did not finish the game.

Rising

1. Highly drafted WRs. The 49ers' A.J. Jenkins is excused from this discussion after dropping a pass and finishing his rookie season with zero receptions. Crabtree joined Seattle's Golden Tate and Arizona's Michael Floyd in putting up big numbers in Week 17. Those three totaled 19 receptions for 443 yards and three touchdowns on 27 targets. Each averaged better than 20 yards per reception. All three were high draft choices over the past few seasons.

2. Rams' pass protection. Barry Richardson, Shelley Smith, Scott Wells, Robert Turner and Rodger Saffold get some credit for allowing zero sacks over the Rams' past two games. Line coach Paul Boudreau got more than anticipated from this patched-together unit. Seattle collected zero sacks against the Rams on 43 drop backs. Chris Clemons did have a fumble-forcing sack converted to an incomplete pass through replay.

3. Snubbled players. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman played at a Pro Bowl level all season, including when he picked off Sam Bradford's final pass Sunday to secure a 20-13 Seattle victory. He was nonetheless left off the Pro Bowl team this season, settling for first-alternate status. 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane also failed to earn Pro Bowl honors despite playing at a high level during various parts of the season. Both appeared to play well in Week 17.

4. Franchise QBs. Colin Kaepernick, Bradford and Russell Wilson each passed for at least 250 yards while combining for a 70.8 Total QBR score for their teams in Week 17. They combined for five total touchdowns with just one interception. Wilson averaged 13.2 yards per pass attempt. Kaepernick averaged 9.9.

Rams' offensive line shuffling in high gear

December, 23, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams have started three players at left tackle, three at left guard and two at center this season.

The right side of their offensive line has been more settled, but that is going to change now that right guard Harvey Dahl is out for the season with a torn biceps.

Shelley Smith or Chris Williams will start for the Rams against Tampa Bay in Week 16, coach Jeff Fisher indicated.

If Williams gets the start, he will be the 10th different person to start on the Rams' offensive line this season, a figure that would tie Buffalo for most in the NFL. Seattle and Arizona have each started eight different players on the line. San Francisco, Minnesota, Washington and the New York Jets are the only teams to start the same five all season.

Left tackle Rodger Saffold and rookie Rokevious Watkins (injured reserve) are the Rams' only offensive linemen remaining from their previous draft classes. I would expect the team to target the position in the 2013 draft.

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