NFC West: Terrance Ganaway
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
On Wednesday morning, Rams running back Terrance Ganaway opted to do just that when he walked into coach Jeff Fisher’s office and let him know that he’s ready to call it a career.
Ganaway was hoping to enter his second NFL season after originally entering the league as a sixth-round pick of the Jets in 2012. New York released him in the final round of cuts and the Rams claimed him off waivers.
On his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon, Ganaway shared the news. He plans to pursue a graduate degree to go with the general studies degree he earned from Baylor in 2010.
“Grateful for the opportunity and honored to play a game that I love on every level!! What an experience!! Wish my mom was here!!”
Ganaway went on to say he was sorry for giving up the game.
“I apologize to the people who have rooted for me since day one. You were in my thoughts as I made this decision. I appreciate you all.”
The Rams kept Ganaway on the active roster for the entire season but he played in just three games without getting any carries or catches.
Ganaway was a pre-game scratch in the first preseason game against Cleveland as he dealt with a hamstring injury then appeared in the second contest against Green Bay. He did not get a carry in either game and it became pretty clear he was sitting behind Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham in the pecking order. Chase Reynolds is also in the mix.
In saying goodbye, Ganaway helps further clarify how the Rams will likely go into the regular season. With Pead suspended for the first game for violation of the league’s drug policy, Richardson, Stacy and Cunningham are in good shape to make the roster out of camp.
Ganaway made some headlines in the offseason when he took a job making sandwiches at a Jimmy John’s in Waco, Texas. At the time, he said he took on the extra work to help keep away from some of the pratfalls that can come with the NFL offseason.
Upon his leaving the game Wednesday, Ganaway didn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself, offering one more tweet on his departure.
“I wonder if *@jimmyjohns is still hiring?”
For most of training camp, all signs pointed to Richardson claiming the No. 1 job. Given that, it became clear that players once competing to win the top spot on the depth chart were actually competing to hang on to the No. 2 gig and players in the third position were closer to moving up to a backup role.
With two preseason games remaining, only the starting spot has crystallized while the rest of the running back depth chart remains a bit cloudy.
“As far as who’s going to come in, that remains to be seen,” Fisher said. “We still have some more evaluating to do.”
All indications are that Isaiah Pead is the primary candidate to be Richardson’s main backup. Pead got plenty of opportunities in the second preseason game against Green Bay when he carried 11 times for 19 yards. His 14 carries are the most among Rams running backs in the preseason but he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt, lowest among the backs legitimately in play to win the job.
Pead also fumbled in his first preseason carry against Cleveland but he’s at least shown some aptitude in other areas such as pass protection and pass-catching. He cleanly picked up at least two blitzes against the Packers.
The rest of the contenders to land spots on the depth chart include fifth-round pick Zac Stacy, undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham and second-year back Terrance Ganaway.
Stacy and Ganaway have been slowed by injuries in the first two weeks of the preseason, making it more difficult to gauge where they are in their progression.
Against Cleveland in the opener, Stacy rushed seven times for 23 yards after missing most practices the week prior because of a leg issue. He practiced on and off again last week but was a pregame scratch against Green Bay. He did practice Monday afternoon.
Ganaway appeared to tweak a hamstring just before the Cleveland game and did not play against the Browns. He played against the Packers but did not get a carry. The Rams originally picked Ganaway up off waivers from the Jets in the final round of cuts last year and he still has yet to get an attempt in his time with the team.
The lack of sample size for Stacy and Ganaway has opened the door for Cunningham to make his mark and so far, he’s done nothing but help himself in his opportunities.
The Rams signed Cunningham as an undrafted free agent following the draft in April and thought enough of him that Fisher personally made the recruiting phone call to convince him to sign.
Through the first two games, Cunningham leads the team in rushing yards with 39 yards on 11 carries.
The rushing numbers aren’t the only thing being monitored, of course. Fisher said Monday that things like blitz pickup, catching passes and knowing assignments will be just as important in helping to sort out the rest of the running back depth chart.
“It’s consistency, and it’s not just the game,” Fisher said. “It’s consistency on the practice field, understanding, first and foremost, probably how to play without the football. For us, that’s more important than how he plays with the football. By that I mean, is he getting to the right place in the passing game? Is he proficient, and does he know exactly what to do in protection? Once you get that down, then we’ll evaluate the run skills.”
One other way for a backup running back to make his mark is on special teams, namely at kick returner. The Rams are likely to give rookie receiver Tavon Austin the first crack at being the punt returner but are more hesitant to turn over the kick return duties to their prized rookie.
That leaves a clear opening for someone to claim the kick return job and if that player happens to be a running back, all the better.
Pead has returned four kicks for 79 yards, an average of 19.75 yards per attempt. Cunningham’s sample size is much smaller but he had the longest return of any kick returner in the first two games with a 36-yard attempt in Cleveland.
"It’s a bonus," Fisher said. "It gives them an opportunity to be active, and that’s important. There’s plenty of spots open in our core group of special teams right now. If a running back wants to step in there and take one of those spots, that would be great.”
St. Louis is coming off a 27-19 loss in the preseason opener at Cleveland and makes its home debut for 2013.
Hometown fans hoping to see the Rams unveil some of the new weapons they acquired in the offseason will likely leave disappointed as all indications are that the team will again stick to the vanilla game plan it used last week.
With that in mind, here are five things that are worth keeping an eye on as the Rams host Green Bay.
Right tackle redux: Projected starting right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder two plays into the opener in Cleveland. He hasn’t practiced all week and won’t play against the Packers.
Joe Barksdale, who replaced Saffold last week, has taken almost all of the work with the first-team offense in practice this week and will make the start in Saffold’s place.
Barksdale fared pretty well in Saffold’s stead last week and the chance to start could give him some valuable reps for a group of backup offensive linemen that doesn’t have much in the way of experience.
Behind Barksdale, the Rams don’t have much in the way of tackles. Chris Williams, who started last week at left guard, could get a look at right tackle. The same can be said for rookie Barrett Jones and Brandon Washington, both of whom are projected to play on the interior but have filled in at right tackle this week.
Spread it around: The majority of the starting offense played just 14 snaps last week, leaving for another week the long anticipated first looks at tight end Jared Cook and receiver Tavon Austin. Neither caught a pass against the Browns as Austin was targeted once and Cook did not get a look.
Starting wideout Chris Givens stole the show last week with three catches for 82 yards and will again be involved, but the Rams would like to at least get the likes of Austin and Cook an opportunity or two to contribute.
Going deeper: All week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made it known that the first units will play a little longer on both sides of the ball. Part of that is to get the primary starters a few more reps than they had last week, but the other reason is he wants to get some of his younger players who are down the depth chart a chance to play with the top units.
Namely at running back and receiver, don’t be surprised if youngsters such as Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway, Benny Cunningham, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey see a few snaps with the first-team offense.
Looking at linebackers: Veteran Will Witherspoon is all but certain to step into the starting role in place of suspended starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Dunbar is eligible to play but Fisher made it clear he wants to use the main workload to prepare the players who will start on the season on Sept. 8.
Witherspoon is a known commodity as he enters his 12th season in the league. Rookie starter Alec Ogletree will also look to bounce back from a rough start last week in Cleveland.
What might be more intriguing in this area is the hunt for talented depth that can serve as reliable backups for the starting group. Josh Hull is the only backup linebacker with any game experience but the Rams have some intriguing options that figure to get work with the No. 2 defense.
The three undrafted rookies -- Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart -- have flashed potential during camp and proved to be potential long-term contributors on special teams. It seems likely at least one of those three will make the active roster and tonight’s game serves as the next chance to make a strong impression.
Corner three: Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are pretty well entrenched as the starters at cornerback. Trumaine Johnson entered camp as the likely third corner in nickel packages after he finished the 2012 season as the team’s third corner.
Johnson is probably still in the lead to fill that role again this year, but rookie Brandon McGee seems to be at least stating his case for the job.
McGee got some reps with the first-team defense as the third corner in practice this week and it’s worth monitoring to see if he gets a shot to do it in the game. Considering Fisher’s statement that he wants to give some different young guys a chance to play with the first team, it’s entirely possible McGee will at least get a few reps in that role.
As the team’s leading returning rusher, it stood to reason that speedy Daryl Richardson would be the odds-on favorite to win what many figured would be a close battle to claim the starting running back job.
Since camp has begun, Richardson has done nothing to endanger that status and, in fact, has probably put a bit of distance between himself and competitors such as Isaiah Pead, Terrance Ganaway and rookies Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham.
A week after Richardson looked sharp in the preseason opener against Cleveland with 24 yards on four carries, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer confirmed that Richardson is ahead, but also noted that there’s still time for one of the others to make a push.
“I think Daryl played really, really well last week,” Schottenheimer said. “I think Isaiah’s definitely got to play some catch-up. But again, we’re not just looking at one game. He’s got a whole preseason to look at. We were very pleased with the way Daryl played last week. They’ve both done really well in practice. Would I say Daryl has the lead? Sure, but there’s a ways to go, and we expect good things from Isaiah this weekend.”
For Pead to play the type of catch-up Schottenheimer referred to, he’s going to have to prove that he can bounce back from a disappointing start to the preseason. After having ball-security issues in limited opportunities in 2012 -- Pead played just 42 offensive snaps with 10 carries -- he fumbled on his first carry against the Browns to kill a promising opening drive.
To Pead’s credit, he did break an 11-yard run on a trap play in which he made a quick read and slid off the side of the point of attack for the team’s second longest run of the night. He finished with 16 yards on three carries.
Despite the fumble, Schottenheimer said Pead has performed well in practice.
“I think Isaiah’s done some amazing things in training camp,” Schottenheimer said. “Obviously he was disappointed last week in the fumble. We talked about that with him. We said, ‘Hey, don’t let one play take away all the great things you’ve done.’ He’s made play after play, so again, try to get him some more reps. Obviously he’s still a young player. You’ve got to teach him. But build on the great things he’s doing out here on the practice field and carry that over to the field.”
Therein lies the real rub with Pead. At times, he flashes the type of game-breaking ability that made him a second-round pick, and his skill set would seem to fit what the Rams are hoping to become offensively this season.
The positive reinforcement from the likes of Schottenheimer is no coincidence, as the test for Pead will be to move past the mental blocks he puts on himself any time he makes a mistake.
Most signs still point to the Rams using a running back by committee approach this season, but how that plays out will be determined by what happens in the next few weeks. Against Cleveland, Richardson and Cunningham played 10 snaps, Pead played seven and Stacy played 21.
Coach Jeff Fisher insists he’d like to get some of his backs other than Richardson and Pead a chance to play with the first team offense before the preseason games are through.
“Our hope is to try to get them some carries behind the starting offensive line over the next couple of weeks to fairly evaluate them,” Fisher said.
Since the offense is likely to be on the field a bit more this week, it’s possible players like Stacy or Cunningham could get a couple looks with the top unit as the Rams continue to sort through their options.
A few quick hits left over from Thursday’s practice, when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s suspension was the news of the day:
- Marty Schottenheimer, father of Brian, attended the practice with cameras from NFL Films in tow. Rumor has it, there’s a documentary in the works about the Schottenheimer family’s football legacy.
- Torry Holt also returned to camp as he’s in town again in advance of working as color analyst for Saturday night’s preseason broadcast. Holt will fly solo in that role alongside play-by-play man Andrew Siciliano as fellow analyst Marshall Faulk will not be in the booth. Faulk is missing the broadcast so he can take his son, Marshall Jr., to college at Central Washington.
- Holt again was not hesitant to provide guidance for the team’s young receivers. Although Brian Quick had a mostly strong practice, Holt was quick to get on him for not turning it up and going full speed deep down the field against a certain coverage. Holt’s advice: “As soon as you see that coverage, you’ve got to be out of there.”
- Speaking of receivers with strong practices, Chris Givens continues to impress. He caught everything thrown his way, and continues to show that he’s much more than a one-trick pony. After one back-shoulder catch in tight coverage during red zone work, Brian Schottenheimer nearly jumped out of his shoes in excitement.
- Rookie cornerback Brandon McGee worked in a bit with the first-team defense in nickel packages. Presumed nickel cornerback Trumaine Johnson has had some good moments in camp, but has been a bit inconsistent. McGee has impressed with his physical skills in press coverage and overall feisty demeanor.
When asked about the incident again Monday, Fisher acknowledged that he received a call from Kosar, who apologized for his words. Most of Kosar’s ire was directed at the Rams’ receiver corps and, especially backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.
Fisher had nothing more to offer on the subject Monday afternoon.
“It’s a dead issue,” Fisher said. “It’s all behind us.”
On Saturday, Fisher made it clear that he didn’t care much for Kosar’s idea of commentary. Browns CEO Joe Banner issued a statement Sunday reprimanding Kosar for his comments and issuing an apology to Fisher and the Rams.
“We don't condone the personal and unprofessional approach that Bernie took with some of his comments during the broadcast Thursday night,” Banner said in the statement. “We’ve spoken to Bernie, he understands that, and we would expect the situation is resolved moving forward. We’ve also reached out to the Rams organization and have shared those same sentiments."
Clemens, who took most of the brunt of Kosar’s words didn’t have much to add to the mix when he was asked about it Monday.
“After five years in New York, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Clemens said.
Clemens played for the Jets from 2006 to 2010 and was often the target of criticism there. Clemens said he and Kosar had no history together that Clemens could recall.
Monday Practice Notes
• Missouri governor Jay Nixon attended the first half hour of practice or so before rain chased him and his entourage off. Nixon is expected to have a hand in helping the state work toward a deal to help keep the Rams in St. Louis.
Monday’s visit to the practice field had nothing to do with that, however. Nixon and Fisher conversed for a bit before practice as Fisher joked that Nixon offered some tips.
“He had a lot of good ideas,” Fisher said. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll make a few calls for us at some point. In the preseason.”
• Rookie receiver Stedman Bailey had another strong practice in what is now turning into a long line of them. He was essentially perfect in one-on-one drills and continued to get open and catch everything thrown his way in team drills. It remains to be seen if he can do it against the top corners but he’s having his way with the backups on a regular basis.
• To balance out Bailey’s success, Rams safety Rodney McLeod had a strong practice. He got beat early in one-on-one drills but bounced back with textbook coverage on his next three repetitions. He capped it off with in an interception in 7-on-7 work.
• The busiest man in Rams training camp right now? Offensive lineman Chris Williams. With tackles Rodger Saffold (shoulder) and Sean Hooey (ankle) not practicing, Williams' role has expanded beyond taking repetitions with the first team at left guard. He is working behind Joe Barksdale as a backup at right tackle and even got some reps with the first team at left tackle to help spell starter Jake Long on Monday. Barrett Jones also continues to get work as Barksdale’s understudy at right tackle.
• Safety Matt Giordano, Hooey, Saffold, tight end Lance Kendricks, defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo and defensive ends Eugene Sims and Sammy Brown did not participate. Brown watched practice with his left foot in a walking boot after he attempted to get back into the practice mix on Saturday.
• Defensive back Quinton Pointer did not finish practice.
• Running backs Terrance Ganaway and Zac Stacy both returned to the practice field in pads but in different roles. Stacy did work in most of the day’s drills while Ganaway seemed to stick to just working on the side.
• With so much attrition at offensive tackle, the Rams brought in another player Monday in D.J. Young, a second-year player out of Michigan State.
Through the course of the broadcast, Kosar was regularly critical of the Rams, focusing much of his ire on the team’s wide receivers and backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.
“I guess I’m a little disappointed,” Fisher said. “I feel bad for them that they had someone doing the broadcast who would feel the need to speak that way about players, specifically on our team, and coaches for that matter. I’m just surprised that Bernie has such a lack of respect for players and for this game. So I lost a lot of respect for him."
Kosar didn’t waste much time in trashing the Rams, and did so repeatedly throughout the evening.
After an incomplete pass intended for Tavon Austin: “I really think that he didn’t overthrow him and that Austin has to make that catch in the NFL. I see why Sam [Bradford] has been struggling watching how bad these receivers have been for him.”
After Nick Johnson dropped a pass: “This is actually not a bad throw. These St. Louis receivers are horrible. That’s a drop there.”
When play-by-play man Jim Donovan asked Kosar what he’d think if he knew that some of the Rams receivers' parents were watching, Kosar said he “would be embarrassed.”
Kosar then turned his attention from to receivers coach Ray Sherman.
“I’m checking through the itinerary here of guys and coaches to see who the receivers coach is to make sure I don’t know who this guy is because he’s not doing very good either,” Kosar said.
“I must not be because the next quarterback in, me and him haven’t done too well with each other, too,” Kosar said.
Clemens wasn’t in the game at the time.
Later, when Clemens entered the game, Donovan relayed a story about Clemens giving an autograph to Pope Benedict XVI. Kosar said he didn’t think he’d ever want it, and then took another shot at Clemens.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Kosar said. “I have to watch him the whole fourth quarter.”
On Saturday, Fisher said he didn’t believe Kosar had studied the Rams well enough to be making such sweeping generalizations.
“I didn’t think they were justified,” Fisher said.
Some notes from practice:
- As expected, Joe Barksdale got the bulk of the reps with the first team at right tackle in place of Rodger Saffold. Barksdale held up well against defensive end Chris Long in one-on-one pass-rush drills and again during the team period. Saffold watched practice from the sideline but was out of the sling he was wearing at the end of Thursday’s game.
- With Sean Hooey not practicing because of an ankle injury, rookie Barrett Jones moved over to right tackle after spending the first couple of weeks working exclusively on the interior. Jones handled reps at right tackle in one-on-ones as well as team drills. Chris Williams, who has spent most of his time at left guard, also took some reps at right tackle during one-on-ones.
- Running backs Zac Stacy and Terrance Ganaway, defensive end Eugene Sims and safety Matt Giordano did not practice. Receiver Andrew Helmick was back in uniform but didn’t do much of anything.
- Fisher said defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo (foot) is out of his boot and closer to a return.
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.
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.
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.
Since the Rams used the 24th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft on him, Steven Jackson’s name might as well have been etched in stone at the top of the depth chart. From that time, no running back in the NFL even came close to handling Jackson’s workload.
With Jackson now making his NFL home in Atlanta, the Rams find themselves entering their first season post-Jackson in search of a new starter at running back.
“I think Daryl comes back as our starter because he played significantly more last year than anybody,” Fisher said. “And so Isaiah is working himself up and competing with Daryl. And you’ve got the rest of the guys that are just going to battle it out, and we haven’t ruled anybody out from that matter. But we’re going to try to get as many carries as we can.”
So while Richardson “comes back as the starter,” there seems to be plenty of wiggle room as the Rams head into the preseason opener in Cleveland tomorrow night. Beyond that, calling Richardson the starter now could also be a matter of semantics, because Pead’s one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy will keep him out of the opener against Arizona.
Nearly two weeks into this year’s training camp, Richardson and Pead have spent most of the time in practice splitting repetitions with the first team. Richardson got many of the looks in the opening days before the Rams put the pads on, but since then he and Pead have been taking turns on a fairly consistent basis.
Neither Pead nor Richardson believes the job is anything but up for grabs as the exhibition schedule kicks off.
“I can’t call it right now, I can’t really tell,” Pead said. “All I can focus on is the next play and trying not to make a mistake on it or fixing it if I’ve currently made a mistake on it. That’s really the mindset that all of us as vets have taken, not really paying attention to how things are going to play out, but letting them play out.”
Ultimately, no matter who wins the starting job, it’s highly unlikely the Rams will lean on one back as they did Jackson.
From 2004 to 2012, Jackson’s 2,396 carries were the most in the league. Thomas Jones’ 2,179 attempts rank second.
In St. Louis, the discrepancy is even greater. Marshall Faulk, who played with Jackson in Jackson’s rookie season, had the next highest total after Jackson’s with 260.
All told, the Rams had 59 players carry the ball during Jackson’s tenure. In that time, the Rams tallied 3,665 carries; meaning Jackson’s total was good for 65.3 percent of the team’s total carries in his nine years with the team.
Richardson actually sits fourth on that list after one season in the league, carrying 98 times for 475 yards as a rookie in 2012. Richardson is the fastest of the group, and showed a penchant for breaking the long run with 11 carries of 10-plus yards.
That speed would seem to make Richardson an ideal complementary back, but he says he made it a point in the offseason to add strength so he could be better between the tackles and be more stout picking up the blitz.
“I want to be the guy at the beginning and at the end,” Richardson said. “I am out here working every day, on my hands especially. Pass protection is a must. You have got to protect [quarterback] Sam [Bradford]. That’s the main focus on what will go on the field.”
Those things should help his cause, but Richardson is well aware that ball security is another issue he has to work on during the rest of the preseason. As a rookie, he coughed up three fumbles, two of which were lost.
“You have got to hold on to that ball,” Richardson said. “Holding on to the ball can be the thing that will make you or break you.”
Pead is the most likely to push Richardson and potentially claim the job before the regular season begins. After the Rams used a second-round pick (No. 50 overall) on him in the 2012 draft, Pead fell behind early in last year’s camp and Richardson claimed the backup job early on.
From there, Pead didn’t get many opportunities as he carried 10 times for 54 yards. Like Richardson, Pead brings a speedy running style, but is probably a bit more elusive in the open field.
By his own admission, Pead would like to be the type of multi-purpose player who touches the ball 30 times a game via the run, the catch and as a returner, but for now, his goal is to improve in all areas so he can win the starting job.
“I think every snap counts,” Pead said. “Every blitz picked up, every dropped ball, every missed cut, every missed assignment. We are all out here looking not to make mistakes. You pray for a perfect practice every day, it just doesn’t happen. But that’s what you have coaches for, and that’s what you come out every day for, and that’s what competition is for. It forces you to be on high alert and perform.”
Pead and Richardson will get plenty of opportunities to create separation through the preseason, but other backs such as rookie Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway and maybe even Benjamin Cunningham will get their chances. How soon those other backs get their chance remains to be seen as Stacy hasn’t done much in practice the past two days, and Ganaway appeared to tweak something on a run late in Tuesday’s workout.
“You just have to sit down and give it some thought,” Fisher said. “Out of fairness to them, you want them all to have an opportunity to run behind the first line, because that’s a fair evaluation -- and run against good opponents. So, we’re going to have to work that out the best we can.”
All four of those early choices could wind up starting in 2013. It's an upset if they do not.
Last year, 92 of the 135 players (68.1 percent) drafted in the first four rounds started at least one regular season. Twenty-five of the 118 players (21.2 percent) drafted in the final three rounds found their way into the starting lineup.
With that disparity in mind and with rookie camps having concluded Sunday, I've singled out five late-round picks from 2013 with a shot at making at least one start as a rookie, in my view. Who else comes to mind from your vantage point?
- Jesse Williams, DT, Seattle Seahawks. Williams, taken with the fourth pick of the fifth round (137th overall), was the first player any NFC West team selected over the final three rounds. He has a relatively clear path to the starting lineup after the Seahawks decided against re-signing veteran Alan Branch. Seattle did select another defensive tackle, Jordan Hill, in the third round. However, Hill projects more as a pass-rusher at this point. Williams projects more as a run defender on early downs. Free-agent addition Tony McDaniel could be the player standing between Williams and the starting lineup. McDaniel has five starts in seven NFL seasons.
- Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams. The Rams plan to use a committee of running backs. They traded two sixth-round picks to Houston for the fifth-round choice (160th overall) they used for Stacy. The team lacks an established starter after parting with Steven Jackson. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects more as a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, will also compete for playing time. There's a chance Stacy will emerge as a primary back on early downs. Terrance Ganaway would be the other power runner on the roster.
- Luke Willson, TE, Seahawks. Wilson was the third of three fifth-round picks for Seattle and the 158th player taken overall. He is not going to beat out starter Zach Miller. However, Willson has a shot at emerging as the No. 2 tight end. And if that happens, he could find his way into the lineup for games when Seattle opens with two tight ends. Coach Pete Carroll singled out Willson as one of the more impressive players at the rookie camp.
- Stepfan Taylor, RB, Cardinals. Arizona has Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams at running back. Both would presumably start ahead of Taylor if healthy. However, Mendenhall missed 10 games with Pittsburgh last season. Williams missed 11 games. So, at least on the surface, Taylor could have a shot at starting through injuries. He's the first running back the Cardinals have selected under coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
- Spencer Ware, FB, Seahawks. Ware still has to earn a roster spot. There are no guarantees that will happen. If he does, however, Ware might be the only fullback on the roster, which would give him a clear path to the starting lineup whenver Seattle opened in a two-back personnel grouping. I wouldn't rule out Seattle finding a way to keep incumbent fullback Michael Robinson as well as Ware if the decision made sense from a special-teams standpoint and if the team felt it could go lighter at another position, such as linebacker. Carroll sounds high on Ware, but the team also values Robinson.
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.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is the only non-specialist I see on the field at this time. He's working on his backpedal and breaking on passes thrown by a Seahawks staffer. Sherman has every reason to revel in the opportunity Sunday after dodging a four-game suspension on Thursday.
Sherman will start for Seattle. The team will be without injured linebacker Leroy Hill. The speedy but inexperienced Malcolm Smith will start in Hill's place.
Also inactive for Seattle: safety Winston Guy, cornerback Walter Thurmond, cornerback DeShawn Shead, guard Rishaw Johnson, guard John Moffitt and tackle Mike Person. Moffitt, a former starter, is inactive for a second consecutive week. The team has decided it's better off with rookie seventh-round choice J.R. Sweezy in the lineup at right guard. Sweezy started in Week 1 and again against San Francisco last week.
The Rams' inactive list includes quarterback Austin Davis, receiver Steve Smith, running back Terrance Ganaway, tight end Cory Harkey, linebacker Sammy Brown, tackle Joe Barksdale and defensive tackle Matt Conrath. No surprises there.
Fullbacks generally don't factor for fantasy stats, but it's still interesting to see how many snaps they played.
Game situations tend to dictate whether they're on the field.
A team playing from behind generally wouldn't use a fullback as much, although Arizona, with its injury depleted backfield, did keep Anthony Sherman on the field quite a bit against the 49ers on Monday night.
Joe Barksdale will make his first career NFL start Sunday and will match up against Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has eight sacks this season.
Barksdale replaces the injured Wayne Hunter, who was replacing the injured Rodger Saffold. Hunter, acquired from the New York Jets before the season, missed practice Friday and was named inactive Sunday. A back injury was the culprit.
The Rams will presumably help Barksdale with tight ends, running backs and their game plan. They are also playing with their third-string left guard and second-string center.
Barksdale, Shelley Smith, Robert Turner, Harvey Dahl and Barry Richardson will start. Tim Barnes and Quinn Ojinnaka are the backups. They are the only other healthy linemen on the roster. Teams typically keep seven linemen active for games.
Smith is replacing Ojinnaka, who has struggled. Smith could provide an upgrade in run blocking.
The Packers, meanwhile, will be without receiver Greg Jennings and defensive tackle B.J. Raji. Both were named inactive.
The Rams' inactive list: Austin Davis, Danny Amendola, Terrance Ganaway, Mario Haggan, Matt Conrath, Hunter and Saffold. The Packers' list: Johnny White, Sam Shields, Nick Perry, Greg Van Roten, Jennings and Raji. The Packers have one open roster spot, meaning they could list one fewer player on the inactive list.
Teams can have 46 players active for games under NFL rules.
Whether they can do so as well this season probably won't be known right away.
Replacing the injured Parys Haralson with former Arizona Cardinals starter Clark Haggans was a move that will play out over the season, not over the next couple weeks. That is why the DUI-related suspension Haggans could be facing might not hurt the team all that much if it happens at all. That assumes Aldon Smith will be healthy enough to contribute fully.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee explains the situation in detail: "The 49ers also will be playing two pass-oriented offenses over the first two weeks: Green Bay and Detroit. That means they likely will be in their nickel formation for much of those games. In those instances, Demarcus Dobbs would be able to fill in as an extra pass rusher if there were more injuries at outside linebacker or if the 49ers wanted to give one of their linebackers a rest. The team released four outside linebackers last week, including their preseason sack leader, Eric Bakhtiari. The team also was impressed with Ikaika Alama-Francis, who joined the team late in the summer but who looked good in the finale Thursday." Noted: If Smith misses time and Haggans receives a suspension, the 49ers will find themselves in a tough spot. Smith, Haralson and Ahmad Brooks were the outside linebackers last season. Each played in all 16 games.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com looks at the team's captains for 2012.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News explains why he's picking someone other than the 49ers for the Super Bowl this year. Kawakami: "The 49ers are just barely out of my Super Bowl consideration because, in retrospect, maybe last year was when it all lined up for them… and they were a close miss. Can everything that went right for Jim Harbaugh’s crew in 2011 go so smoothly in 2012? The 49ers are immensely talented, but injuries and bad breaks have a way of evening out from year to year. So I’m going to skip ahead to the 2013 campaign for any 49ers Super Bowl prophesizing."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers a feel for what it's like when little-known players receive their release. Terrance Ganaway, one of the newest Rams, on his recent departure from the Jets: "I never go out, and I don't drink, but we went to the bar and we just watched the (Aug. 30) Philadelphia-Jets game, which was on replay. And the bartender asked us: Were we Jets fans?"
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams resemble an expansion team after gutting the roster under new coach Jeff Fisher and new general manager Les Snead. Miklasz: "That notion will anger and frustrate some, but that's how I see it. And it doesn't bug me, because I've avoided delusional behavior to take the long view since Fisher and Snead set up at Earth City. This disaster wasn't going to be cleaned up in a year, or after one offseason. I'd rather see the new bosses start fresh, start over, and cultivate a roster that can grow. That makes more sense than keeping older, marginal players employed."
Stephen Holder of the Tampa Bay Times says the Seahawks will not owe a conditional draft choice to the Bucs for Kellen Winslow because the teams' trade was contingent on Winslow appearing on the 53-man roster. He says the Bucs would get a pick if Winslow re-signed with the Seahawks. Noted: The first part is consistent with what we knew at the time of the trade. I'd be surprised if re-signing Winslow would require Seattle to part with a pick, however. Winslow is a free agent. That would generally nullify any trade parameters.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahaws' offensive options appear more familiar without Winslow or Terrell Owens in the picture. O'Neil: "Two weeks ago, you looked on the field and wondered how they were going to shoehorn Winslow and Owens into an offense that already included starters like Miller and Sidney Rice. Things aren't so crowded now, and they're a lot more familiar. Of the six receivers and three tight ends currently on the roster, only three are new: Braylon Edwards, Charly Martin and Evan Moore. Edwards could end up starting as split end Golden Tate's status is uncertain. He did not practice Monday after suffering a knee injury in the exhibition game last Thursday. Friday, a source indicated the injury was likely to keep Tate out the next two weeks."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks offensive lineman James Carpenter "feels great" about returning to practice following an extensive knee rehab.
Also from Williams: a look at the Seahawks' secondary.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune explains how Charly Martin earned a roster spot at receiver for Seattle against what seemed like long odds. Boling: "Martin scored points with the staff with his special teams play, and with his consistency catching the ball and running routes. But he also earned the trust of a very important teammate: rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. When Wilson broke free for a 32-yard touchdown in the preseason opener against Tennessee, Martin blocked his man from about the 15-yard line into the end zone to clear the way. Thirteen days later, as Wilson was about to get nailed by Kansas City’s Tamba Hali, Martin broke free and pulled in a touchdown throw from Wilson. This builds an important rapport."
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic checks in with backup quarterback Kevin Kolb. Kolb on why he didn't win the starting job: "I don't think there's one thing. My thinking of the deal is you just work as hard as you can possibly work and put in the time. I know there's still good things to come here. I keep telling y'all that every time something bad happens, and that's the perspective that I'll keep."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at how the Cardinals plan to piece together their offensive line. Somers: "Rich Ohrnberger will be the backup guard/center on Sunday, I assume. The backup tackle with be Pat McQuistan or Nate Potter, depending upon how quickly McQuistan can pick up the offense and game plan."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at the Cardinals' offensive lineup. Larry Fitzgerald: "We’ll go out and play against Seattle, a really good defense last year, and we will know exactly where we are at that opening drive. We’ll try to move the football and get things done, and if we’re not (settled), it’ll show."