NFL Nation: NFC West
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.
He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.
Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.
"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."
Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.
His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.
"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.
Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.
"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."
The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.
Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
- Thursday night's practice might as well have been the NFL equivalent of homecoming as the Rams had a bunch of familiar faces return to the field, including some coming back from injury who will be key to their success this season. Offensive tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells and end William Hayes all got at least a few repetitions in team drills after being limited to some individual work to this point in camp. They didn't get a ton of work, but there were at least a few reps in which the Rams had their projected starting offensive line of (from left to right) Long, Greg Robinson, Wells, Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale together for the first time in this camp. Long and Wells did not participate in one-on-one pass-rush drills but Hayes did take some reps. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson also got back to work after sitting a few days with a tight hamstring. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington was also back to work. Defensive end Ethan Westbrooks did some work in the pass-rush drills as well after starting camp on the non-football injury list.
- Linebacker James Laurinaitis limped off the field late in the practice and did not return. Coach Jeff Fisher said Laurinaitis got stepped on during the practice. It didn't appear to be serious. Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner did not practice and had his right leg wrapped as he watched on the sidelines. Others not participating: offensive lineman Barrett Jones, running back Isaiah Pead (hand), safety Christian Bryant, cornerback Jarrid Bryant and defensive end Sammy Brown.
- On the field, the action picked up where it left off Tuesday with the offense again starting to catch up to the defense now that shoulder pads are on. Quarterback Sam Bradford continued to take some shots down the field and find his connection. Early in team drills, he hit Stedman Bailey in stride about 40 yards downfield for what likely would have been a touchdown. He also continued to connect with Kenny Britt and Brian Quick on some deep balls and hit Tavon Austin on a deep ball while backed up at his 1-yard line. Austin's finest moment actually came on a deep comeback route in which Bradford threw high but Austin elevated and caught the pass out of frame. That's something we haven't seen much of from Austin since his arrival in St. Louis.
- With shoulder pads on, the one-on-one pass-rush drills got rolling Thursday with some interesting matchups. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald continues to dominate and did what he wanted against center Tim Barnes on a couple of reps. If you felt the Earth shake tonight, don't worry it was just Robinson and tackle Michael Brockers colliding. Robinson did a nice job in a couple of matchups.
- Also visiting St. Louis this week: an officiating crew which handled Thursday's practice and will spend time on points of emphasis with the team in the next couple of days through Saturday's scrimmage. And Blake Williams, former linebackers coach and son of defensive coordinator Gregg, who stopped in to see his dad and former team at work. He made a similar visit in the spring.
- The Rams return to the Rams Park practice field Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET, which doubles as the next workout open to the public.
"All I'm thinking about is making this team," Sam said. "I'm learning from the guys and I want to make this team. They're teaching me a lot. I'm doing what they're doing. They've been here for seven, eight years. I want to do that as well."
But as this training camp rolls along, Sam's route to making the roster has gained clarity. Although the Rams have eight defensive linemen that are all but certain to make the roster in Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington, they have kept nine in each of the two years under coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead.
It's no sure thing they'll do that again this year but it remains a strong possibility. Which means it's not Sam's job to try to beat out established depth like Hayes or Sims. No, his competition comes in the form of undrafted rookie types such as tackles Deantre Harlan and Ethan Westbrooks and holdover Matt Conrath.
Westbrooks entered camp as Sam's primary competition for a potential ninth spot on the defensive line but that hasn't manifested because Westbrooks is on the non-football injury list and has yet to practice.
More important than what others aren't doing, though, is what Sam is doing. Getting plenty of reps as the second-team left defensive end while Hayes works back from surgeries, Sam has pieced together some strong practices. The highlight was an eye-catching effort Saturday when he consistently beat tackle Sean Hooey in one-on-one pass-rush and team drills.
"He’s improving," Fisher said. "[Defensive line] coach [Mike] Waufle is doing a great job … with his hand usage and placement things and so, he’ll just keep working at it.”
Improved pass-rushing traits will do nothing but help Sam's chances of landing a roster spot, especially if he can translate that work into preseason games.
Sam's biggest advantage when stacking up against the other linemen vying for jobs, though, is his ability to help on special teams.
Sam has been a staple of most special-teams drills, getting a lot of work blocking for the punt return and kick return units. He dropped 13 pounds to get down to 257 so he could run faster to cover kicks and punts as well.
During Monday's special-teams-only practice, Sam made a strong impression on coach John Fassel and even caught himself off guard a bit.
"I'm kind of surprised myself at how good it went because I haven't played special teams in two years," Sam said. "So I thought I did great."
That's a sentiment shared by Fassel, who specifically noted Sam's ability as a blocker on the return units. Perhaps that should come as no surprise for Sam, who played offensive tackle in addition to his defensive duties at Hitchcock (Texas) High.
“At the end of the last competitive drill he did a really good job as a blocker," Fassel said. "I can see him being a good guy on punt return and kickoff return as a blocker.”
For Sam to achieve his goal and make the roster, there is still plenty of work to be done. Now that the Rams are in pads, he'll need to continue to improve his pass rush and look to offer more than his favored speed rush to bend the edge. And while the lost weight has been beneficial in terms of his short-area speed, Fassel would like to see him maintain it longer so he can run down kicks.
Sam remains unconcerned with increased media attention and the like in pursuit of a roster spot.
“My goal is still just to make this team, whether I was a first-round pick or a free agent," Sam said. "My job is to make this team. Whether you guys are here or not, that’s my goal.’’
It's a goal that remains uncertain but at least the path to reach it has become more clear.
The NFC West had three teams that won at least 10 games last season, two teams in the NFC Championship Game and a team that won the Super Bowl by 35 points.
Consequently, there is no lack of confidence about the 2014 season for the teams in this division. Three of them -- the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals -- can make a legitimate argument for winning the division title.
But until the 49ers or the Cardinals prove otherwise, the Seahawks are the clear favorites, not only to win the division crown but to return to the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks, however, realize the biggest obstacle to repeating as Super Bowl winners lies within their own division. The NFC West is widely regarded as the best division in the NFL. It's also the most physical division in the league, which means the division rivals tend to beat up on each other.
Here's how Seahawks reporter Terry Blount, St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson see each team finishing in 2014:
What will the 49ers' record be and why?
Terry Blount: 12-4. The 49ers have a shiny new stadium, which I see them taking full advantage of and probably going unbeaten at home. Their home game against the Seahawks comes on Thanksgiving night, which likely will be a frenzied holiday crowd in front of a national TV audience. However, I don't see things going quite as smoothly on the road. I have the 49ers losing at Arizona, Denver, New Orleans and Seattle. The key for San Francisco is how the team performs in a five-game midseason stretch that includes four road games -- St. Louis, Denver, New Orleans and the New York Giants. The 49ers do have a bye week in that stretch, but how they get through the middle part of the schedule will determine their fate.
Josh Weinfuss: 10-6. This may be a bit on the nice side, considering the run of injuries to running backs since training camp started, but I think the 49ers' passing game and Colin Kaepernick's feet will make up for at least one game they'll lose because of a depleted running game. San Francisco plays a brutal schedule, facing the Cowboys, Bears, Cardinals, Eagles and Chiefs in its first five games. I don't think the road will be kind to the Niners this year, especially in the NFC West. The magic is running out for Jim Harbaugh one injury at a time.
Bill Williamson: I'm going to say the 49ers will be 12-4. They are a top team. But it's difficult to predict any team finishing higher than 12-4, although it wouldn't shock me if San Francisco finished with a better record. As long as quarterback Colin Kaepernick stays healthy, and there are no more big injuries on defense, San Francisco will win its share of games. It is a very deep and well-coached team. It knows how to win consistently. I fully expect San Francisco to start hot and stay hot.
@BWilliamsonESPN 13-3. most loaded O since glory days. Great D. Very friendly final 6 weeks of schedule.— Corey Mayne (@CDM49er) July 22, 2014
What will the Cardinals' record be and why?
Blount: 11-5. Yes, by picking the Cardinals to win 11 games, it means I'm picking the highly unusual occurrence of three teams in one division winning 11 or more games. But I believe the NFC West is that good. Arizona won 10 games last season. The offense should be better this season with quarterback Carson Palmer having a full year in the system and an improved offensive line. I actually thought this team could move ahead of the 49ers this year, but losing inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington is a huge blow to the defense. The biggest problem for Arizona is ending the regular season with back-to-back games against Seattle and at San Francisco. The Cardinals also have to play Seattle twice in their last six games. They will need to split those two games, and probably win on the road at Atlanta and St. Louis down the stretch, to reach the 11-win plateau.
Weinfuss: 10-6. There's a lot that can go right for Arizona this year, but there's a lot that can go wrong. I think the Cardinals will start hot -- building on last season's success -- and win five of their first six. I wouldn't be surprised if they continue to tear through, but their schedule is backloaded. By midseason, offenses will figure out how to exploit the middle of the defense, which was decimated by the losses of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. But Arizona's offense should be potent enough to make up for any issues on defense, which will be few and far between, and simply outscore opponents.
Williamson: I'm going with 10-6. The Cardinals had 10 wins last season and may be better in their second season under coach Bruce Arians. But I still don't think Arizona is an elite team. Saying this team will take the next step and get to 12-4 is a bit of a stretch for me, although I love the Cardinals' defense. I think Carson Palmer is a solid fit for this team. But he's still Carson Palmer. He will still ruin a few games with some untimely interceptions. Arizona is good, not great, and a 10-6 record is a solid showing by a good team.
What will the Rams' record be and why?
Blount: 6-10. This is my real shocker pick of the bunch because I'm sure most people see the Rams as a much better team than 6-10. St. Louis has an outstanding young defense, but the problem for the Rams is they play in the NFC West. Going through the division games, I don't see St. Louis doing better than 1-5. If the Rams can go 3-3 in the division, 8-8 or better is a possibility. But St. Louis just isn't on the same tier as the other three teams in the NFC West, not yet anyway. Maybe once the Rams move back to Los Angeles that will change. OK, I'm having a little futuristic fun there.
Wagoner: 8-8. This is the season the Rams have targeted for a breakthrough since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over in 2012. They've gone through a massive roster makeover in that time and have built this team into one that is bursting with potential, but still lacking in production. This is the season the Rams hope upside makes the transition to something more tangible, namely more wins. But it's still hard to see this team making the leap this particular year against an imposing schedule and the league's toughest division. Quarterback Sam Bradford returns from a knee injury, which should help but to what extent remains to be seen. The defensive line is probably the best and deepest in the NFL, and with Gregg Williams at coordinator, the defense should be able to keep the Rams in games. Once again, the onus to get the Rams to the next level falls on the offense. Beyond Bradford, the Rams have a talented offensive line but one that is dotted with injury questions at nearly every position. They should be able to run the ball effectively, but at some point the passing game will have to do its part. The receivers and tight ends won't be asked to carry too much freight, but that mostly young group has to be better and more consistent for the Rams to have success. Fisher has a history of getting teams to right at or around the .500 mark, as he's done his first two seasons in St. Louis. There is enough talent in place for this team to take the next step, but until we see it actually coalesce, it's hard to predict more than mediocrity.
Williamson: I'm saying 7-9. Look, the Rams' defense -- especially the defensive line -- is nasty good. St. Louis will win games on defense. But I worry about the offense. Yes, the Rams went 7-9 in 2013 with quarterback Sam Bradford hurt for much of the season. So, a healthy Bradford could make a difference. But I just don't see Bradford as a major difference-maker, anyway. Plus, the truth is, the Rams are the worst team in a very strong division. It is going to be tough piling up wins in the NFC West, and the Rams could suffer.
@nwagoner My heart wants to say 10-6.. But my brain tells me 8-8. Those games after the early bye week are going to be brutal.— John (@The_Tiki_Garden) July 21, 2014
What will the Seahawks' record be and why?
Blount: 13-3. It's been a while since any NFL team was coming off a Super Bowl and could realistically say it might be in better position to win it all now than they were a season ago, but that's the case for the Seahawks. This still is a young and deeply talented team that probably hasn't peaked yet. The receiving corps will be better this season with a healthy Percy Harvin, and the sky is the limit for quarterback Russell Wilson, who is starting only his third NFL season. The final seven games are as difficult as I've ever seen for a defending Super Bowl champ. Seattle closes with five NFC West games in the final seven, including two against the 49ers and two with the Cardinals. The Seahawks also have road games at Kansas City and Philadelphia in that stretch. How they close it out will determine whether they win the division title, and it's almost mandatory if they hope to get back to the Super Bowl.
Wagoner: 12-4. On paper, the defending champions remain the class of the division. They handled their business in the offseason, prioritizing their own and keeping the ones they deemed most important. The defense should be dominant again with most of the key pieces returning and the Legion of Boom largely intact. Offensively, it's probably safe to assume quarterback Russell Wilson will continue to get better and the passing game to expand. Marshawn Lynch still has plenty in the tank and the Seahawks have some good young alternatives behind him. Seattle was able to get it done without Percy Harvin for almost all of last season, but with Golden Tate gone to Detroit, the Seahawks will need Harvin to be available and contribute consistently. The team's biggest weakness, the offensive line, will need to be better and could be with some improved health, but the Seahawks got it done behind a similar line in 2013. As with any team, injuries could severely hamper Seattle's run, especially after it lost some of its better depth players in the offseason. But all things considered, this was one of the youngest teams in the league a year ago and went on to win the Super Bowl. There's little reason to think that talent will regress with the experience and confidence that comes from the run it made in 2013.
Williamson: I'm going with 12-4. Would I be surprised if the Seahawks went 14-2? No, but a 12-4 season is a great effort and I will start there, much like the 49ers. The Seahawks could easily go 8-0, or stumble once, at most, in the first half of the season. But Seattle isn't a great road team. It can be beaten on the road, especially by teams such as the 49ers, Panthers, Chargers, Chiefs, Panthers, Eagles and Cardinals. My guess is the Seahawks go 7-1 at home and 5-3 on the road.
@TerryBlountESPN 12-4. Tough schedule and early bye, but this team wont cave to pressure or think of last year. All in...again.— Vaughn Kness (@metalvx5) July 22, 2014
All of those things combine to form the pass rushing terror that is St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn.
Now consider Quinn just turned 24 in May and members of his coaching staff still believe him to be something of a pass rushing neophyte.
"It's scary for offensive tackles, not scary for us," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He's got a great future ahead of him."
Quinn's past and present are none too shabby in their own right. Now entering his fourth season, Quinn's breakout 2013 caught on as fast as he bends the edge around helpless offensive tackles. By the time Quinn was through destroying offensive game plans, he had 57 tackles, 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Quinn earned first-team All-Pro honors and made his first trip to the Pro Bowl. In about a year, he's not only landed on various top players lists but found himself near the top. Grantland's Bill Barnwell ranked Quinn as the seventh-most valuable player in the league in his trade value rankings. ESPN's Mike Sando and Mel Kiper Jr. placed Quinn second on their list of the 25 best players under 25 years old.
But the scary part of Quinn's age isn't the number itself so much as the potential for continued growth that accompanies it.
Put simply, Quinn can and will get better. For proof, one needs only to see his growth as a run defender in 2013. While his pass rushing abilities have never been a question mark, his struggles against the run often resulted in a rotation which took him out of the mix on obvious running downs.
Quinn clearly improved in that regard in 2013, coming up with 26 run stuffs (solo tackles on plays considered an offensive failure) according to Pro Football Focus.
That's also the area of his game Quinn still sees in need of most improvement. Quinn spent his offseason working on a little bit of everything. He says he added strength and made it a point to work on increasing leverage and hand usage.
"(I want to) be more stout in the run," Quinn said. "I'm a smaller end so they might attack me a little more, so I constantly want to push myself to be the best complete player I can be and try to take any weakness out of my game."
While Quinn's ability to stop the run is important, let's be real here, it's his ability to get after quarterbacks that will earn him a mega payday. For the record, the Rams have him under control for less than $10 million total over the next two seasons, but don't be surprised if the Rams start extension talks with him next offseason.
When that time comes, however, there's a very real chance Quinn will have done nothing but increase his standing as the league's best 4-3 defensive end.
Quinn's speed off the edge and agility to bend around tackles is so jarring that he often beats offensive tackles by simply running around them. But there are ways he can better use his hands to disengage blockers, and he'd like to add more counter moves to his arsenal.
"Pass rushing is an art and you can get better at it," Fisher said. "You can anticipate, you can get better with counter moves, get better on each opponent. He's taking a lot of time, studying, and I think he knows how to approach each opponent week in and week out, he understands the system very well. One would think he'd probably have better numbers than he did last year."
Improving upon 2013 will be tough but if he can do it, Quinn has a chance to approach Michael Strahan's season sack record of 22.5.
One way that could be possible is for the Rams to more consistently build a lead in games. Nine of Quinn's sacks came with the Rams leading and four more came in tied games in 2013.
On the rare occasions when the Rams held a double-digit advantage, Quinn was at his best. Six of his final eight sacks came with the Rams leading by at least 10.
And though Quinn figures to draw more attention from blockers, the Rams have plenty of other linemen more than capable of generating pressure and a defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams who can create it with blitzes if necessary.
Fellow end William Hayes, who is part of that defensive line depth, doesn't believe additional attention will affect Quinn. He's just too much to handle.
"Rob's not just cool with what he had last year," Hayes said. "Rob wants to be the best. Rob's the best football player I've ever seen in my life. I'm saying at any position. He does stuff I've never seen. He's special."
In discussing his goals for 2014, Quinn has played coy. He offered a resounding "maybe" when first asked if he was targeting Strahan's record. After asking if he could plead the fifth when asked again, Quinn acknowledged that it's at least crossed his mind.
"I'm sure any D-lineman or anybody coming for sacks wants to take down that record but you've got to go one sack at a time," Quinn said. "I've got a lot of work to do to better myself."
For those who stand in his way, it's a terrifying idea. What makes it worse is that it's true.
- The Rams put the shoulder pads on for the first time in this training camp Tuesday afternoon and it resulted in a little bit more of an even playing field. After the top defense dominated the first-team offense for much of the opening days of camp, the addition of pads got the offense some traction. Quarterback Sam Bradford had what looked like his best practice of camp as he frequently connected on passes down the field. The primary recipient? Receiver Brian Quick. Quick is off to a good start in this camp and only built on that start with Tuesday's work. Bradford and Quick hooked up a couple of times on deep balls in early team drills and then Quick brought even more cheers when he caught another deep ball from rookie quarterback Garrett Gilbert later on. Bradford also hit receiver Kenny Britt for about a 40-yard touchdown deep down the right sideline as Britt got behind cornerback Brandon McGee. That play elicited the biggest cheers of the day.
- One thing that needs to be cleaned up early on is pre-snap penalties. So far, both sides of the ball have been guilty of jumping early. In many places, you'd allow for the benefit of the doubt since it's so early in camp, but the Rams have been persistent penalty magnets in the two years under coach Jeff Fisher and many of the infractions can be attributed to veteran players who should be past such mistakes. There isn't necessarily one player in particular jumping early, which might make it more frustrating for Fisher and his staff since it can be harder to rein in a team-wide issue.
- Progress is coming for defensive end William Hayes, offensive tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells. All three have been participating in some individual work early in practice and Hayes and Wells, in particular, look to be close to a return. Hayes said after practice he had a couple of offseason procedures, though the nature of his injuries are unknown. Wells' injuries are also unknown at this point but none of that will matter much if they get back on the field soon. For what it's worth, Hayes says this is as good as he's felt since his second year in the league. That was 2009.
- A few developments of note at running back. Zac Stacy continues to get most of the work with the first team, but Tre Mason got a few reps Tuesday afternoon and Benny Cunningham is finding his way onto the field some as well. Isaiah Pead sat out the practice and was wearing what appeared to be a cast on his right hand.
- Some special guests were in the house Tuesday, including the bulk of the University of Missouri football coaches. Defensive end Michael Sam, cornerback E.J. Gaines, receiver T.J. Moe and center Tim Barnes spent some time with the staff after practice and Sam said it was good to see the group. Former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage also took in the workout.
With a practice scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, the Rams are set to put on the pads for the first time in this camp. Here's a look at some things I'll be watching as the physical contact and, presumably, the intensity takes a step up.
It's pretty normal for the defense to be well ahead of the offense in the opening days of camp, but it's fair to say that if you play offense, especially on the line, in St. Louis, the pads aren't coming on a moment too soon. The hope is that adding pads will help neutralize things a bit and the offensive line will be able to go toe to toe with the dominant defensive line on a more consistent basis. So far, the defense has been so aggressive that it's been difficult for quarterback Sam Bradford and the top offense to get much of anything going. In most of the team drills, Bradford hasn't even had time to throw, and when he has, he's often done it in the face of a defender or two. Rams coach Jeff Fisher intimated that the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense won't square off as much as they did during the opening days of camp, either. That could be a positive development for the top offense, which needs to get into a rhythm and gain some confidence as preseason games draw closer. If the starters begin seeing more backups opposite them, the real loser is the poor second-string offensive line charged with stopping the first-team defensive line.
My personal favorite drill to watch in training camp is the one-on-one pass-rushing drills. I pay attention to the lines before the pads come on, but you can't really get a feel for them until the pads are on. So even though the pass-rush drills take place during seven-on-seven passing drills, I often find myself gravitating toward the big men on the other end of the field. That won't change this year. I'm most interested to see how the two first-round picks fare in these drills -- offensive lineman Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Robinson had the unfortunate task of getting tossed in against Robert Quinn in the opening days, and he's expected to take reps at tackle and guard in these drills so we should get to see him try his hand against Quinn again and against Donald as well. As for Donald, I'm curious to see if the addition of pads will slow him down any (my guess: a resounding no), and I want to see him against Rodger Saffold on the inside. A good look at new defensive tackle Alex Carrington and some of the young linemen jockeying for position will also be worth watching.
There's been plenty of hype surrounding receiver Kenny Britt since his arrival and his performance in organized team activities and even in the early days of camp. Some of that has trickled down to other wideouts such as Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. But it's been difficult to evaluate how they're really faring since the cornerbacks have been unable to do what many expect them to under the guidance of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Which is to say, they haven't really been able to be as physical in press coverage as perhaps Williams wants them to be. One-on-one, seven-on-seven and team drills should give us a better glimpse at not only what Williams wants to do coverage-wise, but also a better gauge of what's real and what's not when it comes to receiver potential for the season.
- The Rams were finally able to put the pads on Monday morning and did so for a special teams workout before the full squad puts them on this week. Coach Jeff Fisher prefers to get his players acclimated to wearing pads in a special teams workout before throwing them into the mix of a real practice. It has been common practice in the previous two seasons as well.
- Believe it or not, special teams practices are pretty entertaining, at least near the end. In what has become a rite of passage for young players trying to make the roster, there are two full-contact drills that really promote competition. In a fairly basic punt cover drill, a gunner lines up on either side of the line with two players in front of him. When the ball is punted or shot out of the JUGS machine, the gunner's task is to beat the double team and get down the field as fast as possible. It is no surprise that linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates took the first rep in contact drills Monday. Special teams coach John Fassel wants that duo to take on more of a leadership role this season, and they helped set the tone by jumping into the first rep. The other notable moment from that work was defensive back Lamarcus Joyner taking on Miami natives Stedman Bailey and Brandon McGee. Joyner referred to Bailey and McGee as the Miami Heat, but acquitted himself well by battling tooth and nail. That was enough to draw Fassel's praise. Fassel has been impressed with Joyner so far and said the rookie embodies what he is looking for in a special teams player.
- The other notable drill, the main event so to speak, is the one-on-ones that close the practice. The premise is simple: there is a blue tackling dummy set up and two players line up side by side. At the whistle, one player is responsible for getting to the bag and knocking it over while the other's job is to block the pursuer. It's the drill where Bates made his name in 2013 and opened eyes to the prospect of his making the roster. This time, Bates didn't participate, perhaps as a way of dialing him back a bit, but Armstrong was easy to find. Armstrong became tangled with linebacker Lawrence Wilson which set off a short exchange of shoves and words.
- Michael Sam also drew praise from Fassel for his work, particularly as a blocker on kick and punt return. Fassel said Sam's weight loss has made a noticeable difference, and he is a bit faster when running down kicks. For now, Fassel envisions Sam contributing in the blocking role while he works on developing the long speed necessary to run down kicks.
- Center Scott Wells isn't a part of the special teams, but he did do some work on the side with offensive line coaches Paul Boudreau and Andy Dickerson.
In an area where football doubles as a way of life and a way out, Armstrong patterned his game after Taylor's hard-hitting style. When doing a search for the photos of Taylor one day, Armstrong came across one bearing a nickname he immediately liked: the "Boom King."
Taylor was tragically murdered in 2007 but Armstrong wanted to find a way to honor him and embraced the nickname. For the uninitiated, Armstrong's Twitter handle is @boom_king26, which includes the nickname and Taylor's number.
As this version of the Boom King surveyed his kingdom in Monday morning's special-teams-only practice, he couldn't help but take a moment to think of how far he'd come. It was at a practice just like Monday's where Armstrong and fellow linebacker Daren Bates first left the indelible impressions on the coaching staff that would help unseat some of the special teams' core veterans. To see him was to see just how far he's come in a year.
"It makes a big difference," special-teams coach John Fassel said. "It feels like they are veteran guys but really it's only the second year. Last year, there were some veteran guys that got beat out on a day like today by Ray-Ray and Daren and Chase [Reynolds]. That's how they made the team. The rookies and new guys this year are trying to do to them what they did last year to the guys that didn't make the team."
The journey was even deeper for Armstrong.
Armstrong was once a highly regard college prospect at Miami, playing safety and quite literally following in Taylor's footsteps. But Armstrong ran into some trouble off the field and was kicked off the team in July 2012. He attempted to play at Faulkner University, an NAIA school in Montgomery, Ala., but was eventually ruled ineligible.
Instead of building on a strong sophomore season with the Hurricanes, Armstrong was out of the game completely. The Rams signed him after he went unselected in the 2013 NFL draft and promptly moved him to linebacker. It was a new position for the former safety but his path to the roster was clearly on special teams.
Fast forward to Monday afternoon and Armstrong is back for his second training camp in a much different spot than he was in 2013.
"It means a lot," Armstrong said. "Coming from a whole year off of football and coming back into it, I felt pretty good going out and playing. I didn’t lose too much. Now this year, the second year in a row competing at this level so I feel like -- I don’t want to say I’m there yet, not at all -- but just moving forward."
After a rough start to his rookie season in which Armstrong was prone to costly penalties, he settled in and made 12 tackles and helped the punt coverage team to an NFL record in limiting return yards. Fassel has even asked Armstrong and Bates to take on more of a leadership role on special teams.
"We were kind of the leaders on the field last year on core teams, along with Rodney McLeod, so to just move forward with that, he told us to take a little more responsibility and bring the other guys along," Armstrong said.
For his part, Armstrong is also taking aim at expanding his role beyond leadership. While the Rams seem mostly set with starters at linebacker in Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Armstrong is like any young player hoping to get more opportunities to help on defense.
Now that Armstrong has a year at linebacker to his name, those chances could arise on a more consistent basis.
“That would be the case with both Daren and Ray-Ray," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Both of them were core guys for us last year, big play guys. They’re both settling in and making big plays on the defense.”
While the different ways Armstrong can be used remain to be seen, he left little doubt about who rules the roost in special-teams practices with his performance Monday morning. He and Bates took the first rep of full contact as a means to set the tone and Armstrong was involved in the first scuffle of this camp, engaging linebacker Lawrence Wilson in a war of shoves and words.
"It’s all competing," Armstrong said. "Competition is football. Some tempers flare up here and there. We’ve got pads on, it’s the first day."
And nobody knows better than Armstrong what a difference one day can make.
- On a beautiful night in St. Louis, legendary Rams quarterback Kurt Warner took in the practice as part of his role with NFL Network. Warner spoke to quarterback Sam Bradford, spoke to the media and signed plenty of autographs but really held the crowd's interest when he stayed after practice and threw some passes to receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. The crowd, one of the biggest the Rams have had at a training camp practice in St. Louis at 2,291 people, certainly had plenty to watch.
- And it wasn't limited to what was happening with Warner. The top offense finally found some traction in Sunday's practice and Bradford appeared to settle in a little more as he went through his third consecutive practice. Bradford connected with receiver Kenny Britt a few times, including in the red zone and also found Brian Quick for some big plays. Quick's finest moment came when he ran a deep in during red zone drills and use his frame to box out cornerback Janoris Jenkins for a touchdown. Quick later connected with Bradford again for a deep ball down the left sideline as Bradford threw a good ball with the blitz bearing down. Bradford even drew some cheers from fans who might be worried about his mobility when he took off scrambling in team drills near the end zone. It wasn't all good for the offense though as there were still some leaks in the offensive line and there were a couple of false starts on linemen during red zone team drills.
- In today's edition of as the offensive line turns, the Rams made good on their promise to continue rotating their linemen with a slightly altered look. Rodger Saffold and Greg Robinson swapped spots with Saffold moving outside to tackle and Robinson in to left guard. Tim Barnes took another turn at center with Scott Wells not practicing. The right side remained steady with Joe Barksdale at tackle and Davin Joseph at guard. Joseph, by the way, has looked pretty good in the opening days. He's a strong guy and one of the few who seems to be able to get his hands on defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
- On the injury front, not much has changed but there were a couple new additions to the list of those sitting out practice. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington and cornerback Trumaine Johnson joined the usual group that includes safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, end Sammy Brown, Wells, offensive tackle Jake Long, end William Hayes and defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks, on the sidelines. Johnson appeared to tweak something in Saturday's practice and did not return then before sitting Sunday.
- With Johnson out, extra reps have been available for some young corners including Darren Woodard, Brandon McGee and, on Sunday, rookie Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner got some work as the nickel with the first team defense as the Rams shuffled the secondary in Johnson's absence.
- Rookie quarterback Garrett Gilbert is not lacking for snaps in this camp so far. He took a lot of reps Sunday, including some with the second-team offense. The results have been mixed. He dropped in a couple of nice throws early, including one to tight end Lance Kendricks for a touchdown in the modified seven on seven early in practice. Later, he airmailed a throw intended for open tight end Cory Harkey that should have been a touchdown. Clearly, the Rams are interested in getting him up to speed quickly.
- Zac Stacy, who is still the primary running back with the first team offense, has looked sharp in the opening days and had another good day Sunday. On one run in team, Stacy hit the hole, made a defender miss and took off for what would have been a long gain to the sounds of loud cheers from the crowd. Worth noting that Isaiah Pead is getting some work with the second unit as is Benny Cunningham and a few for Tre Mason. Appears to be plenty of rotating going on behind Stacy.
- The Rams are eligible to begin wearing the pads Monday and they will do so according to coach Jeff Fisher. But, per Fisher's custom, the plan is to have a special teams practice in the morning as a way of getting the majority of the roster acclimated to being back in pads. For those that aren't participating in the special teams practice, there will be work in the recovery room. By the time the Rams have their next open practice, scheduled for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET, the full squad can officially be back in pads.
The closer to the door you are, the longer you've been around. Rookies are farthest from the entry, and if you play in St. Louis, that means more time to bake in the summer heat or freeze in the frigid winters as you make your way to work.
Seniority is a valued commodity in the NFL -- much as it is in most walks of life -- but for the St. Louis Rams, a look at the parking assignment sheet reveals that, yes, once again the Rams will be one of the youngest teams in the league. Perhaps, for the third straight year, the youngest.
"We’ve got third-year guys down there at about the fourth or fifth spot, so it is a young group," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
When Fisher and general manager Les Snead took on the massive rebuilding project in 2012, they quickly came to terms with the idea of being young. They weren't only OK with it, they were actively seeking it. The haul of picks they poached from the Washington Redskins for the No. 2 overall pick in that draft almost ensured it.
And those young teams, the youngest in the league each of the past two years, had their share of ups and downs in a pair of seven-win seasons. But youth is no longer an excuse for this team. Make no mistake, the Rams are going to be brimming with youth once again. But for right now in St. Louis, age really isn't anything but a number.
"Because of the fact that we have players now in their third year and guys last year in their second, they’re familiar faces, they’ve matured, they have the playing experience," Fisher said. "So despite the age on paper, the team doesn’t act that way. The team acts much more mature and will be much more prepared.”
Using the secondary as an example, the four projected starters have an average age of just 24, but the quartet of safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson has combined for 105 games played and seven seasons of NFL experience. They're young, but they aren't without experience.
"We’re young there still, but those (corners) have played two years," Snead said. "I’d rather have that. That’s where you start thinking you can ascend. They’re still young, but they’ve got playing time."
And because of that playing time, the Rams can really only be viewed as young in terms of age. Much of the roster, at least in some of the most valuable positions, has plenty of experience to go with the youngsters who have played right away. Quarterback Sam Bradford and guard Rodger Saffold are entering their fifth seasons. Defensive end Chris Long is going on year seven and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is about to embark on his sixth. Players like Jared Cook, Jake Long, Scott Wells and Kendall Langford have put in a combined 27 years in the league.
Sure, there are second- and third-year players dotting the roster at other positions -- even some rookies expected to contribute right away -- but for the guys who have reached veteran status, the idea of letting the kids grow up has become stale. They have their own clock to worry about and they want to win now.
Laurinaitis, for one, has made it clear since the spring that he no longer wants to hear about how young his team is.
"When you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes, it’s hard to get them shrunk," Laurinaitis said. "But now we have guys who are still young, but we have guys that this is their third year starting now. So I don’t consider that young. They say after eight games of your rookie year, you are not a rookie anymore. You have seen enough plays and the speed to adjust, and now we have a lot of guys like that."
The task of getting the Rams to move from the NFC West's least desirable parking spot to something much closer to the playoff door falls in their hands.
- For the first time since suffering the knee injury that ended his 2013 season nine games too early, quarterback Sam Bradford practiced on back-to-back days as he went through another entire workout Saturday. Bradford appears to be feeling just fine and also looked to be throwing the ball a bit better Saturday than he did Friday as he continues to knock some rust off. According to coach Jeff Fisher, the challenge for Bradford isn't knee-related as much as making sure his arm is managed. Bradford's excitement for returning to action has to be controlled a bit and the Rams have had to back him off of throwing on occasion.
- Now that camp is here, we can finally start talking about football when it comes to rookie defensive end Michael Sam. From Saturday, there were some good things to discuss as Sam flashed some of the pass-rush ability that afforded him so much success at Missouri. The caveats that the Rams aren't yet in pads and he's working against backups such as offensive tackle Sean Hooey need to be mentioned, but Sam took a good step in the right direction Saturday and drew some praise from some of his coaches. He beat Hooey several times to get to the quarterback in team drills and followed by doing the same in one-on-one pass-rush drills. On one play in team drills, Sam beat Hooey quickly and forced backup quarterback Shaun Hill to throw the ball sooner than he'd like, resulting in an interception for cornerback Lamarcus Joyner.
- The daily offensive line update didn't change much from Friday. Greg Robinson (left tackle), Rodger Saffold (left guard), Davin Joseph (right guard) and Joe Barksdale (right tackle) were in the same positions as Friday. But with Scott Wells still not practicing Saturday, Barrett Jones got some work with the first-team offense. Tim Barnes took the bulk of the repetitions Friday, but it's clear the Rams are set on following through with their plan to mix and match.
- Most of the same names as Friday did not practice Saturday. That includes Wells, safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, end Sammy Brown and offensive tackle Jake Long. End William Hayes did some work on the side, but Sam took his reps with the second-team defense. A few Rams were also shaken up during practice. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson departed with an apparent leg injury and did not return, though it didn't look serious and he watched the rest of the practice standing on the sideline. Receiver Emory Blake and tight end Justice Cunningham also came up with injuries. Joyner briefly left the field but was able to return and finish practice.
- The Rams had some interesting twists on a couple of normal drills during Saturday's practice. During one-on-one passing drills, the coaches are putting an emphasis on getting the defensive backs to cover without using their hands as much. So defensive quality control coach Dennard Wilson gave the corners a pair of tennis balls before each play. When the ball was thrown, the defensive backs were allowed to drop the balls to make a play on the football. Clearly, the Rams are hoping to cut down on defensive pass interference and illegal contact in 2014. Also, the Rams changed things up to work on leverage in some individual drills, clearing space in the crowd and having the linemen take turns driving each other up the hill on the south end of the practice field.
- Robert Quinn or Chris Long or up the middle from tackles Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers or Aaron Donald. On one play there was light contact on Bradford, but it didn't bother him much. Still, they'll have to be careful as camp progresses. For what it's worth, Fisher said the top offense won't match up with the top defense as much when the pads come on. By league rule, the Rams can't put the pads on until early next week. When they do, they're almost certainly hoping that it evens things up a little bit when it comes to pairing the top offense against the top defense. Once again, the defense controlled the action for most of the team drills with Bradford having little time to throw in the face of consistent pressure. It's coming from all angles, whether it's ends
- Stedman Bailey looks like the most consistent receiver on the team in terms of route-running and catching the ball. He had a good day again Saturday, creating separation with a double move for one touchdown and beating Janoris Jenkins down the sideline for another. Fellow receiver Kenny Britt made a nice grab on a contested ball against rookie cornerback Marcus Roberson.
- The Rams are back at it Sunday with a 6:30 p.m. ET practice.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Apparently intent on sending a message about the state of his surgically-repaired left knee as he arrived at his fifth NFL training camp, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford left little doubt about his status during mandatory conditioning tests.
“We’re just going to go and if we have to back down, we’ll back down. But at this point he finished the conditioning test," coach Jeff Fisher said. "I won’t mention the names of the people that crossed the line after him, but he did well. He’s worked really hard.”
While Fisher and a few other Rams declined to name names, it was clear that Bradford's efforts in the conditioning test placed him above some players you wouldn't expect.
It sounds like the Rams have their quarterback back in the fold at full speed and with little to no restrictions aside from wearing a knee brace. That was Bradford's goal in the spring and it appears it's one he's reached this summer.
During organized team activities in June, Bradford came along slowly, participating in a little more than half of the team workouts but with those appearances kept to a minimum of a couple of segments of seven-on-seven and a little bit of work in team drills, particularly in the hurry-up offense.
In the time since, Bradford hasn't had any clearly defined moment where he was cleared so much as a continued gradual build toward returning to the field at full speed. He was essentially full go in the final week of OTAs, but the Rams didn't push him knowing that he'd be ready to go for training camp.
Bradford felt good enough to have his usual summer get-together with some of his receivers and tight ends in Norman, Oklahoma, an annual event in which Bradford picks up the tab so he can spend some quality time throwing to and hanging out with the young pass-catchers. This year, Bradford worked with receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick and tight ends Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey.
After apparently dominating the conditioning test, Bradford got an even better test Friday when he joined his teammates for the first day of training camp. It was far from Bradford's best day as he regularly faced pressure from all angles. Although the Rams aren't yet in pads and contact is not allowed, the pressure made it difficult for Bradford and the offense as a whole and it was clear there is plenty of rust to knock off.
On the bright side, Bradford moved around well and came out of the practice feeling good about his physical status.
“I feel great," Bradford said. "My knee feels really good. It feels better than when we finished OTAs. I finished those last two OTAs pretty strong. It feels even better now. In talking to Coach [Fisher] and [head athletic trainer] Reggie [Scott], they feel good about having no limits. If it starts to get a little sore and we feel like we need to pull back we can always do that. Out of the gate I’m going to try and do everything.”
As Bradford enters his fifth season, the more he can do, the better. It's no secret that the court of public opinion has yet to render a verdict on Bradford as a quarterback who should hold a starting job for the long-term future though there are certainly those who have made up their minds on both sides of the fence. But regardless of outside opinion, the Rams have committed to Bradford for at least the 2014 season and it's obvious he's going to get another chance to make a statement that he deserves to stick around for awhile.
The phrase "make or break" has been thrown around seemingly every year when it comes to Bradford but with only one more year on his contract beyond this season, it seems the Rams have no choice but to truly figure out what they have with their quarterback this time around. If nothing else, a fully healthy season would go a long way toward helping the Rams make a legitimate determination on Bradford's future.
Even Bradford, who steadfastly (and wisely) refuses to read or listen to any praise or criticism of him as a player, is aware of the seemingly annual "make or break" discussion.
“I don’t really pay attention to that -- I think that question’s probably been asked every year since I’ve been here," Bradford said. "Every year is a make it or break it year according to someone."
For now, Bradford says his focus is solely on making sure he's back to full speed and doing all he can to help a team that he believes is on the cusp of a breakthrough season. The simple act of getting back on the field is at least a baby step in the right direction though the real tests still await.
“It might be a little different the first time we step on the field for a preseason game or a regular-season game -- the bullets are live,” Bradford said. “But at this point, I haven’t noticed anything.”
- Quarterback Sam Bradford has been cleared to be a full participant in this camp and took the repetitions with the first-team offense Friday afternoon. Coach Jeff Fisher indicated that Bradford can do everything and actually embarrassed a few players he didn't want to name in the team's conditioning test. According to Fisher, Bradford might not do everything in camp and the preseason, but they aren't going to have any hesitation to use him, and if they back him off, it will be a decision made at the time because of soreness rather than a set schedule.
- Fisher said the Rams still expect left tackle Jake Long to be ready to go for the season opener. What's interesting is the plan in the meantime. Fisher said the offensive line will rotate the linemen to different positions throughout camp to give everybody a look at a different spot. Rodger Saffold told me the Rams gave him a schedule that actually has what position he'll be playing and when at various times during different practices. On Friday, it was a little bit of a surprise to see rookie Greg Robinson at left tackle rather than left guard. Robinson played some left tackle in the rookies-only portion of practice earlier this week, but he's going to get a lot of opportunities to do both during this camp. For what it's worth, Saffold lined up at left guard with Robinson at left tackle and Davin Joseph at right guard. Tim Barnes took the reps with the first team at center, and Joe Barksdale handled his usual spot at right tackle.
- Speaking of center, Scott Wells did not participate in practice, though he did light running on the side in the warm-ups and other parts of practice. With Wells not participating, Barnes handled the bulk of the reps in the middle with the first-team offense.Joining Wells on the did-not-participate list: Long, defensive end William Hayes, safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, defensive end Sammy Brown and defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks.
- As for the happenings on the practice field, it's more than fair to say the defense is ahead of the offense at this early stage. That should be no surprise, as that's often the case, but it was tough sledding for most of the day with a few early exceptions in seven-on-seven when Bradford connected with tight end Lance Kendricks a couple of times. Once team drills began, though, life became even more difficult with the defensive line consistently wreaking havoc on Bradford. When Bradford did get a pass off, it usually came a beat or two after he would have been sacked in normal game speed. Bradford and receiver Stedman Bailey had a clear miscommunication on one deep ball early in practice that fell easily into the waiting hands of cornerback Brandon McGee for an interception. Bradford looked a bit rusty overall and lacked zip on some of his throws (perhaps because of the pressure), but he did move well. He said after practice he believes the added challenge from the top defense should only serve to make the offense better.
- Working mostly with the second-team defense, rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald continues to be a terror. He made life miserable for the second-team offensive line and quarterback Shaun Hill. Hard to tell what's going to be more difficult: keeping Donald off the field or trying to block him.
- Quick roster note: The Rams signed defensive end Kourtnei Brown and released wide receiver Austin Franklin. Brown is wearing No. 93.
In part, that ranking was the result of the fact that much of the team's roster is young and largely unproven. On Wednesday, the Football Outsiders offered the opposite side of the PFF coin when they revealed their rankings of the team's with the most under-25 talent in the league. You didn't have to look too far to find the Rams in Football Outsiders' rankings as they topped the list on the ESPN Insider post.
With the Rams at the top, Football Outsiders pointed to the big trade they made with the Washington Redskins in 2012 as giving them a leg up on adding top young talent. From the Insider piece:
"The real reason behind what powered the Rams to the top here: There may not be a better front seven in the league. ... It was really (Robert) Quinn's All-Pro season with 19 sacks that edged St. Louis to the top. There are several players with great potential here, but Quinn's the one to actually have started building a track record. If more Rams can follow his lead, then this team will compete in the tough NFC West."
In some sense, it should be no surprise to see the Rams at the top of this list solely based on how they fit the criteria. They have been the youngest team in the league each of the past two years and could be again this year. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have been unafraid to not only devote resources to young players, but also give them ample opportunities to play.
The hope is that those young players will turn that youth and potential into production, something the Rams have targeted for the 2014 season since Fisher and Snead arrived.
Put simply, it's nice to have a lot of young talent so long as it develops. Some of it, especially Quinn, has taken off under the guidance of this coaching staff, but there are plenty of others who still have a lot to prove. If the bulk of the young players in prominent roles take the next step, this roster can move from topping lists based on potential and climb on lists about actual production.