Camp Confidential: Spagnuolo takes charge

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Steve Spagnuolo has much to prove as a first-time NFL head coach.

Winning over the St. Louis Rams' locker room is no longer one of them.

"Just the way he came in and took control of this building was impressive," quarterback Marc Bulger said in lauding the way Spagnuolo "captivates the team and has everyone focused on one goal."

Players tend to say nice things about their bosses, or else, but Rams players aren't just paying lip service as they work through an unusually physical training camp complete with live tackling.

Steven Jackson, a harsh critic of Rams dysfunction under previous leadership, nearly interrupted an important family matter in Las Vegas just to attend a voluntary March practice (Spagnuolo ultimately told Jackson not to worry about it). If Jackson weren't buying into Spagnuolo, we'd know it.

While others used Memorial Day Weekend as a respite during the ever-shrinking NFL offseason, new Rams center Jason Brown rented a U-haul and made the 13-hour drive from North Carolina to St. Louis. It was about the only time Brown could make the move without jeopardizing his perfect attendance in the Rams' offseason program.

Franchise player Oshiomogho Atogwe practiced with the team all offseason even though he remained unsigned until July, hoping to score a long-term deal.

"I thought he was very classy in the way (Atogwe) handled the franchise tag and I thank him almost every other day," Spagnuolo said. "That tells me a lot about him."

It might reveal plenty about Spagnuolo as well. The no-nonsense approach he adapted from mentors Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid has brought structure to a floundering organization. Brown, signed from the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, says he sees parallels to John Harbaugh.

Spagnuolo has gotten the Rams' attention and held it through the first two weeks of training camp. The vibe is unmistakably positive.

"The hiring of Coach Spagnuolo is definitely the biggest move this offseason, the right step for us," Bulger said. "You are either onboard or you are not. I respect that approach and I think everyone has bought into it."

Key questions

1. Who will catch the football?

The Rams appeared thin at receiver even before doctors recently discovered a broken bone in Donnie Avery's left foot. Avery could return as early as the regular-season opener, but he'll miss valuable time in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's West Coast system.

Jackson might have a chance to approach his 90-catch season of 2006. Tight end Randy McMichael also figures to emerge as a primary target.

Falcons castoff Laurent Robinson could pick up some of the slack as well. The Rams can't be sure why, but Robinson so far has not resembled the disappointing prospect he became in Atlanta, where he frequently missed practices with injuries that didn't seem very serious.

A third-round choice in 2007, Robinson has good size (6-2, 197) and obvious talent. He also has a rare opportunity to revive his career. Keenan Burton, Tim Carter, Ronald Curry and rookie Brooks Foster are his primary competitors for the football while Avery recovers.

2. Can the Rams' front seven hold up?

Defensive end
s Leonard Little, 34, and James Hall, 32, have stood out as the Rams' best defensive linemen in camp thus far. That's not good for a defensive line featuring 2007 first-round choice Adam Carriker and 2008 first-rounder Chris Long.

Carriker is hurt (again) and Long appears solid, but hardly dynamic. It's an upset if he becomes a consistent 10-sack player. The Rams could be in trouble on defense if injuries slow Little for a third consecutive season.

The Rams also lack quality depth at linebacker behind Will Witherspoon, James Laurinaitis and Chris Draft. Their decision to release Pisa Tinoisamoa will be subject to further review.

3. Will injuries strike down Jackson -- again?

Players might be onboard with Spagnuolo, but this ship sinks in the standings if Jackson keeps missing games. He's missed four in each of the last two seasons. The Rams have too many holes in their roster to overcome life without No. 39, even for a few games.

With Jackson, the Rams have a chance to become a hard-nosed running team, the quickest way for Bulger to revive his career. Without Jackson, Bulger becomes an easier target and the Rams' defense probably spends too much time on the field.

No player -- quarterbacks aside -- means more to his team than Jackson means to the Rams.

"I've had the privilege of playing with Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee and a fullback, Le'Ron McClain, last year," Brown said. "Even after all those years, our offensive line when we were in Baltimore, whenever we would see St. Louis Rams film and we would see Steven running the ball, our jaws would drop and we would say, 'Oh my God.'

"Not to take anything away from the running backs that we had at the time, but we would drop our jaws in awe saying, 'I just wonder what it would be like if we could interchange and have him just for one Sunday.' But now, I'm privileged and I'm blessed enough to have him every Sunday."

Health permitting.

Market watch

Bulger cannot realistically afford another down season if he hopes to remain the Rams' starter beyond this season. There was never any doubt about his status for 2009, and for that he is grateful.

"Sometimes as a quarterback you have to know if you're the guy or not," Bulger said. "I don't care if it's college or high school or whatever, it's not a position where you can waver and say maybe. This is your guy or it's not.

"If Coach Spags came in and didn't think I was his guy, then I would have been fine with it because at least I knew one way or another. I just didn't want the either-or and for him to come in and give me a vote of confidence meant a lot. It makes me want to work hard to prove him right." ...

Atogwe is playing for a long-term deal after reluctantly signing the one-year franchise contract for $6.3 million. The way he handled this offseason has endeared him to Spagnuolo. The new coach also likes what he sees in Atogwe the player.

"He has the natural instincts, he understands the game, he's a quality guy, he tries to lead, he's on time for everything, he's a pro," Spagnuolo said. ...

A strong season from Alex Barron at left tackle could make him very wealthy. Barron has appeared to lack focus in failing to play up to his first-round pedigree. Moving from right to left tackle following Orlando Pace's release gives Barron a fresh start. It's now or never for Barron in St. Louis.

Newcomer to watch

Laurinaitis has moved into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and the Rams would like him to make the defensive calls as soon as possible. That's a lot to ask from a second-round draft choice, but the Rams need not look far for precedent. The Seahawks' Lofa Tatupu made the transition successfully as a second-rounder from USC in 2005.

"[Laurinaitis] has definitely shown how he understands the defense, and he has a pretty good nose for the ball," Witherspoon said. "And of course the willingness to show you he's got some leadership skills, too. That is a big part of it because if you are a 'Mike' who doesn't really show leadership, nobody is going to really want to follow."

The Rams made Laurinaitis the choice over USC's Rey Maualuga because they thought Laurinaitis would be an every-down player and a safer choice.

The fact that Laurinaitis could make the defensive calls separates him from free-agent strong safety James Butler as the most important newcomer to watch. Butler's overall ability and experience playing for Spagnuolo with the Giants should upgrade a position that suffered as Corey Chavous, since released, declined with age.

Observation deck

Witherspoon might be the best player on the defense, up there with Atogwe. Moving from the middle to the weak side was the right move for him. Witherspoon repeatedly makes plays against run and pass alike during practice. He stands out. ... Spagnuolo bounced from safeties to tight ends to running backs to quarterbacks to defensive linemen to receivers to offensive linemen and back to defensive backs during a roughly 15-minute period of a recent practice. He might be defensive-minded, but he wants to coach the whole team. ... Former 49ers draft choice Larry Grant appears to be no worse than the fourth-best linebacker on the team. He played with Laurinaitis at Ohio State and seems to be flourishing so far. ... Cornerback Tye Hill reminds me a bit of the Seahawks' Kelly Jennings. Both tend to lose at the ball even when they apply tight coverage. Robinson outmuscled Hill on a quick slant in practice Wednesday. ... First-round choice Jason Smith moves people in the running game. Little has exposed technique flaws in Smith's pass protection, one reason veteran Adam Goldberg remains the starting right tackle for the short term. Smith's attitude and ability should give him every chance to succeed. The Rams' veteran linemen have been very generous with their support and mentoring. ... Bulger almost always looks outstanding in practic
e. It won't translate to games without better protection. If Smith develops quickly, the offensive line should be vastly improved. ... The Rams will not fully replicate the defensive scheme Spagnuolo used with the Giants. Though details remain guarded, Spagnuolo has incorporated elements from teams where assistants previously worked. "I can't give you too many details," Butler said, "but we are definitely taking some Carolina stuff and some Minnesota stuff."