NFL Nation: Michael Brockers

Rams draft rewind: 2012

April, 13, 2014
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The NFL draft is still about a month away, leaving us with plenty of time to look ahead to what might happen. But it also gives us plenty of time to take a look back.

In the interest of keeping Rams fans from re-living the nightmares of drafts gone by, we'll limit our look back to drafts where at least one player remains on the roster.

With that, we turn our attention to the 2012 class.

Brockers
The picks: DT Michael Brockers (No. 14 overall), WR Brian Quick (No. 33), CB Janoris Jenkins (No. 39), RB Isaiah Pead (No. 50), CB Trumaine Johnson (No. 65), WR Chris Givens (No. 96), OL Rokevious Watkins (No. 150), K Greg Zuerlein (No. 171), LB Aaron Brown (No. 209), RB Daryl Richardson (No. 252).

What's left: The first draft class of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead era, this is the group that, for better or worse, is the foundation of what this regime is hoping to build. So far, the results have been mixed but the Rams have found some pieces that they believe will be long term starters and contributors. From the original group, only Watkins and Brown are no longer on the roster.

Brockers, Jenkins and Johnson remain as projected starters and the Rams seem to have plenty of confidence in their ability to get the job done. Zuerlein looks poised to hold down kicking duties for the long haul.

After a promising rookie season, Givens took a step back in 2013 but still offers potential as a deep threat. Richardson looked ready to become Steven Jackson's replacement as the starting back but injuries prevented that from happening and he tumbled down the depth chart. The jury remains out on Quick and Pead entering their third year but so far they've been disappointments.

Best pick: The Rams rolled the dice a bit when they traded back twice before taking Brockers at No. 14 but so far the pick looks like a good one. An ankle injury slowed Brockers in his first season but he played all 16 games and was instrumental in the team's improved run defense in the final half of the 2013 season. Although he still has work to do as a pass rusher, he posted five and a half sacks despite regular double teams. When the Rams drafted Brockers, they knew they were getting an unfinished product but he looks headed toward reaching that potential.

Worst pick: While Quick hasn't made the strides many hoped he would in his first two seasons, it was at least clear early on that he would take some time. Which makes Pead the choice here. When the team drafted him in the second round, the expectation was that he would be the change of pace for Jackson and potentially his long-term replacement. He fell behind right away, missing the offseason program because of college rules and hasn't been able to get out of his own way since. Richardson claimed the change of pace role for Jackson and then the starting job when Jackson departed. Pead has meanwhile struggled with fumbling issues when he has played and hasn't earned many opportunities. Now, he's been relegated to a special teams role and will likely find himself battling for a roster spot come training camp.

What could have been: Many will point to the Rams passing on Alshon Jeffery in favor of Quick and based on results so far, that's a fair argument. But Jeffery was never really under consideration by the Rams so let's go to a scenario that was in play. Before the draft, the Rams showed interest in linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Both were on the board for the Rams at No. 45 overall. But St. Louis wanted to recoup the fifth-round pick it traded for receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2011 season. So the Rams made a deal with the Bears, moving down to No. 50 and getting their fifth-round choice in the process. Chicago took Jeffery with that No. 45 pick, Philadelphia selected Kendricks at No. 46 and Wagner went No. 47 to Seattle. Three picks later, the Rams took Pead and used the fifth-round choice on Watkins. Making matters worse, Tampa Bay's star linebacker LaVonte David was still on the board when the Rams picked Pead.

Looking back at the Rams and Blackmon

November, 1, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Sometimes the best draft pick a team can make are the ones it doesn't. Friday's news that Jacksonville receiver Justin Blackmon has been suspended indefinitely for violation of the league's substance abuse policy would serve as a prime example of that old adage.

In the lead up to the 2012 NFL draft, it was no secret the Rams were searching for play makers, particularly a wide receiver who could give Sam Bradford the type of No. 1 target he hadn't had since he was drafted in 2010.

The Rams had already moved down in the draft from No. 2 to No. 6 after the big trade with the Washington Redskins, but still appeared poised to land a playmaker with that sixth pick. One way or another, the Rams were going to come out of the early rounds of the draft with a top receiver.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBeing unable to select troubled WR Justin Blackmon in the 2012 NFL draft is now looking like a blessing for the Rams.
In the week leading up to the draft, the Rams even went so far as to go on a sort of wide receiver barnstorming tour, taking backup quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Tom Brandstater to visit top prospects such as Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Baylor's Kendall Wright, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Appalachian State's Brian Quick and, of course, Blackmon.

Blackmon had held steady as the top receiver prospect in the months leading up to the draft with the only real red flags stemming from off the field issues. But Blackmon had done enough in pre-draft workouts and interviews to solidify his spot as the top receiver and, really, the only one worth taking with the sixth pick in the draft.

When the draft finally began, the Rams sat calmly as Indianapolis plucked quarterback Andrew Luck, Washington grabbed quarterback Robert Griffin III, Cleveland snatched running back Trent Richardson and Minnesota grabbed offensive tackle Matt Kalil.

With Tampa Bay on the clock, it seemed almost certain that the Rams would have their pick from the receiver group, Blackmon included. Then, the news flashed that Jacksonville and Tampa Bay had struck a deal. Operating with the knowledge that the Rams would likely have strong interest in Blackmon, the Jaguars moved up to secure his services, surrendering a fourth-round pick to do so.

Then Yahoo! NFL reporter Mike Silver was in the Rams' draft room and reported that Rams coach Jeff Fisher "slammed his eyeglasses onto the table and uttered a one-syllable expletive."

With Blackmon and Richardson, the other player the Rams coveted in the top six, off the board, the Rams moved out of the draft slot, cutting a deal with Dallas to move down to No. 14 and pick up an extra second-round pick. The Rams turned that deal into LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, running back Isaiah Pead and offensive lineman Rokevious Watkins (acquired in another trade down with Dallas' second rounder).

There's no definitive proof that the Rams would have selected Blackmon had he fallen to them. They did covet Brockers but there is no doubt that if they were going to take a receiver at six, he was the only one they deemed worthy of that spot.

A season and a half later, there's ample evidence that Jacksonville leap frogging the Rams and taking away the option was a huge break for St. Louis. Brockers is an emerging force in the middle of the defensive line and considered one of the foundations of the team's defense. At receiver, the Rams ended up taking Quick with the first pick of the second round and Chris Givens in the fourth. Givens has been a solid contributor and though Quick is still developing, he's flashed potential to be a solid NFL receiver.

Pead and Watkins haven't worked out nearly as well but just having Brockers is clearly preferable to having a player who is suspended and dealing with issues beyond the football field.

Blackmon's suspension comes on the heels of a four-game suspension he served at the beginning of the season for a similar violation. He actually returned to face the Rams and posted five catches for 136 yards on Oct. 6.

On that day, it would have been understandable for the Rams and their fans to dream about what could have been had Blackmon dropped to them in the 2012 draft. On Friday, those dreams would have become a nightmare.

Rams-49ers: Matchup Breakdown

September, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Thursday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers has plenty of intriguing matchups. Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off at 8:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams front seven vs. 49ers running back Frank Gore

Gore was none too pleased at getting just 11 carries last week against Indianapolis despite his 7.5-yards-per-attempt average. He let San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh know about it, too.

[+] EnlargeFrank Gore
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezFrank Gore is sure to be focused against a Rams defense that was soft against the run in Week 3.
The fact the 49ers lost and didn’t use Gore as much as normal would likely be enough to get him heavily involved this week, but if San Francisco needed any more motivation to go to Gore, the Rams provided it last week.

Dallas running back DeMarco Murray gashed St. Louis for 175 yards on 26 carries in the Cowboys’ 31-7 victory.

Add all of those factors up, and the Rams expect to see Gore early and often.

“After the show we put on Sunday, I’d run the ball too,” Rams end Chris Long said. “We have to fix those things. If you have a subpar performance, there’s nothing you can ask more than to have a great running team like San Francisco to see where we’re at. They’re going to come in and try to run the football, they always do, that’s how they’re built and it’s up to us to be up to the task.”

Gore had long been a thorn in the Rams' side, but they have slowed him down over the teams’ four meetings the past two seasons. Last year, the Rams limited Gore to 3.5 yards per carry on his 44 attempts.

Those struggles have been applicable to the 49ers as a whole this season as their usual potent running game has dipped from 5.1 yards per rush last year to 4.0 in the first three games of 2013.

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith

It was tough sledding last week for Long against Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware, and it won’t get any easier this week against Smith.

In one sense, Long and the Rams offensive line catch a break by missing out on Aldon Smith, but Justin Smith (no relation) is the guy who has made a habit of wrecking defensive game plans.

“He’s definitely the one that runs that defense, especially up front,” Long said. “He’s a guy that never stops until the whistle has blown. He’s running guys down, he’s pushing guys back, he’s making all the tackles and really is the heart and soul of that defensive line. We’ve got to slow him down.”

Justin Smith won’t be the exclusive responsibility of Long, who will also have to deal with the players replacing Aldon Smith, such as rookie Corey Lemonier. Still, Long will have to do his part along with left guard Chris Williams to keep Justin Smith from blowing things up, especially if the Rams are to get their running game up to speed.

Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers vs. 49ers guard Mike Iupati

It wasn’t until the first meeting between the teams last season that then-rookie Brockers felt like he was at full strength coming off a high-ankle sprain. He made up for lost time with eight tackles in two meetings against San Francisco and was instrumental in helping slow Gore and the 49ers run game.

Iupati is considered on the toughest guards in the league, and in a game full of physical matchups, this one might be the most brutal. Iupati has been battling a shoulder injury and has struggled in the first three games of the season.

Brockers played well in the opener against Arizona and was mostly fine against Atlanta before a rough Week 3 outing in Dallas. If indeed San Francisco looks to get back to the ground game with Gore, this matchup will go a long way in determining its success.
Even before his defensive line became the focal point of a defense that tied for the league lead in sacks in 2012, Rams general manager Les Snead pinpointed that unit as the strength of his team.

At the time, it was obvious why: the starting quartet had three first-round picks (Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers) and a high-priced free agent (Kendall Langford) leading the charge. But Snead knew something that nobody else really did; the Rams were flush with more depth at the position than they'd had in a long time.

[+] EnlargeEugene Sims
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiEugene Sims played 411 snaps in 2012, highest among the Rams' backup defensive linemen.
On Monday afternoon, the Rams re-inforced those beliefs by doing a little work on Labor Day, signing backup lineman Eugene Sims on a two-year contract extension. Sims' contract will carry him through the 2015 season, and allows the Rams to keep their collection of young defensive linemen together for at least that period of time.

Sims is the first pending free agent in next year's potential class to get an extension this summer. That's not a coincidence given the value the Rams clearly put on having a strong defensive line.

Only defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo, who signed a two-year extension of his own in the offseason, is not under contract beyond 2014. The Rams also signed end William Hayes to a three-year contract in the offseason.

Since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and defensive line coach Mike Waufle, the Rams have built a defense that is largely predicated on getting pressure from the front four. While Long and Quinn are the primary ends, Sims and Hayes get plenty of work.

Sims played 411 snaps in 2012, which was highest among the team's backup linemen and 12th on the defense as a whole. Along the way, he posted 20 tackles, the first three sacks of his career and an interception. He also provides the line with a good bit of versatility. Known primarily for his run-stopping ability, Sims has been a developmental pass-rusher since he entered the league as a sixth-round pick out of tiny West Texas A&M in 2010.

Considering that, Sims spends a lot of his time at end on running downs, but kicks inside when the Rams want to ratchet up the pass rush. At times last season, Sims and Hayes would play inside on obvious passing downs with Long and Quinn as the bookends.

Those looks are nothing new around the league, but only teams with ends they believe in can change so easily on the fly. Judging by Monday's extension, the Rams clearly believe in Sims.
A look at the current incarnation of the St. Louis Rams defense and specialists, where reinforcements may be needed and how the depth chart could look when the season begins.

Defensive ends (5): Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Gerald Rivers

Long and Quinn are the starters and the pass-rushers around whom the entire defense revolves. Hayes and Sims are valuable backups with the versatility to play inside and come in on running downs. All four will get plenty of playing time, and possibly even be on the field together at times. Rivers is a promising youngster who earned a spot with a strong camp, though he seems the most likely candidate to be inactive on game days, at least initially. The Rams are all set here as this is probably the strongest position on the team.

Defensive tackles (4): Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Jermelle Cudjo, Matt Conrath

Brockers and Langford handle starting duties and will get the bulk of the work, though the Rams do like to use a rotation along the defensive line. Cudjo is still coming back from a foot injury, but he played in the preseason finale and would be first off the bench on the inside. Conrath is healthy and added bulk in the offseason. His size and strength makes him a promising player for the future, but it remains to be seen where he'll contribute aside from special teams this season. Again, the Rams seem pleased with what they have at this position.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker James Laurinaitis will again run the Rams defense, and now will have help from rookie Alec Ogletree.
Linebackers (6): James Laurinaitis, Will Witherspoon, Alec Ogletree, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates, Jonathan Stewart

Laurinaitis runs the defense from his middle linebacker spot, and he's got a running mate now in the rookie Ogletree. Those two will start and figure to stay on the field for all three downs. Witherspoon steps in for the suspended Jo-Lonn Dunbar and offers the Rams a sound, veteran presence on a unit that doesn't have much. Behind the starters, the Rams have three, count 'em three, undrafted rookies providing the depth. Armstrong has shown particular promise on the outside, while Stewart provides some backing for Laurinaitis. Bates projects as a core special-teams player, an area Armstrong also will contribute. The lack of experienced depth until Dunbar gets back won't be an issue so long as the Rams have good health the first quarter of the season. It still wouldn't be a shock if they made a tweak or two to this position before opening day.

Cornerbacks (5): Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee, Quinton Pointer

Finnegan and Jenkins return for a second run in the starting roles and Johnson again figures as the third corner in nickel situations on the outside, with Finnegan moving into the slot. McGee played well in camp before getting banged up late, slowing his progress a bit. He's the fourth corner. Pointer brings some versatility in that he can play safety in a pinch and contribute on special teams. Unless an obvious upgrade appears on the waiver wire, this is another spot that seems pretty secure.

Safeties (5): T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano, Matt Daniels

McDonald has one starting spot secured. The other one looks like it will be McLeod, at least for the time being as Stewart nurses a hamstring injury. McLeod has probably done enough to earn the job on a full-time basis, though. Stewart and Giordano give the Rams some much-needed experience for a young group, but both have had injury issues throughout camp and it's uncertain when they'll be available. Daniels closed the preseason with a flourish, helps on special teams and figures to contribute in a variety of ways. The uncertainty surrounding the health of Stewart and Giordano, combined with the inexperience of McDonald, McLeod and Daniels, could have the Rams looking for upgrades here as well.

Specialists (3): LS Jake McQuaide, P Johnny Hekker, K Greg Zuerlein

This young trio has been locked into its spots since the start of camp. The Rams hope this group performs well enough to hold the jobs down not only for this season but many in the future.

Final Rams roster prediction

August, 30, 2013
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In many ways, trying to make predictions for a 53-man roster is similar to trying to predict all of the games in the NCAA basketball tournament correctly. Make one mistake and the whole thing can be flushed away.

After a full offseason of organized team activities, minicamps, training camp practices and four preseason games, it’s usually pretty easy to identify the players that have earned roster spots or at least should make the initial cut to 53.

What’s harder is trying to determine the composition of the roster. For the Rams, complicating matters further are suspensions to linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and running back Isaiah Pead.

The Rams will have roster exemptions for Pead (one week) and Dunbar (four weeks), so they can keep both players around but fill their spots on the roster in the meantime. Injuries at tight end and a new-look offense also make things a bit more difficult to figure.

After Thursday night’s preseason finale, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear the roster could take on a different look than it normally might given all the moving parts.

“We have some tough choices, yeah, that we have to sort out, with depth at different positions,” Fisher said. “The roster may look, initially, a little different than it has in the past. We may carry more at one position and fewer at the others and look for outside help.”

Looking for outside help could be the key phrase there. Fisher and general manager Les Snead did not hesitate to make waiver claims and moves after the final cuts in 2012. By the time the weekend was over, they had already switched out four players who made it through the cuts.

With that in mind, here’s a final, best guess at how the Rams’ initial 53-man roster will look by the deadline at 6 p.m. ET Saturday.

(Note: the list does not include Dunbar and Pead, who will both be kept).

Quarterback (2): Sam Bradford, Austin Davis -- The Rams released Kellen Clemens and brought him back on a non-guaranteed deal after week one last year. Don’t see what has changed this year, so I expect them to do it again.

Running back (4): Daryl Richardson, Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, Chase Reynolds -- Reynolds might be a bit of a surprise, and his stay might only last a week, but he’s been a core special teams player throughout preseason.

Wide receiver (5): Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey -- The Rams could keep a sixth, and if they do, it will likely be Justin Veltung, but it seems they’re more likely to keep two on the practice squad.

Tight end (5): Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Mike McNeill, Zach Potter -- They might keep just four, but with Harkey missing some time and Kendricks returning from injury, it stands to reason they’ll keep five for the time being, especially considering the amount of multiple tight end sets they want to employ.

Offensive line (9): Jake Long, Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, Joe Barksdale, Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes -- Fisher has hinted that the Rams will keep an extra lineman or two, or maybe even three, but it’s hard to see on the current roster where those might come from. Jones and Barnes are a bit redundant, but the Rams have always liked Barnes and might not be comfortable with Jones yet as he works back from a Lisfranc injury.

Defensive line (9): Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Matt Conrath, Jermelle Cudjo, Gerald Rivers -- Standing by the idea that Rivers might not make it through waivers to the practice squad, the Rams keep him instead of the more versatile Mason Brodine in a tough call.

Linebacker (6): James Laurinaitis, Will Witherspoon, Alec Ogletree, Josh Hull, Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates -- Armstrong was one of the stars of the preseason, and is a no-brainer at this point. Bates wins a spot as a potential core special teams player.

Cornerback (5): Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee, Quinton Pointer -- The Rams kept five last year and look poised to do so again. The first four are clear-cut, but Darren Woodard made a late push for a potential fifth spot, especially with Pointer battling injury. Pointer wins out because of versatility and special teams value.

Safety (5): T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Darian Stewart, Matt Daniels, Cody Davis -- All signs point to McLeod winning the starting job opposite McDonald, and Stewart’s continued injury issues would normally put his roster spot in danger altogether. But if the Rams parted ways with Stewart, the backups would have no experience to speak of. Davis edges Rashard Hall for the final spot.

Specialists (3): Jake McQuaide, Johnny Hekker, Greg Zuerlein -- Signed, sealed, delivered.

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

What to watch: Rams-Ravens

August, 29, 2013
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Five things to watch for in Thursday night's Rams preseason finale against Baltimore. The Rams and Ravens kickoff at 8 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

1. Backup quarterback quandary. Austin Davis and Kellen Clemens have taken turns throughout the preseason and training camp working as the No. 2 quarterback behind starter Sam Bradford. Neither had done much in either setting to give Rams fans peace of mind should anything happen to Bradford, but for now, the Rams would probably settle for some clarity on which should win the job. If pattern holds, Clemens will get first crack at the opportunity against Baltimore, and Davis will get his share of work. Bradford isn't expected to play much, if at all.

2. Sitting starters. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has long been a proponent of a gradual build for his starters during the preseason, traditionally playing his starters longer in the final preseason game than other teams. He's hinted this week that he won't follow that pattern as strictly as he has in the past. There will probably be a few projected starters -- rookies such as linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald -- who will get some extended work, but don't expect to see much of veterans like Bradford, end Chris Long and others.

3. Coming out healthy. The Rams have watched as NFC West foes Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco have been plagued by serious injuries to key contributors in the offseason and preseason games. To this point, luck has been on the Rams' side save for an injury to third tight end Cory Harkey in last week's game against Denver. Harkey's injury isn't supposed to keep him out long, though, and the Rams have managed to make it through the buildup to the preseason without any long-term injuries to any of their starters. In this same game against this same opponent last year, defensive tackle Michael Brockers suffered a high ankle sprain that slowed him for much of the season. Should they opt to protect their key starters Thursday night, they could make it through without any issues and find themselves in a good spot come week one against Arizona.

4. Last chance. Yesterday, we covered six players with a chance to win roster spots in this game. But let's not limit ourselves to those players. Fisher said this week that jobs are there to be won in this final preseason contest. Assuming a number of young players get a chance to play in lieu of the starters, this will be a category for any who stand out and make a strong final case to win a roster spot.

5. Running in place. The Rams have struggled to generate much in the run game throughout the preseason, an area Fisher said they must improve but that he's not concerned about. Green Bay and Denver loaded the run box and made it difficult for the Rams to get anything going on the ground the past two games. Even if the Rams were being purposefully simplistic schematically, the lack of production in the run game is a concern. If nothing else, the Rams haven't had enough evidence to delineate the order of backs behind Daryl Richardson. Tonight would be a good time for Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham to plead their cases for spots in the running back rotation.
EARTH CITY, Mo. – Looking ahead before Saturday night’s game in Denver, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher told local reporters on the pregame show that he expected to play his starters well into the first half and potentially into the third quarter in the fourth and final preseason game Thursday against Baltimore.

That would represent a departure from the approach most teams take, in which the third preseason game is where starters get the most work and the fourth game is where they mostly rest.

It wouldn’t be a departure for Fisher, though, who is a believer in a more gradual build as the exhibition season goes on. A heavy workload combined with a short week could have the Rams taking a more typical approach this week.

Sunday afternoon, Fisher was asked about preliminary plans for Thursday’s preseason finale against the Ravens, and he seemed to hedge a bit on how the Rams would approach it.

“We are evaluating it right now,” Fisher said. “We are going to play the guys that need to play. We’re going to let them play, and then if we feel guys have had adequate snaps throughout the preseason, we may back down a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford and the Rams' starting offense
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyRams coach Jeff Fisher had intended to let his starters play a bit longer in the preseason finale, but the pace of Saturday's game in Denver and the short week ahead could lead him to reconsider.
In many ways, the Rams got in a full workload Saturday night against Denver, particularly on defense. Most of the starting unit played in excess of 50 snaps, with the defensive line taking less as part of a rotation.

The Broncos' fast-paced approach combined with the elevation in Denver made for a thorough conditioning test for the Rams defense.

“I thought it was great work for our front, especially from a conditioning standpoint, preparing us for the opener with the elevation and then having to play over 50 snaps if you take out the penalty snaps, so there were some positives there,” Fisher said.

The Broncos ran an astounding 30 plays in the first quarter and 49 in the first half. Denver played at a tempo that would make Chip Kelly proud, and the Rams did what they could to keep up.

Taking that into account, though, the Rams may now rethink the approach to the preseason finale in a short week. Essentially, Monday will be the equivalent of a Thursday in a normal practice week leading to a Sunday game.

The Rams have plenty to work on, so Fisher said they’d have to put on the pads to get some work done early in the week before playing Baltimore. That could lead to a scaled-back approach for the starters in the game.

In last year’s preseason finale, the Rams played the Ravens as well and had planned to play the starters through the first half and potentially into the third. That plan was foiled only by their success as they dominated a team full of Baltimore backups.

Midway through the second quarter, the Rams already had a 21-0 lead and Fisher pulled the starting offense. Quarterback Sam Bradford played 32 snaps along with a handful of his teammates.

The idea of building gradually to the regular season makes sense in that it keeps a team from going more than two weeks without playing in live game action. It also has its share of drawbacks.

Putting starters in against backups can be a dangerous proposition when it pits starters looking for reps against backups desperate to earn a job. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers suffered his high ankle sprain in that game against Baltimore last year, after just 12 snaps for the then rookie.

It’s almost certain that Baltimore will again have a team of backups on the field against the Rams, as the Ravens start the regular season a week from Thursday.

“It’s a challenge,” Fisher said. “Obviously our opponents look at it a little different than we do because they play a week from Thursday. So I think it’s reasonable to assume they are probably going to rest some key players because they play seven days from then. Our challenge is that tomorrow when the players come back it’s actually a Thursday of a normal preparation week.”

That challenge should give the Rams pause as they debate how much playing time to give their starters in the exhibition finale.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- This week, ESPN.com is rolling out its #NFLRank of the top 100 players in the league on each side of the ball.

As of Thursday, the list has revealed the bottom 40 of the list on each side. On Wednesday afternoon, ESPN.com NFL Insider columnist Mike Sando explored some of the names that won’t appear on that list this year but figure to do so in the future.

Sando sifted through a group of names that didn’t quite make the cut, perused advanced statistics, watched some game tape from 2012 and ran his list by a scout to come up with five names on offense and five names on defense that he expects to break through in the next incarnation of the rankings.

Brockers
One Ram, a player who probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to those who paid attention in his rookie season, made the cut: defensive tackle Michael Brockers.

Sando had this to say about the Rams’ huge second-year tackle:
Brockers, the No. 14 pick in 2012, was a slow starter after suffering a high-ankle sprain while absorbing an illegal block in preseason. But he picked up momentum quickly and combined with Chris Long for dominant moments in a Week 10 tie against San Francisco in particular. Our NFL scout, Matt Williamson, is on record saying he thinks Brockers will become a Pro Bowl-caliber player this season and the best defender on the Rams. That is saying something after St. Louis finished Jeff Fisher's first season as coach there tied for the NFL lead in sacks.

It’s hard to disagree with Sando’s assessment of Brockers. Not only is he now completely past the high ankle sprain that slowed him most of last season, but he also had a cleanup surgery on his other ankle in the offseason that should help him with burst.

When the Rams drafted Brockers, he was seen as a raw prospect with plenty of upside but he performed well as a rookie. He’s come back to the Rams a little bigger and stronger after gaining some muscle in the offseason and appears to have improved pass-rush moves based on his performance in one-on-one pass-rush drills.

Brockers was an instant help to a porous Rams run defense in 2012, but if he can elevate his pass-rush skills, he could not only become a mainstay on the list but also check in near the top of it.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- While he hasn’t been able to eliminate the memories entirely, Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford is doing his best to keep the first part of his first season in St. Louis as far from the front of his mind as possible.

Asked to transition from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 defensive tackle in signing a four-year, $24 million deal with the Rams on March 17, 2012, Langford didn’t exactly transition as quickly as he’d hoped.

[+] EnlargeKendall Langford
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonKendall Langford, who had two sacks last season, says he'll be more productive this season.
The change in position and adjustment to a new scheme weren’t the only reasons for Langford’s early struggles.

“I hate watching probably the first half of the season,” Langford said. “It’s not an excuse, but I was dealing with coming off the high ankle (injury) and new position, new scheme. I had a lot going on but as we got deeper into the year, I started feeling more comfortable.”

After playing the five-technique position for Miami for most of his first four seasons in the NFL, Langford’s focus was usually centered on reading and reacting. The main responsibilities for his position included handling two gaps, taking on multiple blockers and allowing for linebackers to come up and make the plays.

The Rams had something else in mind when he signed to help a defense that had finished 31st in the league in run defense and mustered just four sacks, three quarterback pressures and seven quarterback hits from the defensive tackle position in 2011.

Moving into the 4-3 defensive scheme brought to St. Louis by coach Jeff Fisher, Langford found himself in a position to be more aggressive and make some impact plays.

The only problem was that he first had to unlearn the basic tenets of his old position before he could fully embrace his new job.

“This 4-3 is more getting upfield, getting across the line of scrimmage instead of two-gapping,” Langford said. “In a 3-4, you are holding guys up and letting the linebackers get the tackles. It takes a grown man to play there in a 3-4.”

The early returns last season didn’t bring much of an upgrade over the subpar group of defensive tackles the Rams employed in 2011. Langford had just three solo tackles in the first five games of the season and did not post a sack.

Much like rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers, Langford took awhile to get fully comfortable and adjusted to the middle of the defensive line. It wasn’t until the Dec. 9 game at Buffalo that Langford registered his first sack.

By the end of the season, things seemed to settle down a bit and Langford was more productive. He finished with 57 tackles and two sacks while playing 69 percent of the defensive snaps (third most among defensive linemen on the Rams) and starting all 16 games.

Despite playing a vital role for a defensive line that was the strength of the Rams' in 2012, there was some clamoring amongst fans for an upgrade in the offseason. Langford didn’t buy into any of the criticism.

“I try not to read the news clippings and blogs and things like that,” Langford said. “I can guarantee one thing, I am going to be better this year than I was last year.”

Realistically, a second year in the scheme should allow Langford to build on his finish to the 2012 season. Surrounded by ends such as Chris Long, Robert Quinn and William Hayes as well as Brockers, Langford should get plenty of one on one opportunities.

In this camp so far, Langford has had a couple of minor injury issues that have limited him in a couple of practices, but he says his limited days have been “precautionary.”

If Langford can stay healthy and take a step forward in his second year in the defense, the Rams’ defensive line could be even better than it was a year ago when it set the tone for a defense that tied for the league lead in sacks with Denver at 52.

“I’m more comfortable in the scheme,” Langford said. “I still have some work to do as far as footwork issues and things like that, but I get the 4-3 scheme now. The 3-4 is kind of out of my head. I might get caught reading every now and again, but I have got it down now.”
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC West team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Arizona: Receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Given the expected emergence of Michael Floyd -- and I do expect Floyd to develop into a big-time receiver -- I was tempted to pick Calais Campbell as the Cardinals’ most indispensable non-quarterback. But this offense is going to be built around Fitzgerald, who is the best wide receiver Bruce Arians has ever worked with, including Reggie Wayne. Despite a dreadful season in 2012, which wasn’t his fault, Fitzgerald remains as dangerous as any receiver in the league. The offense is changing to feature him more prominently. Arians insists on moving his best weapon around the formation, so Fitzgerald has been practicing and learning every wide receiver position to better generate favorable coverages. With newly found versatility, far better quarterback play and what should be better pass protection, expect Fitzgerald to put up some giant numbers in 2013.

San Francisco: Defensive tackle Justin Smith. The 49ers have plenty of great players, but this was an easy decision for me. Just look at how much different the 49ers’ defense was for the majority of last season when Smith was healthy and destroying offensive schemes as opposed to late in the season and throughout the playoffs when he was either out of the lineup or clearly playing injured. Smith does it all, and he does it all on every snap. He is a great pass-rusher with a variety of moves that can penetrate from an interior or outside alignment. He is a superb run-defender who plays with power, leverage and great hand technique. Most of all, he makes San Francisco’s other defensive players better on every snap and demands extra attention from opposing offenses in their blocking schemes. The Niners recently extended this great player because they understand his immense value. It is surprising that every fan of the game doesn’t understand what a top-notch performer Smith truly is.

Seattle: Safety Earl Thomas. I was torn between Thomas and Richard Sherman for this distinction, but because Seattle added Antoine Winfield in free agency, I believe the Seahawks would be better equipped to deal with the loss of Sherman than Thomas, although both are among the very best players at their positions. In fact, when I projected the top safeties for 2016, Thomas’ name was at the very top of that list. Thomas is best as a center field player in the Ed Reed mold, because he reads quarterbacks and breaks on the ball very well. He also has superb overall range. But don’t mistake Thomas as a finesse player. He is quick to fill in the run game, is a rocket coming downhill and is a flat-out striker who can separate ball from receiver. Thomas really doesn’t have any noticeable holes to his game, and he might be getting better. He is the defensive player Seattle can least afford to lose.

St. Louis: Defensive tackle Michael Brockers. There isn’t just one name that stood out to me for the Rams. Chris Long came to mind, as did Cortland Finnegan and James Laurinaitis. St. Louis has so many offensive weapons now that I believe it can afford to lose one or two. Jake Long also crossed my mind, but I think people forget that Long really didn’t play very well in 2012. I expect Alec Ogletree to make a huge immediate impact on St. Louis’ defense, but he is an unproven rookie. Few know it, but Brockers is an animal -- and on the verge of stardom. Few rookies last season improved as dramatically as Brockers did during the course of the season, and this guy is simply loaded with talent. I am expecting Brockers to assert himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle and the best player on the Rams defense during the 2013 season. For that reason, he will be truly indispensable.
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The St. Louis Rams arguably needed starters at running back, guard and safety after drafting Tavon Austin eighth overall and trading back eight spots into the 30th overall choice.

They addressed a need at outside linebacker instead by selecting Georgia's Alec Ogletree, a player Mike Mayock had projected to the Rams at No. 22 in his mock draft Wednesday. That projection led to debate on Twitter given that some have listed Ogletree as an inside linebacker and the Rams are set in the middle with James Laurinaitis.

Ogletree, a former safety with some off-field concerns, projects as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.

Ogletree has been arrested for stealing another student's motorcycle helmet. He has been suspended for drug-related reasons. He has been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher hasn't shied away from players with off-field concerns. The team used a second-round choice for Janoris Jenkins last year, with encouraging results so far.

Ogletree turns and undermanned linebacking corps into a potential strength, fortifying a front seven that was already stacked on the line with Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn.
The San Francisco 49ers have fielded an effective, sometimes dominant defensive line recently, even without factoring outside linebacker Aldon Smith into the line equation.

That's why it was shocking to see ESPN's NFL scout, Matt Williamson, rank the 49ers' defensive line fourth among those in the NFC West.

The No. 4 ranking could be misleading, however. Williamson explained why in kicking off the latest conversation in our series ranking NFC West teams at each position.

Williamson: I could make an argument to put these defensive lines in almost any order.

Sando: So, you're not necessarily downgrading Justin Smith and the rest of that 49ers line.

Williamson: I still think Smith is the best defensive lineman in the division and that is really saying something. But I wonder if his best days were in 2011. Those were very good days. He was the best defensive player in the league. You wonder if he is 90 percent of his best days, which is still a great player and the best defensive lineman in the division, but he might not be quite the same. I like Ray McDonald. Glenn Dorsey will be a nose tackle/McDonald type. They will move him around. He'll be a better version of Ricky Jean-Francois. That is who he is replacing, not Isaac Sopoaga.

Sando: The 49ers could have significant plans for Dorsey, although those remain a little vague.

Williamson: Dorsey was my favorite player in the '08 draft as a Warren Sapp type and a perfect fit for the scheme the Chiefs had at the time, but then everyone got fired, they turned him into a 3-4 defensive end and it was a totally wasted resource of a high pick. The 49ers will be smarter about how they use him than Kansas City was, but I don't think he is the same player because he has added weight and has been a slight bust.

[+] EnlargeCliff Avril
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe Seahawks added Cliff Avril to an already impressive group of defensive linemen.
Sando: Looking at the division overall, I might have put the Rams ahead of the Seahawks. For Seattle, Chris Clemons is hurt, Alan Branch departed, Tony McDaniel was arguably a so-so replacement and Red Bryant is coming off a tough year. Michael Brockers looks like a star in the making for the Rams. Chris Long and Robert Quinn can easily combine for 20-plus sacks. William Hayes is in there too.

Williamson: I didn’t penalize the Seahawks in the rankings for Clemons' injury. He is still a really good player who will factor in at some point. He was really good on last viewing. Bruce Irvin will be better. Michael Bennett is a great addition. Cliff Avril is a phenomenal addition. They will put that NASCAR package out there when Clemons is healthy. Brandon Mebane is really good. I believe in Red Bryant. That is six quality defensive linemen and they can add somebody. McDaniel can hold his own. They can go eight deep with quality players and some fringe Pro Bowlers.

Sando: The depth is impressive. That is one area where I think the 49ers are lacking. They don't need as large of a rotation because Aldon Smith plays in their four-man line packages. Still, the Seahawks are stacked up front to a degree that came into clearer focus the way you spelled it out.

Williamson: They have a wide skill set, which I like, too. Irvin and Bryant are totally different players at defensive end. Irvin, Clemons, Avril and Bryant give you versatility. For the Rams, Hayes is an important part of that equation. He had seven sacks last year. Quinn and Long are questionable against the run. Hayes can be a base run defensive end. Plus, he moves inside and can be a quality rusher there.

Sando: I hadn't really thought of Long as a liability against the run.

Williamson: You can run at Long. Part of that is scheme. Sort of like in the Dwight Freeney-Robert Mathis days, they play the run on the way to the quarterback. With the Rams, a lot of it is ahead of them. I'd draft Quinn very high if I were building a team, but he is not as good as Cliff Avril right now. Brockers is going to be a total stud. I didn't love him coming out of LSU, but he far exceeded my expectations. I think he'll be a multiple Pro Bowl player.

Sando: We haven't even mentioned the Cardinals, who have, by the way, Calais Campbell -- arguably the best defensive lineman in the division at any given time. There are some unanswered questions about scheme as the team transitions to a new staff, however.

Williamson: Even though they ran a 3-4 defense under former coordinator Ray Horton, they allowed those defensive ends to penetrate. If they were to go to a 4-3, it would be great for Darnell Dockett. He could compete for being the best three-technique in the league. The old scheme hurt Dockett. He is a great player and a better player than people realize because he hasn't been used properly.

Sando: We'll have a better feel for the Cardinals' line once we learn more about how new coordinator Todd Bowles plans to use everyone. Dan Williams is a key variable, too. He was drafted as a 3-4 nose tackle, a position pretty specific to the Horton scheme.

Williamson: Williams has come along and is an above average 3-4 starting nose tackle.

Sando: The Cardinals also added Frostee Rucker and Matt Shaughnessy for depth, but their line's ranking probably hinges on whether the new scheme maximizes Dockett. There are also some questions about the outside pass rush. Some of those questions will arise again when we look at the Cardinals' linebackers.

Williamson: Overall, I don't love their depth on the line. They don't have that guy off the bench like Hayes or all those defensive ends in Seattle or even Dorsey in San Francisco.

Sando: Great discussion, Matt. The takeaway is pretty clear to me. This division should be strong along its defensive lines. Keeping a straight face while ranking the 49ers' line fourth drives home the point.

What makes Seahawks tough out in playoffs

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
11:13
PM ET
Russell WilsonOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesQuarterback Russell Wilson overcame a rocky first half to lead the Seahawks over the Rams.
SEATTLE -- Russell Wilson could have pulled up and thrown a touchdown pass to break Peyton Manning's single-season rookie record Sunday.

Tight end Zach Miller was open.

Instead, the Seattle Seahawks' rookie quarterback decided to run the ball across the goal line for the winning touchdown in a 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Week 17.

The play said much about what makes Seattle dangerous heading into the playoffs as the NFC's fifth seed, set to visit Washington in a wild-card game next Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Some quarterbacks can beat you with their legs. Some can beat you with their arms. Wilson can do those things, but it's not an either-or proposition with Seattle's offensive rookie of the year candidate. Wilson's ability to beat teams with his arm after beating them with his feet is what makes him a matchup nightmare.

"You try to prepare for him all week and it's hard to prepare for a guy like that who is mobile and can still throw at the same time," Rams defensive end William Hayes said. "I really don't know a certain way to say, 'This is how you stop that kid.' He is special."

Wilson showed something else on his winning 1-yard run to punctuate a 90-yard touchdown drive with 1:45 remaining.

"I was going to throw it to Zach to break the record," Wilson said, "but that is not me. The only thing that matters to me was to win the game."

No wonder Wilson's teammates made him the first rookie to win the team's highest individual honor -- the Steve Largent Award, given annually to the Seattle player who "exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the team."

The Rams sacked Wilson five times in the first half and made him work for everything he got. But with third-down completions covering 49, 44 and 31 yards in the second half, Seattle rallied to hand St. Louis its first NFC West defeat of the season.

The Seahawks won seven of their final eight regular-season games in getting to 11-5, good for second in the NFC West behind the 11-4-1 San Francisco 49ers. The Rams were 7-8-1 and they are rising. Seattle could not rest until cornerback Richard Sherman picked off Sam Bradford in the final minute.

"It was a good, hard-fought win and it was nice to finish like that in a tough situation and actually come from behind to get it done," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

Seattle had outscored its past three opponents by a combined 150-30 score.

The way this game against the Rams went mattered to the extent it informed expectations for Seattle in the postseason.

Seattle has not faced Washington. The Rams defeated the Redskins in Week 2, so I headed to their locker room Sunday looking for thoughts on the Seahawks' playoff prospects.

"I think Washington is built to defend the zone read because they see that every day in practice," Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said.

Rams defensive end Chris Long grew up around Wilson in Virginia and threw down his friend for three sacks Sunday. But when the outcome was in the balance, Wilson did enough. His Total QBR score jumped from 31.2 in the first half to 85.3 in the second as Seattle appeared to use bootlegs to greater effect.

"He does a great job extending plays," Long said. "Those are the things you can't plan for. He was able to extend some plays and that is how they won."

The Seahawks are not a rhythm passing team. They're a big-play passing team because teams must respect Lynch and the run while making sure Wilson doesn't escape with the football on the perimeter.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe threat of Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 100 yards Sunday against the Rams, sets up Seattle's big-play passing game.
Lynch finished with 100 yards rushing and a 5.6-yard average. Wilson carried 10 times for 58 yards. He also averaged 13.2 yards per pass attempt, best in the NFL for Week 17 by more than 2.5 yards.

"They run the ball so well," Finnegan said. "It's not the fact that he makes any on-schedule throws. It's off-schedule stuff. He is a shorter guy in the pocket and if you don't get ahold of him, he's going to make plays like that."

Wilson completed all six pass attempts for 77 yards when the Rams brought five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, Wilson also took two of his six sacks on those plays. Seattle struggled to defend against some of the Rams' pass-rush schemes. Long and fellow defensive end Robert Quinn gave the Seahawks' tackles trouble in one-on-one situations as well.

This was a tough game for Seattle. Some of the Seahawks' troubles were self-inflicted. Miller would have had a touchdown early in the game if fellow tight end Anthony McCoy hadn't committed offensive pass interference unnecessarily.

Penalties repeatedly turned down-and-distance against Seattle.

"That was obviously the difference in the first half," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

One difference in the second half: Wilson had no turnovers. Marshawn Lynch coughed up a fumble that could have lost the game for Seattle, but the Rams couldn't get the bounce they needed. St. Louis finished the season with only four opponent fumble recoveries in 17 chances.

Wilson has three turnovers in the Seahawks' past eight games

"Russell really showed me some things today, for him to be a rookie," Hayes said. "He is a good quarterback, man. He is a lot better than what you would think he is."

The Rams held on against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins in Week 2, winning that game by a 31-28 score. Griffin completed 20 of 29 passes for 206 yards with one touchdown and one interception that day. He carried 11 times for 82 yards and two scores.

"I feel like Russell is, when the play breaks down, that is when he is at his best," Rams safety Quintin Mikell said. "He is looking to pass. That is what creates headaches for you. With RG III, I think it's more of a system they have, more like the Pistol and zone read type stuff. They are both very effective, just in different ways."

The interception Griffin threw against the Rams led to a field goal for St. Louis. That was the difference on the scoreboard in the end.

"Robert is faster, but with Russell, he scrambles to make the throw deep," Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "He had a 15-second play against the 49ers and he scrambles looking to find guys. It is impossible to cover for 15 seconds in the NFL."

The Seahawks can emerge from this game against the Rams feeling confident in their chances against any NFC opponent. Their inability to generate a pass rush consistently, particularly late in games, is one concern. But with a highly productive ground game, one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks and cornerbacks strong enough to disrupt opponents' timing, Seattle will be a tough out.

"I just can't wait to see RG III and Russell go at it, if that is the matchup," Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers said.

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