NFL Nation: Rokevious Watkins

Some options for the Chiefs' OL

March, 10, 2014
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The NFL’s free-agent signing period begins Tuesday. Though teams have been able to talk with the representatives of prospective free agents since Saturday, no contracts can be signed until Tuesday.

Once that moment arrives, it shouldn’t take long for the Kansas City Chiefs to lose their left tackle of their last six seasons, Branden Albert. He reportedly will sign with the Miami Dolphins shortly after the signing period begins.

The Chiefs have two other free agent offensive linemen who could strike a deal with another club. Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah shared the starting right guard spot last season and one or both could depart as well. Though Albert is a Pro Bowler and plays a premium position, it would hurt the Chiefs more to lose Schwartz and Asamoah than Albert. The Chiefs began preparing for the eventuality they would lose Albert from the day they drafted Eric Fisher with the first overall choice last year. The Chiefs have Fisher and Donald Stephenson to play tackle and they believe both will soon develop into high-quality players.

The Chiefs don’t have that kind of depth in the middle of their line. In center Rodney Hudson and left guard Jeff Allen they have two young players in the same category as Fisher and Stephenson. But the rest of their offensive linemen are in the developmental category.

If the Chiefs lose Schwartz or Asamoah or both, they could turn to the draft to replace them. The Chiefs have the 23rd pick, but that’s their only selection among the top 86. They traded their second-round pick to San Francisco in last year’s deal that brought quarterback Alex Smith. One of the best guards is Stanford’s David Yankey. The Chiefs could plug him in as their right guard from the start. One problem with using a rookie there is that the Chiefs already have a young offensive line. If the Chiefs lose Albert, Asamoah and Schwartz, Stephenson becomes the oldest of their linemen and he doesn’t turn 26 until September. Hudson, with three years of experience, is the eldest of the group in that regard.

Free agency is another option for the Chiefs. The problem there is that, according to Pro Football Focus, Schwartz and Asamoah are the best available free-agent guards. PFF has them rated 1 and 2, so the Chiefs would be taking a step or two backward no matter whom they sign, in theory at least.

The Chiefs could also promote into the starting lineup one of the developmental linemen on their roster. They have three: Eric Kush, Rishaw Johnson and Rokevious Watkins. The Chiefs got a peek at all three when they started the final regular-season game last year in San Diego. Each had a negative grade in the game, according to PFF’s system. Watkins particularly struggled with his pass blocking and Kush his run blocking. Johnson distinguished himself in neither area.

One of them could wind up in the Chiefs’ starting lineup next season. Those chances increase if the Chiefs fail to re-sign either Asamoah or Schwartz.

Fisher responds to Dunbar suspension

August, 15, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Rams coach Jeff Fisher has long been known as a players' coach -- the type who will afford his team the respect he craved during his own five-year playing career.

That respect is not unconditional and the situation involving linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, seems to prove it.

Since May 23, three Rams have been suspended by the NFL for at least one game for violation of either the league’s policy on substance abuse or its policy on performance-enhancing substances.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Tom Gannam"We are very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions," Jeff Fisher said of Jo-Lonn Dunbar. "It's selfish, it hurts the team."
Dunbar’s four-game suspension for violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy came down Wednesday. Running back Isaiah Pead and guard Rokevious Watkins had earned penalties earlier in the summer.

Each suspension has come with its own penalty but what’s more interesting may be the varied reactions of Fisher.

Fisher discussed Dunbar’s suspension Thursday afternoon and made it known he was not pleased.

“First and foremost, we are very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions,” Fisher said. “It’s selfish, it hurts the team but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake so we discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibilities that each and every player has as far as taking care of themselves and what you can do and what you can’t do.”

Fisher has repeatedly showed a penchant for defending his players. Just last week, Fisher took umbrage with Cleveland Browns color analyst Bernie Kosar when he ripped his team’s receiving corps, its coach and backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.

When Watkins was suspended for a game for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy on May 23, Fisher went to bat on Watkins’ behalf and let it be known that he did not approve.

"I'm not going to go into specifics of the suspension," Fisher said at the time. "We respect the league's decision, but personally and respectfully, I disagree with the suspension and the circumstances regarding the suspension."

In that situation it would have been easy for Fisher to cut bait on Watkins, who had earned a spot in the doghouse in last year’s training camp for reporting overweight and struggling to get into playing shape.

The Rams released Watkins before this year’s camp began after Watkins again reported overweight, but nobody could say it was because Watkins didn’t get enough chances.

On June 6, the league suspended Pead for a game, also for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Fisher again offered a vote of confidence for a young player trying to make his way in the league.

“This was an incident that took place last summer, so we dealt with it at that point knowing that the league was probably going to follow up,” Fisher said then. “We were disappointed. So much time between the incident and where he’s at now, I believe it is behind him. Obviously, he has to suffer the consequences and miss the game, but I’m pleased with how he’s bounced back and his professional approach to being a member of this team this year.”

Fisher went on to say that Pead’s position in the competition for the starting running back job would not be affected by the suspension.

“It will not, no, whatsoever,” Fisher said. “There’s great competition there. He’s not going to be penalized as far as reps and carries during the preseason. We’re getting ready for a long haul and we’ll be without him for one week, which we understand, but it doesn’t complicate things.”

In the cases of Watkins and Pead, Fisher offered solace for a pair of young players, both of whom had and have plenty of maturing left to do. But Fisher’s reaction to Dunbar’s suspension was a bit different.

Beyond expressing his disappointment in Dunbar’s decision making, Fisher went so far as to offer that veteran Will Witherspoon may have the opportunity to handle Dunbar’s starting spot beyond the four games Dunbar is suspended.

The nature of the violations might also play into the differing public reactions as well. While Pead and Watkins violated substance abuse policy, Dunbar’s suspension deals with performance-enhancing substances.

Fisher discussed the need to clean up the game from a PED standpoint as recently as late July.

"We're in the situation now where we are trying to make this game better," Fisher said after a rookie workout on July 22. "Any steps we can possibly take, regardless of what the issue is, in that direction is good. I'm hearing the NFL and players association are working in conjunction with that, which is good. I'm sure they've got some work to do. But it would be good to head down that path."

From a pure football perspective, not only is Dunbar a returning starter, unlike Pead and Watkins, but he’s also entering his sixth year in the league. The simple takeaway here might be that Dunbar should simply know better than to make this type of mistake at this point in his career and life.

Six NFC West suspensions and counting

August, 14, 2013
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The suspensions NFC West players Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Demarcus Dobbs incurred Wednesday brought to six the total for the division this offseason.

The St. Louis Rams account for three of them after the NFL levied a four-game suspension against Dunbar, a linebacker, under its policy against performance-enhancing drugs. Dunbar denied taking PEDs and said he ingested a banned substance unknowingly. Current teammate Isaiah Pead and former teammate Rokevious Watkins, since released, face one-game bans for violating the NFL's policy on substance abuse.

Dunbar will be missed. He played better than 98 percent of the defensive snaps last season and finished with 4.5 sacks. Veteran Will Witherspoon is the most logical fill-in for Dunbar when the Rams open the season with games against Arizona, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco.

Dobbs, suspended for one game under the substance-abuse policy, played 41 snaps on the defensive line last season. He also provided insurance at tight end.

The chart below ranks suspended NFC West players by base salary lost. Players lose one-seventeenth of their base salaries for every game suspended. They can also reduce their chances for earning incentives.


EARTH CITY, Mo. – The news that starting outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar is suspended for the first four games of the season because of a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy leaves plenty of questions for the Rams’ depth at that position as well as Dunbar’s long-term future with the team.

Dunbar is not eligible to return until Sept. 27, the day after the Rams play San Francisco at the Edward Jones Dome. That means he’ll miss games against Arizona, at Atlanta, at Dallas and against San Francisco. Dunbar’s suspension is the third of the offseason for the Rams. Running back Isaiah Pead and guard Rokevious Watkins, who has since been released, were suspended for a game each earlier this year.

From a defensive perspective, the loss of Dunbar is a big one for the Rams. He was something of a revelation in 2012 for a team that had been in dire need of linebacker help alongside James Laurinaitis.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Tom GannamJo-Lonn Dunbar was coming off a breakout 2012, but his four-game suspension to start this season is a major setback.
However, the security of having signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon on July 22 does soften this blow a bit. He’s the most likely in-house candidate to step in for Dunbar.

In what was perhaps a bit of foreshadowing by the Rams -- teams often know of possible suspensions long before they become public -- they signed the 11-year veteran just before training camp began.

Although Witherspoon has experience with the defense from his time with Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, the Rams are now painfully young and thin behind the starting group.

Aside from Laurinaitis and Witherspoon, only fourth-year linebacker Josh Hull has any game experience, and he has made only one start. In fact, that lone start is the only one made by any of the team’s backup linebackers.

The rest of the group includes Jabara Williams, who is entering his second season, and four undrafted rookies -- Daren Bates, Jonathan Stewart, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Joseph LeBeau.

The early read on that group is that Armstrong and Bates could bring some special teams value, but should an injury occur to Witherspoon or Laurinaitis, the Rams have no options with any meaningful experience in the NFL.

The Rams signed the little-known Dunbar to a two-year, $3.55 million contract contract on April 2, 2012. He finished second on the team in tackles (115) and posted 4.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions in his first year with the Rams.

Save for Laurinaitis, Dunbar played more snaps than any Rams defender in 2012. In addition to the base defense, Dunbar stayed on the field in nickel situations as he played 1,088 snaps or 98.6 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps for the year.

Despite Dunbar’s emergence as a productive defender after four relatively nondescript years with the Saints, the Rams spent the 30th overall pick in this year’s draft on Georgia outside linebacker Alec Ogletree.

This offseason, Ogletree has been working with the first-team defense opposite Dunbar. However, Ogletree had been getting most of the work in nickel situations, indicating that Dunbar would have taken on more of a two-down role this year.

This year also figured to be important for Dunbar’s future prospects. On the heels of his most productive NFL season, another solid season would have positioned him for a big payday as an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Dunbar recently said that his focus wasn’t on cashing in but acknowledged that the thought had crossed his mind.

“We are all human, so we all have those thoughts,” Dunbar said. “We all think about the future, but you don’t control what happens in front of you, you can only control what you are going through at that time. So good, bad or indifferent, I just want to show people I play hard and play tough. Then I’ll let everything else figure itself out.”

Dunbar could still be in line to land a new contract with the Rams or even get a deal elsewhere, but with only 12 games to impress and a suspension on his record, that prospect just became a bit more tenuous.

News that the St. Louis Rams planned to release guard Rok Watkins suggests the 2012 fifth-round pick failed to hold up his end of a bargain with his head coach.

In May, Jeff Fisher had strongly disagreed with the NFL's decision to levy a one-game suspension against Watkins under the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Fisher had Watkins' back. The Rams thought Watkins had a future with the team. But Watkins, who reported to camp out of shape in 2012, needed to keep his weight in check to maintain his standing with the team. Releasing Watkins just as players are reporting for training camp invites questions about Watkins' reporting weight.

Watkins was a candidate to start at left guard, but the team wasn't betting big on him. Shelly Smith and Chris Williams remain leading candidates to start at that position.

None of the NFC West's fifth-round picks from 2012 has produced much to this point. The other three remain on their teams' 90-man rosters.
Isaiah Pead's recently announced suspension from the St. Louis Rams for the 2013 regular-season opener will cost him nearly $34,000 in salary.

That figure is part of $813,948.82 in salary NFC West players will forfeit through suspensions handed down this offseason.

The chart shows 2013 salary lost through suspensions for Daryl Washington, Bruce Irvin, Pead and Rokevious Watkins. Salaries are paid in 17 weekly installments during the regular season. Missing four games means missing four-seventeenths of a player's base salary.

Add St. Louis Rams running back Isaiah Pead to the list of recent NFC West draft choices suspended to open the 2013 NFL season.

Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, will serve a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy for substance abuse. He joins 2012 Rams fifth-round pick Rokevious Watkins, 2012 Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Bruce Irvin, and 2010 Arizona Cardinals second-rounder Daryl Washington on the list of NFC West players suspended to open the season.

Pead and Watkins will serve one-game suspensions under the substance-abuse policy. Washington will serve a four-game ban under the same policy. Irvin will serve a four-game ban under the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances.

All four players remain eligible to practice with their teams and participate in offseason programs.

Violators of the substance-abuse policy who have not yet reached Stage Three of the program can remain eligible at their teams' discretion to participate in team meetings and other functions during the season, but they cannot participate in games or practices.

Substance-abuse suspensions generally span four games. One-game suspensions suggest the player entered the program without incurring positive tests, perhaps voluntarily. Players arrested on drug-related charges can also incur one-game suspensions, although there is no evidence that is the case with Pead.

The NFL and its teams do not disclose particulars, citing confidentiality rules, so it's difficult to know for sure what happened in specific cases.

Pead is competing for playing time at running back as the Rams move forward without Steven Jackson. Rookie Zac Stacy and second-year running back Daryl Richardson are also among those competing. The team figures to take more of a committee approach than rely upon one runner. A one-game setback isn't going to crush Pead's chances for the long term, but it's a strike against him following a rookie season in which he ranked fourth on the team in carries with 10, trailing even quarterback Sam Bradford.
The one-game NFL suspension recently levied against St. Louis Rams guard Rokevious Watkins looked like the latest setback in his attempt to win over the team's coaching staff.

Watkins
After all, Watkins had reported to training camp overweight as a rookie last year. He then suffered a season-ending injury in September. Drawing a suspension under the NFL's substance-abuse policy was another strike against him.

But with coach Jeff Fisher speaking out on Watkins' behalf Thursday, the second-year guard could find himself on firmer ground.

"I'm not going to go into specifics of the suspension," Fisher told reporters in St. Louis. "We respect the league's decision, but personally and respectfully, I disagree with the suspension and the circumstances regarding the suspension."

Watkins couldn't find a better advocate than his head coach in such a situation. The fact that Watkins avoided a longer suspension and that his head coach is contesting even a one-game ban separates his case from most, indicating special circumstances were in play.
Brock Huard, Danny O'Neil and I got together over the phone Tuesday to discuss 2013 draft needs for the Seattle Seahawks on 710ESPN Seattle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few NFC West players on the spot

April, 15, 2013
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A look at one player per NFC West team with much at stake as offseason workout programs begin this week (teams with new head coaches began their programs two weeks ago):

Arizona Cardinals

Daryl Washington, ILB: Recent news that Washington faces a four-game suspension calls into question his standing with the team in relation to the contract he signed last season. That contract carried $5 million in guaranteed money, with the potential for much more if Arizona exercised a $10 million option. The offseason program provides Washington a first chance to build equity with a new coaching staff. It's important for him to make a positive impression and to back it up through his actions off the field.

St. Louis Rams

Rokevious Watkins, G: Watkins has a shot at earning a starting job at left guard if his conditioning improves significantly this offseason. He reported to camp overweight as a rookie fifth-round pick last season, then landed on injured reserve for the final 15 games. This could be a make-or-break offseason for Watkins. We could expand this item to include the rest of the offensive line, come to think of it. Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Jake Long are all coming off injury-shortened seasons. Quarterback Sam Bradford has much at stake during the regular season, but less to gain now.

San Francisco 49ers

A.J. Jenkins, WR: In researching this item, I went through salary sheets looking for players whose recent production hasn't matched their guaranteed money. To the 49ers' credit, there really weren't many solid candidates. Carlos Rogers might come to mind for those concerned about the 49ers' coverage problems late last season, but I tend to think those problems reflected an injury-depleted pass rush. Jenkins, chosen 31st overall in the 2012 draft, was an obvious candidate after making zero receptions as a rookie. This marks Jenkins' first full offseason in an NFL conditioning program. Improving upper-body strength has been a priority for him.

Seattle Seahawks

Red Bryant, DL: James Carpenter would be an easy and worthy choice here, but Bryant is the far more pivotal player for Seattle after team gave him $14.5 million in guaranteed money with a new contract signed before last season. Bryant played hurt last season and had a hard time changing direction. The Seahawks will be looking for him to re-establish his health. Bryant is a big, big man. His size is an asset as long as his conditioning is right. This is an important offseason for Bryant. The team is counting on him.

Rams' offensive line shuffling in high gear

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

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

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

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

Left tackle Rodger Saffold and rookie Rokevious Watkins (injured reserve) are the Rams' only offensive linemen remaining from their previous draft classes. I would expect the team to target the position in the 2013 draft.
San Francisco 49ers fans periodically ask when the team's 2012 draft class might begin contributing on the field.

Like other top teams, the 49ers drafted late in the order. Their roster was already quite strong. That combination has made it tougher for the 49ers' rookies to earn playing time. It doesn't necessarily mean their draft choices are falling short. It just means they're not playing yet.

With an assist from Hank Garguilo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together charts showing games played, games started and offensive/defensive snap counts for every 2012 NFC West draft choice through Week 6.

The 49ers are the only team in the league with zero snaps from their 2012 class. The 6-0 Atlanta Falcons' draft choices have played 25 snaps, the second-lowest total. The 30 remaining teams have gotten at least 215 snaps and an average of more than 700.

Seattle ranks fifth with 1,092 snaps from 2012 draft choices, followed immediately by St. Louis at 988. Arizona ranks 14th with 806. Right tackle Bobby Massie has played 424 of those, more than any team has gotten from its fourth-round choices. Seattle leads the league in snaps from seventh-rounders while ranking second in snaps from third-rounders. The Rams are second in snaps from second- and seventh-rounders.

Arizona Cardinals

Quick notes: Michael Floyd is getting work as the fourth receiver. He had a 24-yard reception Sunday. He has seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown. ... Massie is getting valuable experience. He's been a liability in pass protection against some opponents. That was to be expected. ... Cornerback Jamell Fleming's playing time has fluctuated based on Greg Toler's availability. ... Ryan Lindley becomes the No. 2 quarterback behind John Skelton now that Kevin Kolb is injured. The team could conceivably re-sign Rich Bartel in the future. The Cardinals do like Lindlely's potential, however.

Seattle Seahawks

Quick notes: Bruce Irvin has 4.5 sacks, including one to help preserve a victory at Carolina. ... Second-round choice Bobby Wagner has provided a significant upgrade at middle linebacker. He opened the season as a starter and member of the base defense. His has become an every-down player over the past two weeks, with positive results, including when he ran down Cam Newton for a loss. ... Russell Wilson owns two fourth-quarter comeback victories in his first six starts, two more than Seattle managed last season. He is the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw winning touchdown passes in the final two minutes of two games. ... Robert Turbin's speed and power have impressed. ... J.R. Sweezy impressed in camp and started the opener, but he wasn't ready. ... Greg Scruggs is healthy again and figuring into the pass-rush rotation.

San Francisco 49ers

Quick notes: Trenton Robinson has played on special teams, but he has been inactive recently. A.J. Jenkins has been active without playing. The 49ers have established players ahead of him at wide receiver. They also use two backs and/or two tight ends frequently, diminishing opportunities for wideouts to get on the field. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Randy Moss are competing for those limited snaps. ... LaMichael James' arrival provided incentive for Kendall Hunter, who has met the challenge. Might there be a role for James later in the season? So far, the 49ers haven't even activated veteran Brandon Jacobs. ... Joe Looney projects as a potential future starter at guard, but there might not be an opening if Alex Boone continues playing well. Boone seized the job while Looney was recovering from foot surgery. ... Darius Fleming suffered a knee injury and remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. ... The team released sixth-rounder Jason Slowey. ... Seventh-rounder Cam Johnson is on the practice squad.

St. Louis Rams

Quick notes: First-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers has recovered from an ankle injury well enough to become a big part of the Rams improving run defense. ... Brian Quick made a key reception over the middle to help the Rams beat the Seahawks, but fourth-rounder Chris Givens has made a bigger impact among the Rams' rookie wideouts. Givens has a reception of at least 50 yards in each of the Rams' last three games. That is a first for any NFL rookie since Willie Gault in 1983. ... Janoris Jenkins has been a playmaker at cornerback all season. He suffered a significant lapse in coverage at Miami, but overall, Jenkins has shined. ... Fifth-rounder Rokevious Watkins reported out of shape and landed on injured reserve. ... Sixth-rounder Greg Zuerlein has transformed the Rams' offense with his extended field-goal range, although he struggled some in Week 6. ... Seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson has a 5.2-yard average per carry and 246 yards rushing. He has won playing time from second-rounder Isaiah Pead, who has not been a factor.

Wrap-up: Lions 27, Rams 23

September, 9, 2012
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Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 27-23 defeat to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Week 1:

What it means: The Rams are instantly more competitive under new coach Jeff Fisher than they were at just about any time last season. They looked like a team that could go from 2-14 last season into the .500 range this season. Performing so well under difficult circumstances provides instant validation for a new head coach. Fisher didn't need the validation. Rams players have bought in. But this performance can provide a springboard, even in defeat.

What I liked: The aggressive defensive style Fisher promoted all offseason paid off quickly with three first-half interceptions off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Rams weren't sitting back and waiting for the football to come their way. They were jumping routes. They were the aggressors. We knew that would be the approach, but we didn't know whether the Rams could execute it against a quality opponent on the road. The Rams also sought to run the ball even when the defense knew it was coming. They did that well early when Steven Jackson converted a third-and-short from a power formation.

The pass protection was superb late in the game even though the Rams had lost center Scott Wells (foot) and left tackle Rodger Saffold (neck) to injuries. They were down to only five available offensive linemen. Wayne Hunter was at left tackle, Rokevious Watkins at left guard, Robert Turner at center, Harvey Dahl at right guard and Barry Richardson at right tackle. The running game bogged down late, but quarterback Sam Bradford somehow had time to throw.

Bradford moved the Rams down the field for rookie Greg Zuerlein's go-ahead field goal. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That was important for him. But the Rams couldn't stop Stafford in the end.

What I didn't like: The Rams settled for two early field goals after suffering breakdowns. A 15-yard penalty against receiver Brandon Gibson killed one drive. A sack Bradford took on third-and-5 killed another. Bradford took sacks after having ample time to unload the football. That was a little troubling. One of those sacks cost the team precious field position early in the second half, setting up the Lions for a shorter drive to the tying field goal. Another missed chance on third-and-3, this one when Bradford and his receivers appeared out of sync, also stood out.

Defensively, the Rams did yield a couple of quick scoring drives, including the final one with the game on the line. They needed their outside pass-rushers to win their battles in those situations.

Line scrambles: The Rams lost veteran center Scott Wells to a foot injury. Robert Turner moved from left guard to center at that point. Rookie Rokevious Watkins, who had been a candidate to start at left guard, moved into the lineup for Turner.

Wells was the Rams' key free-agent addition on offense. Knee surgery sidelined him for much of the offseason. Losing him to a foot injury in Week 1 tested the Rams' line depth, which was already a concern.

Medical personnel transported Saffold off the field on a stretcher board. Saffold had feeling in his extremities, the Rams told FOX's broadcast team. There were no additional details immediately.

What's next: The Rams are home against Washington in Week 2. They kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday from the Edward Jones Dome.

Three things: Rams-Cowboys

August, 25, 2012
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Three things to watch for Saturday night in the St. Louis Rams' third exhibition game, this one at Dallas (8 p.m. ET):

1. Center of attention. Veteran center Scott Wells makes his Rams debut after recovering from knee surgery. Wells was one of the Rams' key free-agent signings. The team expects Wells to take pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford by handling more of the pre-snap responsibilities. This game gives Wells and Bradford a chance to work together in a game situation. Getting through the game healthy will be important for Wells, who is 31 years old and has started 100 regular-season NFL games. Wells did not miss a start in his final two seasons with Green Bay.

2. Offensive draft choices. The Rams already know first-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers and second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins are going to start. They feel very good about those players' ability to contribute right away. There's less certainty surrounding the team's offensive rookies. Running back Isaiah Pead, receiver Brian Quick and receiver Chris Givens are the three primary ones to watch. Running back Daryl Richardson, a seventh-round pick, and guard Rokevious Watkins (fifth round) could also factor. Coach Jeff Fisher has indicated younger offensive players could get into this game earlier than usual. How will they fare?

3. Roster battles. Teams must reduce from 90 to 75 players by Monday. Tight end and safety are a couple positions with question marks around the fringes of the roster. Tight end Mike McNeill caught my attention -- and just about every pass thrown his way -- early in training camp. Safeties Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl aren't expected to play against the Cowboys. The Rams were excited about signing Matt Daniels as an undrafted free agent. Another undrafted free agent, Rodney McLeod, could get an opportunity as well. The tough decisions come on the reduction to 53 players, scheduled for Friday.

So much on the line for NFC West

August, 15, 2012
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The 2011 St. Louis Rams started three players at left tackle, two at left guard, two at center, three at right guard and three at right tackle.

So much for developing the continuity offensive lines need to play their best.

The Rams hope to avoid a repeat this season, and they still might. But it'll be a while before this line comes together.

Knee surgery has kept new center Scott Wells from practicing. Centers can be critical for handling protection calls. The Rams are hoping Wells can get on the field next week. The line won't have its leader until Wells returns.

Quinn Ojinnaka is working at left guard after rookie Rokevious Watkins, a player the team wanted to groom for the position, reported to camp out of shape.

At right tackle, Barry Richardson has supplanted 2010 starter Jason Smith in the lineup.

For more on the Rams' line, check out Tony Softli's recent interview with line coach Paul T. Boudreau (video here).

The chart shows how many starters NFC West teams used at each position on the line last season. Some players started at more than one position. For example, nine players contributed to the 13-starter total for the Rams. Adam Goldberg, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl started at multiple spots.

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