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Rams top priority will be to establish leadership on defense

8:29 AM, Jul 19, 2012   |    comments
Rams defensive end Chris Long (91) jokes around with teammates during minicamp at ContinuityX Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE
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(St. Louis Rams Tailgate Show) -- Rams training camp preview Rookies will report to the ContinuityX Training Center on Tuesday, July 24 and will hold one practice a day on July 25-27. Rookie practices will not be open to the public.

The remainder of the team will report to camp on July 28, and the first public practice will be held at 3:30 p.m. CT on Sunday, July 29.

The open scrimmage at the Edward Jones Dome begins at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 4 and will last approximately two hours. Autograph sessions with select players will follow each morning and the open scrimmage.

TRAINING CAMP GOALS

1. Figure out who will be running the defense. Gregg Williams, initially hired by coach Jeff Fisher to be the defensive coordinator, was suspended for his role in the Saints' pay-for-performance program, but it came before the offseason program began.

Fisher has insisted that the defense will be a collaborative effort with former coordinators Dave McGinnis (assistant head coach) and Chuck Cecil (secondary) on the staff. In addition, the defense originated with Fisher.

However, during OTAs and minicamp, linebackers coach Blake Williams was orchestrating much of the defensive calls, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he led the defense on game days. The son of Gregg Williams, 27-year-old Blake has been on his father's staff during previous stops in Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans and knows the present defense better than anyone.

2. Find out who can be consistent at receiver. There is a lot of competition for spots in the pass-catching corps, but it's difficult to even project the starters.

There are high hopes for rookies Brian Quick (second round) and Chris Givens (fourth), plus the addition of veteran Steve Smith, who appears recovered from a knee injury that affected his last two seasons. They will be competing against holdovers Danny Amendola, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas and Austin Pettis. Injuries affected this group in 2011 with Amendola (elbow/triceps), Alexander (hamstring) and Salas (broken leg) missing significant time.

Pettis was suspended at the end of last season for using a performance enhancing drug, and will also miss the first two games of the coming season.

PLAYER TO WATCH
Cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams went out on the proverbial limb when they invested a second-round pick this year (39th overall) on the talented Jenkins, whose off-field issues led to his departure from Florida and eventual landing for one season at North Alabama.

Jenkins was arrested twice for possession of marijuana and another time for his involvement in a bar fight. As camp approached, there were reports that Jenkins was refusing to use a financial advisor the Rams had suggested to help him sort through the child support he faces after having fathered four children with three women.

Jenkins likely would have been a high first-round pick were it not for those non-football problems. During OTAs, he was often with the first unit, so the Rams are counting on him being able to focus solely on football.

ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Sam Bradford. Fisher is probably tired of saying that a key consideration in his decision to come to the Rams was the presence of Bradford, the first overall pick in the draft in 2010.

Now, Bradford has to live up to that confidence after a dismal 2011 season where the offense was never comfortable with coordinator Josh McDaniels' system following the lockout, and the second half of the season where a high ankle sprain made him a shell of his 2010 self when he helped the Rams improve to a 7-9 record.

With Brian Schottenheimer on board as the new coordinator, Bradford is now digesting his third offense in three seasons, but there are similarities to the system he learned during his rookie season, which he believes will result in success.

NOTES, QUOTES
Bradford says ankle will be fine for training camp

Quarterback Sam Bradford was back at his high-school football stadium in Putnam City, Okla., recently when he participated in the coin toss for the Jim Thorpe High School All-Star game. The game was part of the Jim Thorpe Native American Games.

Asked about the Native American Games by The Oklahoman, Bradford said, "I think it's awesome what they do. I've been working with them now for the past two years. Just the fact that they're committed to inspiring kids to use sport as a positive thing in their lives, and they allow them to have access to it, I think it's great. The fact that they're putting on this game tonight is even better."

When questioned about his ankle, which was injured during the 2011 season, Bradford said, "It's good, it's good. I would say there's still days where it's not 100 percent, but I really haven't had any major setbacks. It seems to be getting better every week. I'm hoping by the time training camp gets here that it'll really be a non-factor."

Bradford also has donated $500,000 to help the building of a new housing facility for students at Oklahoma that will be ready in 2013. Called Headington Hall at a total cost of $75 million, the dining hall will be called the "Sam Bradford Training Table."

Said Bradford, "My experience at Oklahoma made it possible for me to realize my dreams. The coaches, the academic environment and every aspect of being a student-athlete at OU made me a better person. I am honored to give back to a program that did so much for me and hope that in some way this contribution can make it possible for those who follow me to enjoy the same kind of experience I did as a Sooner.

"Obviously, Oklahoma is really the reason I am where I'm at today. I had a great experience at OU. It was a dream come true for me to go there and get the opportunity to play football. I just felt like me making a donation is a small thing I can do to help show my gratitude for what they did for me."

It's notable that the dining hall will bear Bradford's name because when he left Oklahoma he made a point of telling vice president for intercollegiate athletics Joe Castiglione that some day he would give money to improve the food for student-athletes.

Bradford told stlouisrams.com, "I never complained about it when I was there but when I left I definitely told Joe Castiglione that if there was one thing I could change, our training table would be better. I hope that when it does get built and it is finished I hope that future student-athletes can have top of the line meals, the best there is. And I hope that their experience is as good at OU as mine was."

Said Castiglione, "Sam Bradford developed into a consummate leader and an award-winning student-athlete at the University of Oklahoma. Sam embraced our incredible tradition here at OU and was relentless in helping his teammates enhance it. In Sam's typical humble fashion, he continues to serve as a wonderful role model for all OU alumni through his actions and deeds like this generous gift to OU Athletics and Headington Hall. Just as others before him, he leaves a legacy which allows future student-athletes to enjoy that same experience of a lifetime he relished. We appreciate Sam's commitment to this project that will benefit a wide range of students, and improve the quality of life for the entire OU campus."

In his first public appearance since being suspended indefinitely, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told ESPN.com "I will coach again."

Williams hosts an annual golf fundraiser that benefits children in his hometown of Excelsior Springs, Mo. He refused to talk about the bounty allegations, noting that the golf event is "all about the kids."

Williams was suspended indefinitely on March 21 by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his admitted role in a bounty program in which players were paid for hits that injured opponents. Williams left New Orleans in January when his contract expired for the same position with good friend Jeff Fisher with the before his punishment came down.

Williams said he has not spoken to Goodell since he learned of his punishment.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The days of hauling around a big notebook are over, so that's good. I've just got to hide it from my kids. They all want to play. They want to download apps. I don't know if coach will like that." - Running back Steven Jackson on the switch to the iPad for the team's playbooks.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

-Tight end Brody Eldridge was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 regular season for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.

The suspension was first reported by The Sports Xchange's Howard Balzer, and was confirmed by multiple media outlets.

Eldridge can participate in offseason and preseason practices and games. He can be added to the Rams' active roster on the Monday following the September 30 game against Seattle.

Eldridge was acquired in the offseason after being waived by the Indianapolis Colts. He played in 13 games for the Colts last season, including eight starts, and had nine receptions.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Sam Bradford. Backups - Kellen Clemens, Tom Brandstater, Austin Davis.

Bradford enters his third season in the league and is also learning his third offensive system. He had been hoping to have the same system last season after being successful as a rookie under coordinator Pat Shurmur. Little did he know that the Josh McDaniels 2011 system would also last just one season. Bradford says he is getting comfortable with new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system, but putting it into action in game situations is different from offseason workouts. Most important is that Bradford should be over the high ankle sprain that sabotaged his 2011 season, and he is counting on stability in the offensive line, the return of receiver Danny Amendola from injury, and for some young receivers to make an immediate impact. Clemens was solid last season coming in late and to a difficult situation. He has experience with Schottenheimer's offense while with the Jets, and that should help Bradford. Brandstater's experience would seemingly give him the leg up on the No. 3 job, but Davis, an undrafted free agent, won't give up without a fight.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Steven Jackson. Backups - Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, Chase Reynolds, Calvin Middleton, Nick Schweiger, FB Brit Miller, FB Ben Guidugli, FB Todd Anderson.

Jackson continues to win the respect of teammates and opponents, but he has still not been on a Rams team that has had a winning record. He continues to hold out hope that a true turnaround will come, and he is especially confident that Jeff Fisher will be the coach to do it. Jackson turns 29 on July 22, but he is adamant that he will show the NFL that the life of an NFL running back doesn't end at 30. One thing that will keep Jackson young is an influx of young talent at the position. The Rams invested second- and seventh-round picks in Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson, respectively. Pead missed a good part of the offseason workouts, but he is still expected to be productive as a change of pace to Jackson. Richardson showed quickness in offseason practices and might open some eyes in training camp. The other running backs will have an uphill climb to make the roster, with rookies Middleton and Schweiger competing against Reynolds, who was on the practice squad last season. Schottenheimer has played with a fullback in the past, but it's unknown if he will utilize one more than a second tight end. Miller is strong on special teams, Guidugli was on the practice squad last season and the 267-pound Anderson could surprise as an undrafted free agent.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Lance Kendricks, Matthew Mulligan. Backups - Michael Hoomanawanui, Deangelo Peterson, Brody Eldridge, Mike McNeill, Jamie Childers, Cory Harkey.

There are a lot of tight ends headed to camp, and it's possible four could be kept on the 53-man roster, depending on the number of wide receivers or the fullback situation. Kendricks was a revelation last year in preseason games, but he struggled all season when the real games began. His ability is undeniable, but dropped passes have been an issue. Mulligan was with Schottenheimer with the Jets, and is a strong blocker when he's not committing false starts. Hoomanawanui has shown a knack for the big play in the passing game, but injuries have marred his first two seasons. Eldridge is in limbo after being acquired on waivers from the Colts because of a suspension that will cost him the first four games of the season for violating the policy on performance enhancing drugs. McNeill showed some good things in the offseason, but the real sleeper could be Peterson, an undrafted free agent. Childers and Harkey will also compete.

WIDE RECEIVERS - Starters - Brian Quick, Steve Smith. Backups - Danny Amendola, Greg Salas, Danario Alexander, Chris Givens, Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis, Mike Campbell, Nick Johnson.

Projecting starters at this position before camp practices begin is nigh impossible. There are more questions than answers. Is the rookie Quick ready for prime time?

At some point he will be, thanks to a rare combination of size, speed and instinct, but the question is how long will it take. The Rams are hoping, obviously, that he will be ready sooner than later. During offseason workouts, Smith seemed to have shaken off the effects of a knee injury that hampered him the last two seasons, and if that's the case, he can provide big-time production to the offense.

If he can be even close to approaching what he did with the Giants before his knee injury, Smith will be a significant upgrade to the receiving corps. Amendola didn't make it through the first game of the season in 2011 and his absence had a major negative effect on Bradford. He is healthy again and should go back to being a productive slot receiver.

Salas was coming on as Amendola's replacement last season when he suffered a broken leg and was lost for the season. He might find himself in a battle for a roster spot. Alexander is the toughest call on the roster. When he has played the last two seasons, big plays have been the norm. But a troubled left knee could go at any time, and then last season, he missed significant time with a hamstring injury that kept him out of several offseason practices when the muscle was sore. If he makes it through camp healthy, the coaches will have a difficult decision on their hands.

Givens has the ability to get down field, and the fourth-round pick will be intriguing to watch during training camp. Is this finally the end of the line for Gibson?

He had a lot of opportunities in the offseason, and has always been a good practice player. In games though, he rarely stands out. Pettis is scheduled to miss the first two games of the season, the remnant of a performance enhancing drug suspension that cost him the final two games in 2011. How much that affects the decision of the coaches will be learned soon enough.

Campbell and Johnson flashed in offseason practices, but a lot would have to happen for either to make the team, although the practice squad is possible.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Rodger Saffold, LG Bryan Mattison, C Scott Wells, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Jason Smith. Backups - T Barry Richardson, T/G Quinn Ojinnaka, T Jose Valdez, T/G Kevin Hughes, T Joe Long, T Ryan McKee, G Rokevious Watkins, G Michael Hay, G T. Bob Hebert, C/G Robert Turner, C/G Tim Barnes.

Saffold and Smith missed one start between them in 2010, and the Rams were 7-9. Both missed significant time last season, and the Rams won two games.

Coincidence? Maybe not. The reality is that both have to stay healthy and improve their game for the offense to come out of the doldrums.

Behind them are Richardson and Ojinnaka. The strength of the line should be Dahl and Wells, who signed as a free agent early in the league year. Dahl was forced to move out to right tackle at the end of last season because of injuries.

The biggest question is at left guard, where Mattison ran with the first team during offseason work. He started at the end of last season at right guard after being claimed on waivers from the Ravens.

It might be his job to lose, but there is expected to be competition from Ojinnaka and the rookie Watkins, who is listed at 338 pounds. Turner worked with the starters during OTAs after Wells suffered a minor knee injury. The versatile Turner, who can also play guard, will likely be the backup center.

There are several depth players hoping to have a chance at making the roster, but the practice squad will probably be the likeliest option for the backups listed above.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Chris Long, T Kendall Langford, T Michael Brockers, RE Robert Quinn. Backups - DE William Hayes, DE Eugene Sims, DE Scott Smith, DE Jamaar Jarrett, DT Trevor Laws, DT Darell Scott, DT Jermelle Cudjo, DT Cornell Banks, DT Matt Conrath.

This very well could be the strongest unit on the roster, which is odd considering that Long is the only returning starter. But that's a good start. Long had 13 sacks in 2011, a remarkable number considering the Rams won only two games and were rarely ahead in games.

The pass rush should be better with Quinn entrenched on the right side, but he has to prove he can be consistent against the run. Inside the run defense should be better with Langford and Brockers. Most important is that the depth is solid.

Hayes, a free-agent addition from Tennessee, and Sims are expected to be in the rotation at end, while Laws and Scott should do the same at tackle.

Cudjo is a wild card. After making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2010, he missed the entire 2011 season because of a back injury.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Mario Haggan. Backups - OLB Rocky McIntosh, OLB Aaron Brown, OLB Sammy Brown, OLB Justin Cole, MLB Josh Hull, MLB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, MLB Noah Keller.

Aside from Laurinaitis, there will be significant competition for the other starting jobs and depth spots on the roster. It is expected that Dunbar will be the starter on the weak side.

Haggan might have the edge on the strong side, but McIntosh and even Hull might be heard from. Hull can play outside or in the middle. Several of the younger linebackers are intriguing prospects and were productive in college.

Aaron Brown was a seventh-round pick, but Sammy Brown will be heard from along with Hoffman-Ellis and Keller. Play on special teams will be the determining factor for who are the backups and whether the Rams will keep six or seven linebackers.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Janoris Jenkins, FS Quintin Mikell, SS Darian Stewart. Backups - CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Josh Gordy, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Jeremy Caldwell, CB Kendric Burney, S Craig Dahl, S Matt Daniels, S Rodney McLeod, S Quinton Pointer.

A decimated cornerback position in 2011 suddenly looks a lot better even after the early offseason release of Ron Bartell. Finnegan was the team's marquee free agent for good reason.

He embodies Fisher's style and philosophy and is also an outstanding corner that rarely misses any snaps. He will set the standard in the back end for the defense.

Jenkins certainly has the skill to be the starter, but he has to show he can be consistent on and off the field. Fletcher returns from a knee injury that ended his 2011 season, and if he doesn't start, that shows the depth of the position.

Gordy got an opportunity to play last season because of the injuries and showed himself to be a feisty competitor. Murphy missed the entire season and also can be a physical presence. Johnson is also in the mix after being selected in the third round.

Provided everyone stays healthy, this is one of the team's deepest positions. That can't be said about the safeties. After Mikell, Stewart and Dahl, there are only three undrafted free agents that might be battling for one roster spot. Daniels probably has the edge, but he missed offseason work because of a knee injury. McLeod opened some eyes during OTAs, and could also be in the mix.

SPECIALISTS: K Greg Zuerlein, K Garrett Lindholm, P Johnny Hekker, P Tom Malone, LS Jake McQuaide, LS Travis Tripucka.

This is Fisher's biggest gamble, entering training camp with no kickers or punters that have been in an NFL game. Zuerlein had a monster senior season, which led to the Rams selecting him in the sixth round. Obviously, he has to show he can be consistent in the NFL. Hekker is a rookie free agent that special teams coach John Fassel likes. But winning the job is about production. You'd think the personnel staff will have its eyes on veterans that might be available. McQuaide did an excellent job as a rookie last season.

 

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