Key Position Battles to Watch in St. Louis Rams Training Camp
When new coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over this year, the Rams had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. They tried to fill those holes by overhauling the roster. There are four teams in the NFC West, so we’ll look at the top four position battles for each of the division’s team.
With such a turnover, there are several positional competitions. None are more so than at wide receiver, outside linebacker, defensive tackle and left guard. Other positions to keep an eye on will be a backup to Steven Jackson at running back and who starts opposite Cortland Finnegan at corner.
There may not be another position on the roster more key to the Rams’ success than this. For years, the Rams have struggled without a true No. 1 receiver. Some may argue that the Rams still don’t have one. The Rams are hoping that second-round pick Brian Quick can be that difference-making deep threat and top-tier pass catcher.
Quick wowed coach Jeff Fisher, receivers coach Ray Sherman, quarterback Tom Brandstater and Kellen Clemens and general manager Les Snead when they worked out the Appalachian State receiver in Boone, N.C.
Quick is a sure thing to make the team, and it’s assumed that fourth-round pick Chris Givens, last year’s fourth-rounder Greg Salas, the team’s leading receiver from 2010 Danny Amendola and free-agent acquisition Steve Smith will comprise five of the team’s receivers.
That could mean that Brandon Gibson, who caught 36 passes last year, the oft-injured Danario Alexander, who led the team with a 16.6 yards-per-catch average, and Austin Pettis, last year’s third-round pick who still has to serve two more games of a four-game suspension, could be left waiting in the wind when the final cuts are made.
Amendola dislocated his elbow in the 2011 season opener after leading the team with 85 catches in 2010. While he’ll likely make the team, Quick is probably the only lock. Amendola may be a security blanket and a tough, sure-handed receiver, but he’s a small wideout with just above-average speed and he isn’t a difference maker—as told by his paltry eight yards-per-catch average.
Salas is essentially a bigger version of Amendola and is coming off a broken leg. Smith has had knee issues, and it remains to be seen if he’s still the same receiver that led the league in receptions in 2009.
While the Rams are set with James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker, both outside spots are ones of intrigue.
Veteran acquisitions Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh figure to factor into who starts at weak and strong sides. Dunbar played in the same scheme in New Orleans, and Haggan was in a similar system under John Fox in Denver. McIntosh won an invite to training camp after attending the veteran minicamp in June on a tryout basis. Those three are among 10 total linebackers the Rams will have in camp this weekend.
Also in the mix on the outside could be rookie Aaron Brown, a seventh-round draft choice from Hawaii. While the six-foot, 237-pound Brown is undersized, he was productive for the Warriors and could push one of the veterans for the weakside spot.
The Rams finished the 2011 season with six linebackers on the active roster. Laurinaitis figures to be backed up by Josh Hull. If Dunbar, Haggan and McIntosh all make the team, that leaves just one spot open for Brown, fellow rookies Sammy Brown, Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Noah Keller and third-year veteran Justin Cole.
First-round pick Michael Brockers is one assumed starter. The other could be free-agent signee Trevor Laws, who the Rams got from Philadelphia. Kendall Langford is expected to be the other starter. He has 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in four seasons with Miami. Langford is 6'6" and 295 pounds, so he's the same height as the gigantic Brockers—just about 30 pounds lighter.
Darell Scott is a fourth-year player out of Clemson entering the final year of his contract and could also be in the mix. It’s a make-or-break season for Scott, who hasn’t really lived up to his potential with zero sacks in three seasons.
Jermelle Cudjo missed last year with a back injury, but had made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie in 2010. Cornell Banks and undrafted rookie Matthew Conrath will also factor into the competition.
The job should fall to Laws, who started one game each of the last two seasons for the Eagles. It should be his to lose, but then again, Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga were supposed to work out at linebacker last year, too.
Harvey Dahl is the definite starter on the right side. Now the Rams just need to find a replacement for Jacob Bell on the left side. Bell retired after eight seasons, citing a desire to be healthy into his old age. With Bell sidelined last year, Bryan Mattison did an admirable job filling in.
Mattison could be penciled in as the starter today, but he will be challenged by Quinn Ojinnaka, Kevin Hughes and fifth-round draft pick Rokevious Watkins.
Ojinnaka was with the Rams last year during training camp, but was cut and then spent the 2011 season in Indianapolis. Hughes was an undrafted rookie in 2011 and struggled when he replaced left tackle Rodger Saffold in a game. Hughes is better suited inside, but still struggles with a pass-rush.
Watkins could be the wild card here. His work ethic was sometimes questioned at South Carolina, but his size at 6’4”, 340 pounds is ideal, and his teammates on both sides of the ball were impressed by his strength during organized team activities and minicamps. If a veteran like Mattison or Ojinnaka wins the job for opening day, Watkins could end up stealing it by season’s end.