Which side, strong or weak, will linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar start?
Only two of the four NFC West teams began training camp certain of who their quarterback will be. The San Francisco 49ers have Alex Smith and the St. Louis Rams have Sam Bradford. Both were the first overall picks in their respective drafts—Smith in 2005 and Bradford in 2010.
Quarterback is one of the few positions in Rams camp not open for competition. The team knows James Laurinaitis is the starting middle linebacker; Steven Jackson is the running back; Chris Long will start at one defensive end spot; Cortland Finnegan will be a starter at cornerback; Harvey Dahl is the right guard; and Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold are the two starting tackles.
But that’s it. Of the 22 offensive and defensive starting positions, only eight are claimed. Sure, the Rams think Robert Quinn, last year’s first-round pick, will start at the other defensive end. Michael Brockers, this year’s first-rounder, should be one of the starting defensive tackles, along with free-agent signee Kendall Langford.
Danny Amendola will likely start at receiver and free-agent acquisitions Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan will probably be the starters at outside linebacker. But nothing’s been determined. That’s what training camp is for.
The defensive line could be the team’s strongest unit this season. Long is coming off a career season with 13 sacks; Quinn could have a breakout season in his first year as a starter after notching five sacks and two blocked punts in part-time duty as a rookie.
Langford (6’6”, 309) and Brockers (6’5”, 322) are huge, strong players who should clog the middle while collapsing the pocket on passing downs. But one of those players could get bumped out of that starting role.
Darell Scott is in his fourth and final season of his rookie contract. The former fourth-rounder from Clemson has yet to live up to expectations, but this could be the year he breaks through. Jermelle Cudjo played well enough as an undrafted rookie to make the team in 2010. He was sidelined for the year with a back injury last season, but is back to prove that he can still play.
Eugene Sims was a sixth-round pick in 2010 from West Texas A&M. He and William Hayes, who came over in free agency from Tennessee, will push Quinn for that starting job opposite Long.
On the offensive line, both Smith and Saffold are coming off injured reserve and will have to prove themselves healthy. If they can both play all 16 games, the Rams have their bookend tackles.
Inside, center Scott Wells came over from Green Bay and should start, but he’s been slowed by a knee injury. That opens the door for Robert Turner, who played for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for five season with the New York Jets.
Quinn Ojinnaka has been getting the first-team reps at left guard, a space left vacant when Jacob Bell left for Cincinnati and then retired. Bryan Mattison filled in for Bell last year when Bell was sent to IR. Mattison did an admirable job, so things will get interesting once the Rams begin full-padded practices on Thursday. Rookie Rokevious Watkins, a 6’3”, 340-pound fifth-round pick from South Carolina, will also factor in the decision at left guard.
The Rams have a logjam at wide receiver and cornerback. Amendola was the team’s leading receiver in 2010, but missed 2011 after dislocating his left elbow in the season opener. Without Amendola, a reliable, tough and sure-handed receiver, the Rams struggled on third downs. While Amendola is far from a gamebreaker, he was Bradford’s security blanket on third down.
Amendola was also the team’s primary punt and kick returner and should retain the punt returning duties this year.
When Amendola went down, rookie Greg Salas stepped in and was just starting to find his groove before breaking his leg at Dallas. Even with Amendola and Salas, the Rams had a bunch of yeomen at receiver last year.
Danario Alexander battled through knee injuries, only to have a hamstring problem that has lingered into this season. He has been the team’s best deep threat, but has yet to practice in training camp. Austin Pettis, a third-round pick from Boise State last year, was a disappointment and will have to sit out the first two games of the season to complete a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Brandon Gibson has been around for three seasons and has had his moments, but those big plays are few and far between.
So new coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead went out and drafted two receivers. They took a big receiver in the second round and fast one in the fourth.
Brian Quick, the second-rounder from Appalachian State, is 6’4”, 220 and faster than one would think. He was good hands and wowed the coaches and quarterbacks with his speed and ability to get in and out of breaks.
The Rams then selected Chris Givens from Wake Forest in the fourth round. Givens could be the fastest player on the team, but is also stronger than most give him credit. That being said, his biggest weakness may be getting off man coverage.
Quick and Amendola are the two favorites to start in a base pro set, but it’s really an open competition at this point.
In the secondary, Finnegan was anointed a starter as soon as the Rams signed him away from Tennessee as a free agent. It would seem that second-round pick Janoris Jenkins has already won the other spot. He’s been getting most of the first-team reps through the first few practices of training camp. But one thing to remember is that the Rams have yet to have a padded practice. That could change things as Bradley Fletcher isn’t ready to give up his starting job.
Jenkins has been the most fluid of all the corners, going back to the rookie mini-camp, organized team activities and the full mini-camp in mid-June.
The Rams also have Josh Gordy, who started last season after Ron Bartell and Fletcher suffered season-ending injuries. Jerome Murphy would have competed for a starting role last year had it not been for a broken ankle early in training camp.
The Rams also took Montana’s Trumaine Johnson in the third round. Snead said after the Rams drafted him that the 6’2” Johnson has starter ability. If each of those six players work out and can contribute, the Rams could go from having an injury-depleted secondary to one of the league’s better groups.
Rounding out the secondary will be three players—Darian Stewart, Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell—vying for the two starting safety spots. All three started at times last year. Mikell started all 16 games last year after coming over from Philadelphia. He had 91 tackles—the second-highest total of his nine-year career.
Dahl is a smart player who does all right against the run, but is a terrible liability in pass coverage. Stewart is a better tackler and slightly better against the pass. Both are better suited as a strong safety, but the edge should go to Stewart.
Another wild card is undrafted rookie Matt Daniels out of Duke. Daniels was one of the better college prospects to go undrafted and is a big reason why pundits like Gil Brandt think the Rams had the best undrafted rookie class in the league. Daniels could win a roster spot, and who knows from there? Stewart, after all, was an undrafted rookie in 2010 and started 13 games last season.
Position battles are what training camp is all about. For the new coaching staff in St. Louis, they’ve got a lot to ponder.