St. Louis Rams: Latest Updates and Opinion on Position Battles
Jalil Carter (14) and Dionte Dinkins (30) compete for control of a pass during training camp at the Russell Training Center on July 31, 2011 in Earth City, Missouri. Many positions are still up for grabs, too.
Who will protect Sam Bradford? Who will catch his passes? What rookies will make an instant impact?
These are just three of many questions facing the Rams' that need to be settled by the end of the month. Jobs are on the line. Starting positions are up for grabs.
Let's take a look at who is winning those battles.
Steve Smith is quickly rounding back into his old form at training camp. He needs to do that and more to move ahead among a crowded Rams receiving corps.
Replacing Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce has been a struggle in St. Louis. The Rams haven't featured a 1,000-yard receiver since "Big Game" hauled in 93 passes for 1,189 yards and seven touchdowns in 2007.
St. Louis has spent nine draft picks on the position since then. So far, no one has caught on as an elite target. The drought leaves the Rams well behind in a league that has seen the passing game evolve to record-breaking levels over those past five years.
Suddenly, however, St. Louis seems to be overflowing with receiver talent.
Danny Amendola's history and rapport with Sam Bradford has pushed him to the front of the pack early in training camp. Missing nearly all of 2011 isn't keeping him off the fast track to return to his team-leading levels of 2010. He is the team's clear No. 1 receiving target right now.
Steve Smith looks fully recovered from his micro-fracture surgery and close to his 2009 Pro Bowl form.
Brandon Gibson is doing everything he can to not be forgotten in this suddenly heated competition. He may be turning in the best training camp for a receiver not named Amendola, highlighted by a spectacular performance at the team's recent scrimmage inside the Edward Jones Dome.
Greg Salas is also turning in consistent training camp performances. His early contributions would be more than enough to secure a roster spot during any other year over the past half-decade. Salas needs to continue to rise, however, to avoid the roster bubble in this crowded receiving corps.
Verdict: Amendola, Quick and Givens are the only locks to make the 53-man roster. Smith and Gibson have the early edge on the remaining spots, but don't count out Salas or Alexander. Austin Pettis needs to make a big impression soon because he looks to be at the bottom of the pecking order right now.
Rokevious Watkins (73) can win the starting left guard job if he gets in shape and capitalizes on his potential. Performing well against Michael Brockers (right) would help.
St. Louis drafted Rokevious Watkins in the fifth round to take over at left guard. Instead, he created a wide open competition for the job by reporting to rookie camp out of shape.
Watkins still has time to work his way back into the starter's spot. He also has the size and strength to do so. But early setbacks like this make life extremely hard on rookies, who need to be focused on transitioning to a new level of competition rather than basic conditioning.
Six-year veteran Quinn Ojinnaka took advantage of the lazy mistake. He received most of the reps during Watkins' absence and looks to be leading the position battle over Bryan Mattison.
Verdict: Look for Watkins to eventually win this job before the start of the regular season. He's in Jeff Fisher's doghouse for now, but his superior talent will make him a clear choice once he puts in the work to earn it.
Protecting Sam Bradford is this team's highest priority. Fisher can't afford to play lower quality linemen just to teach lessons and send messages.
St. Louis native and Kirkwood High School grad Mike McNeill (89) is one of eight tight ends in Rams camp. He is still a long shot to make the team but made several impressive plays during a scrimmage at the Edward Jones Dome.
Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE
If you think Lance Kendricks has the tight end position all locked up, think again.
Eight tight ends are competing for work in Rams camp this summer.
Kendricks and Michael Hoomanawanui are clearly the best pass-catchers of the bunch, but Jeff Fisher emphasizes blocking ability at the position. Running the ball and protecting Sam Bradford will the focus of St. Louis' offense. Rams tight ends need to do more than just get open downfield.
Hoomanawanui has been taking his share of reps with the first team and continues to build on a strong summer. He could become the primary starter if he stays healthy and Kendricks struggles.
After those two pass-catchers, many of the other tight ends in Rams camp can be considered blocking specialists. The mix makes for a very diverse group with a wide range of skill sets and abilities. Who makes the 53-man roster will depend on how Fisher wants to use the position.
One of the many hopefuls is St. Louis native and Kirkwood High School product Mike McNeill, who has done a good job catching the ball so far at training camp. He even caught the eye of ESPN's NFC West blogger Mike Sando. McNeil particularly shined during the two-minute drill at a scrimmage inside the Edward Jones Dome, hauling in three passes from Bradford to help set up a three-yard touchdown to Greg Salas.
Here are the observations of Shane Gray for the Missouri Sports Magazine:
Mike McNeill: The 6’4″ tight end continued to exhibit consistent hands today. McNeill also showed some nice feet on a sideline reception and utilized a terrific move on safety Matt Daniels to get open in one on one drills. In 11 on 11′s, McNeill and the right side of the line opened up a gaping hole that led to a big gain on the ground.
Verdict: Kendricks shined in training camp last summer but struggled with dropped balls during the regular season. His tremendous talent will keep him at the top of the roster with Hoomanawanui, but he needs to show more polish as both a blocker and pass-catcher to avoid losing playing time. Matthew Mulligan is the favorite to land a roster spot as a blocking specialist.
Rookie Janoris Jenkins already looks to be rewarding the Rams for their draft day gamble.
Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE
Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan have already staked their claims to the starting spots.
Finnegan was a lock to start before training camp even began. Jenkins not only played his way into the position, but generated some lofty expectations along the way. ESPN's Adam Schefter already projects him as a Pro Bowler.
The real battle at cornerback is for backup duty.
Fellow rookie Trumaine Johnson is also showing tremendous talent in training camp. But the impressive return of Bradley Fletcher from his second ACL tear in three seasons means that Johnson will only serve as a nickel back.
Fletcher is much more experienced and has performed well as a starter for the Rams when healthy. His veteran presence quickly pushed him back ahead of the skilled but unpolished rookie for the third cornerback spot.
That leaves Jerome Murphy and Josh Gordy fighting for scraps. It's a tough spot to be in for two players that have been reliable for St. Louis in the past. Gordy shined this spring after making three interceptions and 43 tackles last year as a fill-in starter for the many injured Ram defenders.
Verdict: The top three spots are set, but the battle rages on behind. It's a great "problem" for St. Louis. Jeff Fisher expects several of the cornerbacks cut by the Rams to sign with other teams. Like receiver, cornerback is quickly becoming a loaded position after once being exposed for its lack of depth.
Quintin Mikell will be a starting safety for the St. Louis Rams, but who will be next to him?
Quintin Mikell provides a constant presence on the first team in training camp as the sure starting strong safety while Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl split the free safety reps alongside him.
This is the same battle waged last summer under Steve Spagnuolo. It trickled into the regular season as Dahl became the initial starter, but eventually lost the job five games later.
Now Jeff Fisher must decide between the two. The competition isn't any less close in 2012.
Each player alternated days with the starters from the first full-squad practice. Dahl took Sunday's opener. Stewart's turn came Monday. Back and forth they went, swapping turns at the top.
Dahl also backs up Mikell at strong safety. This could give an edge to Stewart at free safety. But Dahl spent the summer improving his skills in man-to-man coverage. This has been a weakness of his in the past that will be emphasized by Fisher's defensive scheme, which features a true free safety position focused on helping out deep.
Stewart isn't exactly a prolific pass defender, either. He, too, serves as a more of a hard-hitting presence in the box, although missed tackles have been a nasty habit in the past.
Verdict: Right now, the competition is a dead heat. If anything, Stewart's missed time this spring to earn his degree in retail management at South Carolina gives Dahl a slight lead.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar has grabbed one of the St. Louis Rams starting linebacker spot next to James Laurinaitis. Who will take the other?
James Laurinaitis ensures the St. Louis Rams of a constant force at middle linebacker for many years. The two spots next to him, however, received a complete overhaul this offseason.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar comes to St. Louis from the New Orleans Saints. He looks locked into the starting weakside linebacker spot. His skill set and knowledge of the system gave him the inside track to the job.
McIntosh is learning both outside linebacker positions after being signed on the last day of spring practice. The timing puts him slightly behind Haggan, who has taken most of the training camp reps with the starters.
Verdict: McIntosh will challenge Haggan once he is fully acclimated to his new team. Haggan needs to take advantage of his opportunity with the first team while he still has it. Failing to make an impression will open the door for McIntosh to take over.