5 Biggest Areas of Concern for the St. Louis Rams Heading into Training Camp
The approximate 12-week gap between the NFL draft and the start of training camp is perhaps the slowest and most unbearable time of the year for football fans, but with camp opening on July 25 for the St. Louis Rams, the wait is rapidly nearing an end.
Fans use that long period of time to develop questions and concerns regarding their favorite team—some of the concerns are rational, some are exaggerated—and training camp is the tool that either silences these concerns or enhances them, creating mass hysteria in the process.
St. Louis fans, like all NFL fans, have developed questions and concerns of their own this offseason. As a result, this article will address several of these issues and explain why they're important to the Rams' 2014 season.
Jake Long's Health
The health of left tackle Jake Long has not been entirely overlooked this offseason, but it's an issue that has been slightly minimized due to the presence of competent blindside replacements, such as Rodger Saffold and rookie Greg Robinson.
However, while the Rams have multiple talents capable of manning the left tackle position, the importance of Long's health should not be overlooked.
Saffold and Robinson are expected to solidify both guard positions and will team up to for a strong interior line. Bumping either player to left tackle would reduce the unit's overall potential for dominance and slow down the run game.
The offense will rely heavily on the run this season, so the Rams need their top offensive line talents healthy and on the playing field.
Long's production and number of reps will be at the center of our focus throughout camp.
If Long can remain healthy—keeping Saffold and Robinson in the middle—the Rams will enter the 2014 season with perhaps the most talented line St. Louis has seen since the "Greatest Show on Turf."
The Running Back Competition
The battle at the running back position is not necessarily an area of concern, but it's undoubtedly an area of heavy interest.
It was assumed that second-year pro Zac Stacy would hold down the starting job after a phenomenal rookie campaign—including over 1,000 yards from scrimmage—but the team turned that assumption upside down after selecting Auburn standout Tre Mason in the third round of the draft.
Between Stacy, Mason and Benny Cunningham, the Rams have a formidable collection of young backs, but it's still unclear how these backs will be utilized.
Training camp will give us the opportunity to get a glance at how the run game will operate. Based on the number of first-team reps these players receive at practice, we'll be able to determine exactly how the workload will be divided.
Most likely, Stacy will be the workhorse back and pick up at least two-thirds of the carries, with the remaining carries being evenly divided between Mason and Cunningham.
Although, as we are reminded every year, it's impossible to predict how training camp and the regular season will unfold. For all we know, Cunningham or Mason could be the primary back by the end of camp or by midseason.
At the very least, the running back position is an area to keep an eye on. The Rams are a run-first team at the moment, so it's a valuable position, to say the least.
Greg Robinson's Development
Following the June minicamps, the media reported on the supposed struggles of rookie tackle Greg Robinson, who was St. Louis' top pick and the No. 2 overall selection of the NFL draft.
Robinson, who is making the switch from left tackle to left guard, openly admitted to the media that he's not totally up to pace yet. And with the media being the vicious entity that it is, Robinson's comments were blown out of proportion.
It's not surprising that this happened, as there's little to nothing for writers to report during this time of the year. In fact, I recently covered this issue and made it known that the "concerns" are beyond ridiculous.
Ridiculous or not, it won't stop writers, such as ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio, from attempting to make something out of nothing:
Robinson’s struggles aren’t a complete surprise to league insiders who had their doubts about Robinson’s ability to be dominant at the next level. Robinson’s reference to the intensity of the playbook won’t surprise skeptics, either, given that Robinson dealt with a limited range of plays and protections at Auburn. It makes the Rams’ risk even bigger, especially since they’ve moved Robinson to a position that typically doesn’t demand a top-five draft pedigree.
So, who are these supposed league insiders? If you recall, Robinson was pegged as a top-10 talent throughout the entire predraft process, and his status never fluctuated whatsoever.
What about the insiders in St. Louis? They felt Robinson was worth a very high draft selection, so apparently they beg to differ with the opinions of their supposed colleagues—I guess there's a reason why some insiders are employed by NFL teams while others spend their days whispering to the media.
Oh, and let's not forget about the skeptics who are not surprised by Robinson's inability to fully grasp the playbook...during his first week of NFL practice at a brand-new position.
Could it be any more obvious that the media is grasping at straws?
These reports stem from Robinson's willingness to speak frankly with the media. Rather than pretending everything was peachy, Robinson kept it real by telling the good and the bad. Apparently, that was a mistake.
Whether these "troubling signs" have substance or not, you can rest assured that there's now a certain level of concern pertaining to the No. 2 overall pick. Fans will have their eyes on Robinson throughout camp to see if the reports are true.
However, more than likely, Robinson will turn out to be just as advertised—a run-blocking machine with a vicious edge on the field.
The cornerbacks did not have a memorable 2013 season, and it's a position that could go either way in 2014.
Much of the blame lands squarely on the shoulders of former defensive coordinator Tim Walton. In fact, former Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan recently spoke out against Walton and his playbook, calling the scheme "atrocious."
Walton was also heavily criticized during the season for utilizing 10-yard cushions between the cornerbacks and receivers.
Janoris Jenkins had a phenomenal rookie campaign in 2012 with four defensive touchdowns and appeared destined for stardom, but he lacked the same playmaking skills in 2013. The 10-yard cushions forced Jenkins to play away from the action, which resulted in fewer big plays. Walton's system effectively disabled the defense's biggest turnover machine.
That's the story fans are sticking with, but the actual players likely deserve some of the blame as well.
Jenkins was burned on several occasions by receivers Golden Tate and Steve Smith, while Finnegan was slaughtered by, well, virtually every receiver he faced.
Many want to believe that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will solve the problem in the secondary, and I tend to believe that Jenkins is far too talented to not rebound. However, we won't know how good this secondary is until we see it on Sundays.
The secondary will be one of the most important positions to watch throughout camp. The performance of this group will tell us if the majority of the 2013 failures fall on Walton, or if the players were more responsible than we thought.
Also, on a side note, the Rams seem to possess a wide variety of receivers on the roster. They have large receivers (Kenny Britt, Jared Cook), a solid route-runner (Stedman Bailey), a deep-ball threat (Chris Givens) and an electric game-changer (Tavon Austin).
The diverse group of receivers should provide a considerable challenge for the secondary, so these battles will be something to observe throughout camp.
Sam Bradford's Health
It all comes down to this. The Rams' entire season is depending on the health of starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who suffered a devastating knee injury in 2013.
Bradford's health and performance will be under the microscope during camp, as any setbacks or aggravations to the injury could potentially doom the 2014 season.
It's entirely possible that backup Shaun Hill can step in and put on an admirable performance. In fact, with the defense carrying the team, Hill can likely help the Rams secure a respectable seven or eight wins—certainly a fine accomplishment in the toughest division in football.
However, I'm a bit fed up with a .500 win percentage being the peak for this St. Louis team, and I'm confident the overwhelming majority of Rams fans would concur.
The Rams have been praised as an upcoming team in recent years, yet the franchise has failed to surpass seven wins since 2006. Potential only provides so much satisfaction before the fans demand tangible results, and St. Louis has reached that boiling point.
The only way the Rams take the next step and become a playoff team is by keeping Bradford healthy. Even if the defense can become one of the most dominate units in all of football, it means little if the offense cannot produce points.
As a result, Bradford is perhaps the biggest concern entering camp. If the quarterback can prove his health and have a productive camp, those will be very positive signs for the upcoming season.