Training camp is about to kick off with the full squad on Friday. Although the battles may not be as highly contested as others around the league, there are several key positions to watch that may impact the starting lineup or key backup positions for the Rams.
Some outsiders may be looking for a battle for the left tackle position. With the release of Orlando Pace we saw Alex Barron fill the role in the OTAs. Although he was the second overall pick in the draft, Jason Smith of Baylor will not be battling Barron to protect Bulger’s blind side. Alex Barron has problems with false starts, but with that exception he has played exceptionally well at left tackle when filling in for injured Pace over the past two years. Smith still sits behind Adam Goldberg at the right tackle position in the depth charts. We can expect to see Smith at right tackle by the season opener. Goldberg is a reliable and versatile backup but he is only keeping the seat warm while Smith proves himself. Smith may challenge Barron over the next few years at left tackle but not this year.
The only other battle may be at right guard. After missing all last season with a knee injury Mark Setterstrom needs to make an impression and might push Richie Incognito for the starting right guard position. Setterstrom had six starts in his 2006 rookie year but has his seasons cut short the past two years with injuries. Incognito may have a little more talent and if he is true to his word that he is focused this year on football minus the temper he will win out. Incognito’s change in attitude was discussed in a prior article, it will be interesting to follow him through camp and determine the motivation behind his change.
There will be some competition for the 2nd running back position behind Steven Jackson. Kenneth Darby, Antonio Pittman, and Chris Ogbonnaya will all be fighting for the opportunity. Kenneth Darby appears to have turned more heads in the OTAs. So far he is proving he can catch out of the backfield that will definitely provide the edge in Pat Shurmur’s new West Coast style offense. Chris Ogbonnaya, the seventh round draft pick out Texas may not unseat Darby but don’t be surprised if he passes Pittman in training camp. Ogbonnaya is not a proven runner but he can catch out of the backfield. Unless Pittman begins to shine in both running and receiving he may find himself the odd man out. There are some that believe that Samkon Gado may be in the mix. Gado is a wonderful story, I like the guy, but seriously he was a late season wunderkind for the Packers in his 2005 rookie season and hasn’t done anything since. The Rams are his fourth team in four years in the league, that should tell you something there.
The only interest at quarterback is who will be number three; Brock Berlin or the rookie Keith Null out of West Texas A&M. Berlin has one start (in 2007) but he remains from the Linehan era. Null comes in with the new regime, a surprise selection by the Rams in the draft he will be interesting to watch at game time to see how he performs. Coming out of a Division II program leaves some question as to whether in can play at the NFL level. There is not a clear leader at this point and we can only watch through the preseason games.
Assuming we have a healthy Randy McMichael, it will be interesting to follow Daniel Fells, Billy Bajema, and Joe Klopfenstein. Fells impressed during the OTAs especially in the passing game and if he continues he easily sits in the number two spot behind McMichael. He should see some playing time even in the number two spot as the Rams worked several two tight end sets in the OTAs. Bajema was signed as an unrestricted free agent from San Francisco in the offseason primary as a blocking tight end, during his four years with San Francisco he hauled in a whooping seven passes. After being draft in 2006 Klopfenstein has never really matured as a player. I can’t see the Rams keeping more than three tight ends even with the two tight end sets. Unless Klopfenstein proves he is a better blocker than Bajema and can be a treat in the passing game he might find himself looking for another team by the end of training camp.
The battle for the number two receiver and the slot receiver may prove to the most pivotal in the success of the Rams offense this year. With Donnie Avery having a lock on one side as a starter the other side and the slot receiver is an opened race. The race is a full one with Keenan Burton, Laurent Robinson, Derek Stanley, Tim Carter, Brooks Foster, and Ronald Curry. The recent addition of Ronald Curry last week only made the race more interesting. Curry has the most experience of the group entering his eight year but he missed the OTA’s and will be behind at the start of camp, if he makes a push it will not be until later in the preseason. Burton, like Avery was drafted by the Rams last year. He was slowed by injuries during the season which continued through the OTA’s, if he is healthy he will be one of the top runners. Robinson, acquired in a draft day trade with Atlanta, had a respectable 37 receptions in his 2007 rookie season but was a no show last season with hamstring problems. Stanley is still recovering from a knee injury last season and missed the on field workouts during the OTAs. He was on the field during the first day of camp with the quarterbacks and rookies. I don’t see him pushing into a starting role, but he needs a good camp to make the rooster. Foster was the Rams fifth round draft pick this season. He is raw and spent last year in North Carolina behind Hakeem Hicks and Brandon Tate in a high powered passing attack. Carter sat out of football last season, before the Curry addition he could have made a contribution. If the younger receivers stay healthy it may be a struggle for Carter to get deep in the mix or even make the final cut. The battle for the second and third receiver spots is wide open and may come down to who can stay healthy.
The only sure thing at linebacker is that Witherspoon will move from his former middle linebacker position back to his natural position where he was in Carolina on the weak side. Chris Draft has held the middle linebacker position during the OTA’s but the natural assumption is that the Rams second round draft pick out of Ohio State, James Laurinaitis will fill the starting role by the beginning of the season. The competition for the SAM position could be interesting to watch. Draft could end up as the starter or we could see either Chris Chamberlin or Quinton Culberson in the mix for the starting role. Culberson showed flashes in his 2007 rookie season but was quite last year but he would be considered the front runner over Chamberlin. We will have to see if the Steve Spagnuolo/Ken Flajole defense can bring out the best in Culberson. Draft the most experience of all the Rams linebackers with 13 years and may win out over Culberson but Draft’s experience provides for a lot flexibility to utilize him as a backup to all three linebacker positions and possibly some aggressive situation roles. In the end we may not see the best player at each position but a continuation of the youth movement with Draft filling in at any position and situational roles.
Of interest at cornerback is who will start opposite Ron Bartell. Bartell received a nice contract extension this offseason and has been a pleasant surprise after being drafted in the second round out of Howard in 2005. The position appears to be Tye Hill’s to loose. After being drafted in the first round in 2006 out of Clemson, Hill has struggled after a decent rookie season with injuries and confidence. Hill might be the front runner but if he struggles Jonathan Wade, Justin King, or Bradley Fletcher could become a starter. At the very least there should be a battle for the nickel back position between Wade, King, and Fletcher. Wade has more experience but is only entering his second year. King missed all last season after a preseason game injury and was ahead of Wade before the injury. Fletcher, a third round draft pick out of Iowa is entering his first training camp. Going into training camp, the nickel position looks like it could go to any of the three and watch Hill to see how he performs. If Hill doesn’t perform well the position could get interesting.