While there are several roster spots up for grabs with the St. Louis Rams, one of the most interesting competitions is at tight end.
The Rams will most likely keep three tight ends. Incumbent starter Randy McMichael and free agent acquisition Billy Bajema are considered locks to make the final 53-man roster.
So that leaves Daniel Fells, Joe Klopfenstein and Eric Butler vying for the final spot.
As the Rams prepare to take on the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday night, it will be interesting to see how much playing time head coach Steve Spagnuolo gives to those three in a game that is considered the dress rehearsal for the regular season.
"The question will be whether we bring the first group out in the second half," Spagnuolo said following Sunday's practice at Rams Park. "A lot depends where the total of plays are at a certain point in the game. We'll see what happens."
One of the tight ends could be gone as early as next week. Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney must release five players as part of the league's first roster trim.
"Like every training camp, you go in with more guys than you're going to end up having on the roster," Bajema said. "It just comes down to working hard and competing on the field doing your best."
Bajema, who had a career seven receptions in his four years in San Francisco, has been a pleasant surprise this preseason. Bajema has made incredible, diving catches in practices and is the team's second leading receiver in the first two preseason games.
Bajema has always known he could catch, and is glad he's finally getting his chance in Pat Shurmur's offense.
"I definitely feel like I have the ability to do more than just block," said Bajema, who has four catches for 51 yards. "I can make plays in the passing game. I just want to help the team in any way I can, and when I have to catch passes, I believe in myself that I can do it."
While he relishes the opportunity to have a few balls thrown his way, Bajema also understands his role.
"I take a lot of pride in my blocking, and I know that's a big thing I'm going to be used for," Bajema said. "But I see myself as a tight end, and I want to be a great blocker, and a great all-around player. I want to be good at everything."
The West Coast offense, which Bajema played in as a rookie in San Francisco, has been welcomed by McMichael. The eight year veteran had his most productive seasons in 2003 and 2004, but is looking for a career renaissance in 2009.
"It's a fun offense to play in," McMichael said. "Finally I'm getting an opportunity to play in it. And, it's not just me. We have quite a few tight ends that can get the job done. I'm excited. I'm just going to be patient, and if it comes, it comes. I still have other duties on this team, other than catching balls. I just have to focus on all three phases of what a tight end does."
And plenty of that comes from new tight ends coach Frank Leonard, who is one of the more vocal coaches in the league.
"Coach Leonard, he's a fun coach," McMichael said. "His energy level, he really makes practice a lot of fun for us. And the one thing about him, it's all genuine. It really doesn't matter what anybody thinks of him, he's just going out there to try to make us better players. He's just a naturally energetic guy, and it rubs off on all of us."
McMichael is thought of as the pass-catching tight end, and has two receptions for 25 yards in limited play during the first two preseason games. He and Bajema could both play into the second half Thursday night, so it will be interesting to see which player finishes with more receptions.
McMichael called Bajema "a really good dude," and knows his new teammate can do more than create holes in the running game.
"Everybody wants to say Billy's a blocking tight end, but Billy can get down and catch the ball really well," McMichael said. "He's going to be a really great addition to this team."
As they compete for the same position, Bajema said he and McMichael help the younger players as much as they can, adding that the relationship between all of the tight ends has been good.
"Randy sets such a great example, and I try to do the same," Bajema said. "You give everything you got, in the way you prepare in the meeting room and on the practice field."
The most impressive of the other three tight ends has been Fells, a three year veteran from UC-Davis whom the Rams acquired in the offseason. He's got two catches for 21 yards, and has put in a solid camp.
Two guys who are securely on the bubble are Klopfenstein and Butler.
Klopfenstein, a second round draft choice by the Rams in 2006 and on his way toward bust status, has just one reception for five yards this preseason. He needs to really impress in the final two weeks to remain with the team. He'll probably make the first round of cuts, but it's doubtful whether he'll be on the final roster.
Butler is trying to make an NFL roster for the first time after spending time in 2008 on both the Indianapolis and New York Giants practice squad. He has one catch for four yards, and could be relegated to practice squad duty again.
Klopfenstein may be the only one without a job when the Rams open the regular season at Seattle on Sept. 13. With two rounds of cuts between now and then, count on some sleepless nights for the bubble players like Butler and Klopfenstein.
"I think a lot of guys have those butterflies in the stomach before cut day," Bajema said. "It's a big day for a lot of guys on this team."