QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Marc Bulger. Backups -- Kyle Boller, Brock Berlin, Keith Null.
To say this is a make-or-break season for Bulger might be a stretch, but certainly his performance will be watched closely as the team's offense has changed again following his two worst seasons as an NFL starter. Bulger seems a perfect fit for the timing-based West Coast offense that distributes the ball to a lot of receivers including tight ends and running backs. Boller, a former first-round pick of the Ravens, missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury, and is hoping to resurrect his career with a new start. He signed a one-year contract. Berlin and Null will be competing for the No. 3 job in camp. Berlin had some solid moments in the preseason last year, while Null is a raw product from West Texas A&M.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- HB Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney. Backups -- HB Kenneth Darby, HB Antonio Pittman, HB Chris Ogbonnaya, HB Samkon Gado, FB Jerome Johnson.
It's not an understatement to say the Rams' opportunity to be competitive revolves around Jackson. He can be a game-changer with the potential for big plays, and is also a good receiver. The addition of Karney should make Jackson significantly more productive in short-yardage situations. The question is whether a host of other backs can fill the bill if Jackson can't play. Most can be OK for short stretches, but not necessarily as a starter. Darby is a slash-type runner that is very good as a pass-catcher. Pittman has had some starting opportunities, but hasn't stood out. Ogbonnaya, a second-round pick this year, hopes to open some eyes in camp. Gado looked good in the offseason, but will be a long shot to make the roster. Johnson has decent size, but it seems unlikely the Rams would keep two fullbacks.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Randy McMichael. Backups -- Daniel Fells, Billy Bajema, Joe Klopfenstein, Eric Butler.
This group could be a key to the team's offensive success. The West Coast offense usually includes tight ends as key receivers, and that need is accentuated with
the Rams because of the lack of experience at wide receiver. McMichael returns from a broken foot that cost him 12 games last season, and could be one of the focal points of the passing game. Fells is an intriguing prospect. Signed off the Buccaneers' practice squad during the 2008 season, he showed some flashes while learning the offense. Now, he has had a full offseason to get acclimated with the West Coast offense, and there were times during OTAs that he and McMichael were on the field in the nickel offense, rather than there being three wide receivers on the field. Bajema was signed for his blocking prowess, and should help Karney in the running game and short yardage. This season is likely now or never for Klopfenstein, a second-round pick in 2006 who hasn't shown much growth as a player.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton. Backups -- Laurent Robinson, Derek Stanley, Tim Carter, Brooks Foster, Chad Lucas, Nate Jones, Jarrett Byers, Travis Brown, Horace Gant, Sean Walker.
As a rookie, Avery burst on the scene after being bothered early by a hip injury and forced defenses to account for his presence. He did have some issues with consistency on route-running, but some of that was because of the offensive scheme. The West Coast offense is considered more receiver-friendly, and Avery was healthy throughout the offseason. Unfortunately, Burton wasn't. Last season, as a rookie, he had a knee drained each week two days before games. This offseason, he tweaked a hamstring early, and barely saw the field during OTAs. He has talent, but must be able to stay on the field. Robinson showed promise as a rookie with Atlanta in 2007, but hardly played last season because of a recurring hamstring problem. Acquired in an offseason trade, he could end up being the starter if Burton doesn't progress. Stanley got no OTA work as he recovered from 2008 ACL surgery, but is expected to be ready for the start of camp. He has excellent speed, and is probably the best kick returner on the roster. After not playing in '08, Carter is hoping to rekindle his career after spending time with the Giants and Browns. While a speedster, he has had consistency questions. With this group, he might be able to contribute. Foster is a fifth-round pick, who was trapped on the depth chart at North Carolina behind Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate. He has size and speed, and could make the team based on special teams ability. There are several other receivers that hope to open some eyes when the pads come on. Lucas did well in OTAs, Byers received some reps returning kickoffs, and Jones and Brown appeared solid. Competition could be fierce for the last one or two jobs.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Alex Barron, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Richie Incognito, RT Jason Smith. Backups -- T/G Adam Goldberg, G John Greco, C/G Mark Setterstrom, T Renardo Foster, G Roy Schuening, T Eric Young, T Phil Trautwein, G Roger Allen III, C Daniel Sanders, C Tim Mattran.
Barron enters the final year of his contract with the opportunity to make some money, although he wouldn't be an unrestricted free agent if there is no salary cap in 2010. Still, he can establish himself as a top left tackle with a good performance. He played 15 games there in 2007 when Orlando Pace was injured in the season opener. His strength is not run blocking, which is why the rookie Smith is expected to start out at right tackle, where he will be alongside Incognito. That should create a strong running game to that side. Incognito must learn how to control his emotions, while still playing intensity. Brown has come in and emerged as a leader on the line, which is what the Rams envisioned when they agreed to pay him $37.5 million over five years with $20 million guaranteed ($9 million of which are guaranteed base salaries). Bell is another key for the line. Signed as a free agent from Tennessee in 2008, he had a down year due in part to a hamstring injury. Greco, a third-round pick in '08, is poised to take over a starting job if one of the starters falters. Goldberg was with the first unit at right tackle during OTAs, but is expected to cede that spot to the rookie Smith. Still, his versatility is good to have, considering he started at four different positions last season. Setterstrom returns from another lost season because of a knee problem. A solid guard, he worked at center during OTAs. Foster was acquired on waivers from Atlanta, is believed to have some potential at 6-7, 340. He started two games as a rookie free agent in 2007 before suffering a knee injury. Schuening has ability, but could find himself in a numbers game trying to make the roster. Young was working with the second unit at left tackle in OTAs.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Victor Adeyanju, LDT Adam Carriker, RDT Clifton Ryan, RDE Chris Long. Backups -- E Leonard Little, E James Hall, E Eric Moore, E C.J. Ah You, E Ian Campbell, E Kirston Pittman, T Darell Scott, T Gary Gibson, T Orien Harris, T Willie Williams, T Antwon Burton.
This will be a challenge for coaches, trying to establish good depth and have a solid rotation, especially inside. It appears the tackles will be designated left and right side, as opposed to 3-technique and nose tackle. At end, Adeyanju and Long will likely start, with Little and Hall designated pass rushers. Hall and Long might be called on to play inside in some situations. Carriker and Ryan need to take strong steps forward to improve the run defense. Injuries have slowed Carriker during his first two seasons. The biggest competition will be for backup tackle jobs. Scott, a fourth-round pick, is expected to contribute, but after that is unknown from a group of players that include Gibson, Harris, Burton and Williams.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Chris Draft, MLB James Laurinaitis, WLB Will Witherspoon. Backups -- Larry Grant, David Vobora, Quinton Culberson, Chris Chamberlain, Dominic Douglas, K.C. Asiodu.
The starting group, of course, depends on Laurinaitis being what coaches expect: A leader and tackling machine in the middle. Assuming he starts, Draft will likely move to the strong side. However, it's possible he could end up as a versatile backup for all three positions, with Grant and Vobora possibilities as the starter on the strong side. Witherspoon moves to the weak side from the middle, where he is expected to utilize his play-making ability to help the defense. Culberson and Chamberlain will also be part of strong competition for starting jobs, depending on whether it is decided to keep six or seven linebackers. Douglas, an undrafted free agent, also impressed coaches in the OTAs.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Ron Bartell, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, SS James Butler, CB Tye Hill. Backups -- CB Justin King, CB Jonathan Wade, CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Marcus Brown, CB Quincy Butler, CB Cord Parks, S Todd Johnson, S Craig Dahl, S Eric Bassey, S David Roach.
This is a very young group that nevertheless appears to be building some decent depth. Butler played for the Giants under Spagnuolo, and is expected to upgrade the run defense at strong safety. Atogwe is the ballhawk and has become adept at stripping ball carriers. Thanks to an injury to Hill, Bartell became the team's top corner last season, and remains in that role. Hill, meanwhile, is another player potentially in a make-or-break situation. He was progressing as a rookie in 2006 before injuries derailed each of the last two seasons. If Hill can regain his confidence and play like he is capable, the secondary will be better. King and Wade will be battling for the nickel job in camp. King had moved ahead of Wade last summer while a rookie before being lost for the season with a toe injury suffered in the first preseason game. Wade has the skills necessary, but has yet to prove he can be consistent. Fletcher is a rookie third-round pick with promise, who should also contribute on special teams. Depth at safety is suspect. Johnson is good on special teams, while Dahl was also with Spagnuolo in New York, but had knee issues the last two years.
SPECIALISTS: K Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey.
The best has been saved for last. Brown missed just five field goals in 36 attempts last season and was an impressive 6-of-8 from 50 yards or more. He was also excellent on kickoffs. Jones became the second punter in league history to average at least 50 yards per kick. The guy snapping to them, Massey, is as accurate as any snapper in the league. There are questions in the kick return game. Stanley could be both the kickoff and punt returner if healthy. Training camp will likely see numerous candidates trying both jobs.
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