Rams preview: Battle of the backups

The Rams roster is full of holes and question marks, some of those on the starting line. The starters aren't going to see much time for either team, making Saturday's preseason opener an affair of NFL hopefuls and soon-to-be castoffs.

There is something to be said about a team using the first pick in the draft on a quarterback. Since 1970, 18 quarterbacks have been taken with the No. 1 overall pick. Some have been Hall of Famers – Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning. Others have been solid – Jim Plunkett, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning. Others have been busts – Jeff George, Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell. The one thing all of these teams had in common was that they were expecting that player to be the franchise guy and those quarterbacks came to the team with the worst record in the league.

In 2009, nobody was worse than the St. Louis Rams, marking another down moment for a franchise has just gotten progressively worse. While the Vikings improved each of the last four years (6-10, 8-8, 10-6, 12-4), the Rams have become worse (8-8, 3-13, 2-14, 1-15). In their last 48 games, the Rams have a record of 6-42 – the worst three-year stretch in the league for a non-expansion team.

Sam Bradford was drafted by the Rams to help the franchise turn the corner, but there are questions as to whether the Rams should throw him out to the wolves as the starter immediately. Bradford is going to get "some work with the ones (the starters)" Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said this week. Whether that means starting and playing one series or backing up 10-year veteran A.J. Feeley is yet to be determined. For Bradford, it may be better to be the second guy out and get most of the first half. In the second half, the Rams will be looking to get a game-time look at second-year man Keith Null, who was the No. 3 QB last year, and undrafted rookie Thaddeus Lewis of Duke.

Ideally during the regular season, much of the pressure on Bradford was be taken away by running back Steven Jackson. A workhorse like few other backs, Jackson led the NFC in rushing last year (1,416 yards in 15 games) despite playing the final month-plus with a back injury. However, he isn't likely to see much action, if any, against the Vikings. Jackson has been dinged in camp and there is no reason to burn him out in a meaningless game. The battle for the No. 2 spot is up for grabs. Kenneth Darby is the favorite in his third season, but he has missed time with a hamstring pull and is questionable for Saturday's game. As a result, Chris Ogbonnaya has become the favorite. A practice squad player until being called up to the 53-man roster in Week 12 last year, he has moved ahead of Darby on the depth chart. With fourth RB Keith Tolston slowed with a concussion, the Rams may have to lean on Ogbonnaya heavily. The competition at fullback ends with Mike Karney, one of the best old-school fullbacks in the league. Practice squader and converted tight end Eric Butler will be competing with undrafted rookie Jamie McCoy for the backup fullback spot – if there is even a second FB spot available.

Another key to taking the heat off of Bradford is his receiver corps, which has more questions than answers. Speedy Donnie Avery was the leading receiver last year for the Rams, but hasn't lived up to being the first WR taken in the 2008 draft. On the other side is former Falcon Laurent Robinson. He was in line to be the primary receiver before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 3. He is back and healthy and has the best combination of size, speed and hands of any of the receivers on the roster. Fourth-round rookie Mardy Gilyard is the favorite to win the slot receiver position but has been slowed with a wrist injury. The Vikings are going to see a slew of Rams receivers in this game. There may not be a younger group of receivers in the league with Keenan Burton (3rd year), Danny Amendola (2nd), Brandon Gibson (2nd), Jordan Kent (4th), Dominique Curry (rookie), Brooks Foster (1st) and Brandon McCrae (rookie). The tight ends have somewhat more experience (but not much) with sixth-year Billy Bajema and fourth-year pro Daniel Fells – Bajema being the better blocker of the two and Fells having the more upside as a receiver. Both of them are expected to see action in the first half, with the second half getting turned over to a pair of rookies – fifth-round pick Michael Hoomanawanui and sixth-rounder Fendi Onobun, a converted basketball player that has become the rage in the NFL.

As if there aren't enough questions at running back and wide receiver, the biggest concern is along the offensive line. The starting lineup as it stands includes rookie Rodger Saffold at left tackle, former Viking Adam Goldberg at right tackle, 10-year veteran and former Eagle Hank Fraley and seven-year pro Jacob Bell at guard, and sixth-year pro Jason Brown at center. With the exception of Saffold, the Rams have experience along the line. But they also have injury problems – significant injury problems. Goldberg has missed time with an elbow injury and Bell and Fraley have both missed significant practice time, and former top pick Jason Smith is recovering from a broken toe suffered in June. The last thing a young QB needs is a patchwork O-line and, unfortunately, that's what the Rams have. They will be shuttling backups in and out, with Phil Trautwein and Eric Young leading the way at tackle, John Greco (also banged up), Roger Allen and Ryan McKee at guard, and Drew Miller and Tim Mattran at center. This group is a mess and could be one of the main reasons the Rams have been so dismal over the last three years.

The defense isn't much better, but has considerably more experience. The Rams stayed in several games last year before fading in the second half. The defense has talent on the defensive front with former top pick Chris Long and James Hall at defensive end and former Giant and Viking Fred Robbins and Clifton Ryan at tackle. There is surprising depth with second-year man Darrell Scott getting raves in camp and fifth-year pro Gary Gibson backing up at tackles, and aggressive C.J. Ah You and Victor Adeyanju at end. The second half will be littered with rookies trying to make the team – Hall Davis, Eugene Sims and Cardia Jackson at end, and Ernest Reid and Jermelle Cudjo at tackle. Rams fans will need a program to keep things straight in the second half.

The strongest unit on the team may well be the linebackers. With James Laurinaitis in the middle, Na'il Diggs and Bobby Carpenter, the Rams return three starters from a year ago. However, Carpenter is fighting to keep his job and fend off a challenge from second-year pro Larry Grant – a teammate of Laurinaitis's at Ohio State. The preseason will answer depth questions, where David Vobora and Chris Chamberlain – both seventh round picks in 2008 – are trying to keep their spots in the middle and Domenic Douglas and rookie Josh Hull on the outside. As many as 10 rookies are going to be playing late in the game, so the Rams have a lot of questions that will need answering here.

The secondary was a mess last year for the Rams and things don't appear to have changed much. After signing a big contract to stay with the Rams, Ron Bartell underachieved last year and Kevin Dockery is fighting off a challenge from Bradley Fletcher. Due to injuries in the secondary last year, backups Quincy Butler and Justin King gained experience after being forced on the field. They will try to fight off rookies Jerome Murphy (third round) and undrafted Antoine Thompson for backup spots. At safety, Oshiomogho Atogwe is the leader of the secondary and Craig Dahl is serviceable at best. The Rams will be looking for players to push Dahl as well as look to get playing time on special teams. James Butler was signed as a free agent last year, but was a disappointment. Second-year man David Roach, former Bear Kevin Payne and rookie Darian Stewart are all trying to move up the depth chart.

The kicking game has even had problems. Josh Brown is paid big money and has lived up to his end of it despite limited scoring opportunities. He has been experiencing some muscle pain, so the team signed journeyman Shaun Suisham Thursday. He is a short-term answer, but may take the kicking duties from Brown Saturday.

While preseason games can be pretty sloppy, the one thing the first couple of games show is what kind of depth teams have. The Rams are iffy on the first line of their depth chart, much less the second or third lines. The Vikings should have a huge advantage as they essentially know who will be on their roster while the Rams have more questions than answers. Who makes it in St. Louis and who goes? Perhaps the Rams coaching staff doesn't even know.


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