Rams Camp Preview: Five Under-The-Radar Guys To Watch On Offense
Entering camp this week, there are so many questions regarding the St. Louis Rams that it would be impossible to list them all in this space.
I mean, when you have a starting quarterback in a make-or-break season, a receiving corps with a second-year player as its leader, a rookie starting middle linebacker, a whole new coaching staff, and are coming off a two-year stretch with a combined record of 5-27, there are some issues on your plate.
And it’s likely those questions will dominate the media coverage of the team throughout camp.
But one of the great things about camp are the other players, the under-the-radar guys who might be removed from the headlines, but will prove crucial to determining the overall success or failure of the team during the upcoming season.
Over the next few days, I’ll examine 10 of these players, five from the offense and five from the defense.
Today, we start with the offense.
TE Randy McMichael
When McMichael left the Miami Dolphins after the 2006 season, it was as a guy who had caught 60 or more passes in three straight seasons and hadn’t missed a start in his entire five-year career since being a fourth-round draft pick out of Georgia in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Of course that record of success didn’t carry over to St. Louis. In 2007, McMichael caught only 39 passes, tying his career low set as a rookie. Then last year he caught only 11 passes in four games, missing the rest with a broken tibia.
But 2009 has the potential to be the comeback year for McMichael.
New offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is installing an offense that has gotten 50 or more receptions and 600 or more receiving yards from the tight end position in five of the past six seasons.
Last season only eight guys were in the 50-600 club: Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Owen Daniels, Chris Cooley, Dallas Clark, Zach Miller, Antonio Gates, and John Carlson.
With already favorable reviews from Shurmur during minicamps and apparently no lingering issues from the leg injury, it’s quite possible McMichael gets on that list this year.
QB Kyle Boller
Since being a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, Boller has been largely a disappointment. He’s started all 16 games just once, carries a 20-22 career record (with a great defense no less) and a career 71.9 percent passer rating.
He’s been replaced as the starting QB twice (Steve McNair and Joe Flacco) and his inability to develop was one of the primary factors in the downfall of former Ravens head coach Brian Billick.
But with fragility of Rams incumbent starter Marc Bulger, Boller’s ability to fill in could well be an important story line for the 2009 Rams. It’s important that he come in, pick up the offense, and prove through the preseason that he can run the team in Bulger’s absence.
The alternative is the winner of the battle for the third quarterback spot, Brock Berlin or sixth-round pick Keith Null, and nobody wants that.
WR Laurent Robinson
Acquired from Atlanta in exchange for swapping positions in the fifth and sixth rounds of the 2009 NFL Draft, Robinson was a third-round pick by the Falcons out of Illinois State in 2007. He’s big at 6’2” and fast with a 4.38 40 time.
Robinson finished fourth in the NFL in receptions by a rookie in 2007 with 37, behind only Dwayne Bowe, Calvin Johnson, and James Jones, but then missed most of the Falcons’ 2008 revival with injuries, finishing with just five catches in six games.
Now in a position to challenge for the No. 2 WR spot opposite Donnie Avery, Robinson should certainly be in store for a career-best season, and could prove to be a major cog in the rebuilt Rams pass attack.
LG Jacob Bell
After signing as a free agent from Tennessee for $36 million prior to last season, Bell was expected to provide an immediate upgrade on the Rams offensive line.
And though you could argue Bell wasn’t the worst player on the line last year, he certainly didn’t play up to his contract in year one.
One advantage for Bell in 2009 is that he will have a much better center on his right with the off-season addition of Jason Brown from Baltimore. And depending on how things play out in camp, he might have second-overall pick Jason Smith at tackle to his left.
Another advantage for Bell is that he’s bulked back up to his Tennessee playing weight after playing at about 280 pounds last season. Now with an extra 15-20 pounds on his 6’4” frame, he should be able to better hold up at the point of attack.
If Bell doesn't step up this season, this could be his last with the Rams. Only the first two years of his contract were guaranteed, and his salary figure of $5 million in 2010 is a whole lot for a guard who spends his Sundays at the feet of his quarterback.
RB Kenneth Darby
Count me among those who think Steven Jackson is going to have a huge year in 2009. The combination of his speed, power, and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield are perfect fits for West Coast offense being installed by Shurmur.
But you can’t have an objective conversation on Jackson without noting he’s missed four games in each of the past two years.
And much like Philadelphia with the occasionally dinged-up Brian Westbrook, Shurmur needs somebody among the Rams stable of runners to step into the Correll Buckhalter role in St. Louis.
Darby is just one among the group of guys looking to fill that No. 2 role. Also competing for carries will be Antonio Pittman, Samkon Gado, and rookie Chris Ogbonnaya, selected in the seventh round out of Texas.
But Darby is my horse in this race.
Selected in the seventh round out of Alabama by Tampa Bay in the 2007 draft, Darby still has just 34 carries on his NFL resume. But he's big at 210 pounds on his 5’10” frame, and showed last year a knack for catching the ball out of the backfield with 19 in very limited playing time.
He also had very good averages per touch (4.4 yards per rush and 9.6 yards per reception), and returned seven kick-offs for 173 yards (24.7 yard average).
Granted those numbers are from a very small sample size, but Darby seems to me to be the best compliment to Jackson of the stable of backs.
Rookie Contract Updates
There isn’t any news on the remaining four unsigned Rams draft picks, but the full details on third-round pick Bradley Fletcher’s contract are now available.
An All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention at corner for Iowa in 2008, Fletcher signed a four-year, $2.642 million contract. He will have base salaries of $310,000 in 2009, $395,000 in 2010, $480,000 in 2011, and $565,000 in 2012. The deal included an $892,298 signing bonus.
Financial terms on fifth-round WR Brooks Foster’s four-year contract remain unavailable. LT Jason Smith (first round, Baylor), LB James Laurinaitis (second round, Ohio State), DT Dorell Scott (fourth round, Clemson) and QB Keith Null (sixth round, West Texas A&M) remain unsigned.