10 Buirning Issues for Camp ..
Burning Issues for Camp
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
Ten Burning Issues as the Rams Head to Training Camp
1. A Short Memory
At the end of a forgettable season, the Rams wanted to do nothing more than forget about the 3-13 season that was.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the season-ending loss to Arizona, quarterback Marc Bulger made it a point to emphasize his desire to put 2007 behind him as quickly as possible.
The Rams made the most of the offseason, using it as an opportunity to sweep away any thoughts of last season while still using it as motivation for 2008. The team made some major changes to the coaching staff, adding six new coaches, and re-assigning others to new positions.
A big part of this training camp will be getting the new coaches and players ingratiated with the holdovers.
“That’s part of being around each other,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said. “We have been around each other preparing for this season with OTA’s, office hours the way they are working, and guys putting in time. I think that’s another great benefit of being together with new people and new staff, you get to know each other better and spend time together. You have to have an idea of who you’re getting in the trenches with. That will be a big part of our training camp as well for sure.”
Included in the myriad offseason changes were big money additions on the offensive line, a new kicker and a pair of veteran signal callers.
With all of those moves made, the Rams are hoping that questions about 2007 can be left there and the optimism that inherently is included with a new season will take over soon after arrival in training camp.
From an outside perspective, new offensive line coach Steve Loney is doing his best to ensure that his unit is unconcerned with the past and focused on the future.
“I have nothing to draw upon,” Loney said. “As for the mindset, we tear the rearview mirrors off the car and just go ahead and move forward. I know obviously there are problems any time you are 3-13 but I guess my approach is to not think about that or compare it. We just have to do things the best we can.”
2. Keeping the Pace
There might not be a more important cog in the Rams offense than left tackle Orlando Pace. But Pace is coming off a second consecutive season ending injury, this time it was a shoulder that cost him almost an entire season after he injured it in the opening moments of the season opener against Carolina.
Pace can still perform at a Pro Bowl level when healthy but hasn’t had the opportunity to do it in a while.
The Rams opted to bring Pace along slowly in the offseason, rehabbing his shoulder in hopes he could be ready for the start of training camp. It doesn’t appear that Pace will be completely ready to go right away.
“He’ll be close, but I think we have to be a little conservative with our approach just because of what has happened,” Linehan said. “He’s in pretty good shape right now, his weight is right where we want it and it’s just a matter of when we decide. I would anticipate him (participating in practice) before we leave to go to Tennessee and if that’s not the case we will have to be patient with him. I think he’s really close and I think that if we had to play a game soon, I think he would be probably closer to being ready.”
That decision isn’t yet a done deal but no matter what, expect Pace to be brought along slowly so the team can ensure full health for him by the time the regular season starts.
When Pace is not in the picture, expect Adam Goldberg to handle the left tackle duties as the team prefers to keep Alex Barron on the right side.
3. Center of Attention Redux
For the second consecutive training camp, the Rams are expecting a heated battle in the middle of the offensive line for a starting spot at center. As it stands, the two set to duel it out are incumbent Brett Romberg and converted guard Richie Incognito.
Romberg beat out Andy McCollum for the job in 2007 but started only nine games because of recurring ankle injuries.
Incognito played in four games as the starting right guard last season but he was also limited by injuries before landing on injured reserve. Incognito started 12 games at center in 2006 and some higher ups believe that is his best position assuming he can work out the kinks on his shotgun snaps.
“We're going to have a really good battle between Romberg and Richie at the center spot,” Linehan said. “Richie hinted a little bit that he felt really comfortable at center. He played well at guard, but let's be honest: He played his best football for us at center in 2006.”
Steve Loney takes over as the offensive line coach in 2008 and has made a promise to his group that the top five linemen will play regardless of position. Of course, the way the center battle shakes out will determine what else happens along the line.
For example, should Romberg win the starting job, Incognito will be right back in the mix to battle with Mark Setterstrom for the starting right guard spot.
“I promised them that the five best players are going to start,” Loney said. “There has been some shuffling around. That whole thing was more about getting exposure to guys to different positions because when the pads come on you are going to have to make some decisions about some guys pretty quickly.”
4. Getting Offensive
After finishing the 2006 season with a flourish, the Rams’ offense became stagnant in 2007. Injuries were a major cause for the flaws but ultimately the Rams simply couldn’t get the job done.
Enter perhaps the most energetic of the additions to the offense, new coordinator Al Saunders. Saunders’ infectious enthusiasm was readily apparent during the offseason and minicamp and there’s no doubting he has his group fired up about the chance to rebound.
“Knowing what I know about Al, and knowing what he’s going to be able to do for our football team, and knowing what I have to be able to do, the adjustments I have to make and the improvements I have to make as a head coach, I welcome it,” Linehan said. “My biggest goal with this whole thing was that I was going to find somebody that had that kind of credibility and background knowledge that they could do that.”
A large portion of this training camp will involve the Rams getting to know the nuances of Saunders’ offense. The organized team activities and minicamp gave the offense a cursory look at what it will entail but knowing every facet of that offense will be one of the top goals in this camp.
“I think everyone is going to learn real quick that this offense from the stance of learning it is there are no shortcuts and there’s no easy way to learn it,” Bulger said. “You just have to do it. It’s important everyone understands how important this offseason is.”
5. Eliminating Injuries
After an avalanche of injuries buried the Rams early and often in 2007, the team took a long, hard look at why those injuries occurred and how to solve the problems.
While many of the injuries were random happenings, the Rams want to ensure that the nagging things such as ankle sprains and twists are kept to a minimum.
To that end, the Rams installed a sand pit and brought in some other specialists to condition in a way to keep those injuries down.
One difficult decision for Linehan is how to divvy up playing time in the preseason. Some pundits howled that the Rams got off to a slow start in 2007 because the starters didn’t get enough time in the preseason while others blamed the amount of injuries on the playing time.
Linehan said there will be adjustments to that end in this training camp and preseason.
“It’s a fine line and you can be ultra conservative and even last year we didn’t play many of our starters in the last preseason game, we played them a little bit more than we did last year in preseason but the last preseason game we did not play many of our starters,” Linehan said. “The year before it was the same and we stayed relatively healthy. You can look at it both ways and say, ‘Well, we did it this way twice and one year we came in pretty healthy and the other year we came in with some injuries.’ I think the way we have set up our schedule, the fact that we’re working against another team, and we’re going into the season probably playing our starters a little bit more in the first preseason game. We’re approaching it a bit different, but we still have to, with 80 players, make sure you manage those players and that you don’t over do it.”
Still, don’t expect veterans such as Torry Holt and Leonard Little to be overworked and to get plenty of down time during the camp.
“There are some no brainer kinds of guys, veterans that have been there, you know how they are going to be,” Linehan said. “The way I look at it, whatever rep they take we want it full speed and (with) great timing, get the timing down, and if for some reason you’re limiting the reps go ahead and put the next guy in there. Because our depth is much better, we are able to do that. One of the things we have struggled in is giving quality reps to the first unit. And now, I think, we have enough youth around them that you can do that and still get a lot out of them. There are still some guys that you really have to watch and manage, and we’ll do that.”
6. Camping in Concordia
After a three-year stint of camps in St. Louis, the Rams are back on the road this year, heading to Mequon, Wis. for training camp.
The Rams went through a lengthy search to find the new destination and ultimately settled on Concordia. Linehan hoped to find a place where the team could get away from any and all potential distractions and focus on football.
Mequon is about 20 minutes from Milwaukee, giving the team access to an airport and fans a chance to visit a big city in the meantime. Still, the focus will be on football and football alone for the next four weeks.
“That was primarily the idea,” Linehan said. “We are definitely looking at making some subtle changes but specific changes. I felt very, very compelled to find a site to train away from our facility. Really, what you want from camp is you want a change to heighten the whole environment. That’s what you do and when you are around each other 24/7 like that, you tend to become a little more aware of each other and get to know each other better.”
7. Contractual Obligations
With the entire draft class expected to be signed, sealed and delivered in time for the beginning of training camp, the Rams aren’t likely to have many worries when it comes to potential contract stalemates.
Unlike last training camp when the team had to wait and wonder about the looming contract status of starting quarterback Marc Bulger, the Rams aren’t likely to have to sweat out any potential holdouts.
However, there are a couple of potential issues that the Rams would like to get taken care of before camp. Running back Steven Jackson tops the list as he enters the final season of his rookie contract.
The Rams and Jackson’s representatives have had dialogue during the offseason about a long term extension. Jackson is expected to report to camp on time and be ready to go.
“I am pretty sure we will get something done,” Jackson told stlouisrams.com in May. “This is definitely where I want to be. I’m playing football. I leave that to my agent and the front office. I think I have been a good person on and off the field so I expect to be rewarded.”
The only other potential pratfall would involve free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, a restricted free agent who received a tender offer at the highest level for a one-year deal. The deadline has passed for another team to make him an offer but the Rams would also like to get Atogwe signed to a long term contract in the near future.
Nobody expects either to be an issue but don’t be surprised if one or both get something done with the team in the near future.
8. Settling the Strong Side
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams don’t have many question marks, at least in terms of who will be handling the starting duties. But there will be one interesting position battle for the first 11 to keep an eye on.
The strong side linebacker job that has been handled by Brandon Chillar for the past two years became vacant when Chillar departed for Green Bay as a free agent. Chillar’s departure has opened the door for a classic training camp competition between the wily, wise veteran and the young, talented and unproven player.
Chris Draft is the leader in the clubhouse because of his vast playing experience and leadership ability. Draft played in all 16 games in 2007, starting seven. For his career, he’s played in 127 games with 596 career tackles.
Culberson represents the battle for youth after earning a roster spot as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007. Culberson’s work was limited mostly to special teams until the season finale where he posted 14 tackles.
Ultimately, this contest will come down to performance as the Rams weigh the reliability of the veteran Draft against the potential of the youthful Culberson.
9. Catching On
After using two picks in the first four rounds to add some youth and depth to the receiving corps, the Rams could have an interesting battle on their hands in this training camp.
While second round choice Donnie Avery and fourth round pick Keenan Burton aren’t likely to be battling for a starting job (Torry Holt and Drew Bennett will handle the top two duties), there should be plenty of opportunities for one of them to potentially win the job as the team’s third wide out.
“I feel very good about those guys,” Linehan said. “I have never seen two young guys that are as hungry to be as good as they can be but also to have the talent to go with it. Both of them bring different things to the table but neither one of them does anything but eat, breathe and sleep football. That’s pretty rare.”
Burton and Avery will get most of the attention because of their youth but the battle for the No. 3 receiver spot won’t be limited to the rookies. Veterans Dane Looker, Dante Hall, Marques Hagans, Derek Stanley, Reche Caldwell and Brandon Williams all will be battling for spots on the roster.
For many years, the receiving corps has been one of the few constants on the Rams roster but this year it’s anybody’s guess which players will win out. Special teams will determine the fate of many of the wide outs but there is plenty of wiggle room for someone to make enough of an impression to win a job and work his way on to the field.
“I am looking forward to seeing how the young receivers that we drafted are going to compete with the veterans,” Linehan said.
The Rams will likely keep six wide receivers, the only question is which four will fit in behind Holt and Bennett and where will they land when all is said and done.
10. Immediate Impact
Since the Rams moved to St. Louis, there has been nary a draft pick coming to the team with as many expectations as defensive end Chris Long. Of course, that comes with the territory of being the second overall pick in the NFL Draft.
The always humble Long has no problems embracing those expectations. After signing Long to a long term contract late last week, the Rams believe Long can be an impact player from the day he sets foot on the field in Mequon.
“Our expectations are high with Chris and starting and all those things and he has to from the get go be in all those meetings it was important to him,’ Linehan said.
For his part, Long has already made a positive impression on veteran teammates and wasted no time picking the brains of the likes of Leonard Little and La’Roi Glover during the offseason time he was in St. Louis.
Long hopes that by the time he is through with training camp, the adjustment to the highest level of football competition will be complete.
“You see guys in college that are as good as the guys at this level, just more rarely,” Long said. “It’s just now you see these guys frequently, every play. Every play you see the best guy that you go against during the season. So you just have to be ready, never let your guard down. If that’s the way you play football, then you’ll be fine.”
Re: 10 Buirning Issues for Camp ..
I think staying healthy is the main piece of the puzzle, the talent is there,the coaching staff is in place,its just a matter of guys staying on the field.