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Thread: 10 Burning Training Camp Issues
10 Burning Training Camp Issues
10 Burning Training Camp Issues
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
Ten Burning Issues Facing the Rams in the 2009 Training Camp
1. Camp Spagnuolo
It’s been a wild offseason for Steve Spagnuolo. After the Rams named him head coach, he put together a staff, dived into free agency and the draft and conducted an offseason program.
For as much as he might have learned about his team during OTAs and the minicamps, Spagnuolo is about to get a real, up close look at what he’s working with.
“It’s tough to really get an idea on the team and its talent until you are in a situation where you’re around them,” Spagnuolo said. “And we’ve done that, we just haven’t put the pads on yet.”
That time is coming. Before Spagnuolo parted ways with the team at the end of the offseason program, he warned them about what was ahead in training camp.
While many teams around the league have switched to a two-one-two schedule for practices during camp, Spagnuolo is going heavy on the two-a-days. In fact, he has scheduled 14 days in which the team will practice and/or scrimmage a pair of times in the same day.
For the most part, the morning practices are expected to handle the bulk of the padded work with some of the afternoon sessions modified as camp goes along.
Spagnuolo plays it coy when asked specifics about how hard his camp is going to be but a look at the schedule combined with the tempo he set during OTAs and minicamps should make for a lot of hard work for the Rams.
“Our practices from the spring were up-tempo and we are going to try to maintain that, we believe in that,” Spagnuolo said. “But I do think there is going to have to be some live, physical play in order for us to assess the talent we have and make the right decisions. And again, from a coaching standpoint, there is a lot we don’t know about our football team and a lot that the players don’t know about our coaching staff.”
Spagnuolo was a pretty omnipresent force during the offseason program as well, bouncing from one position grouping to the next with no bias.
Still, it remains to be seen how the first camp under Spagnuolo will run and it’s worth watching to see how the players respond to his demands.
2. System Launch
Perhaps the biggest transition for the players when a new coach comes in is getting used to and understanding the intricacies of the new systems being put in place by a new coaching staff.
That process began during the offseason program but it’s imperative that the players stay in their playbooks when they go their separate ways. It won’t be difficult to see who has been staying informed during the down time right away.
“I would say the bulk of it is in there,” Spagnuolo said. “I wouldn’t put a number on it but as we get closer to games we will put specific plays in.”
By now, the players should have a good handle on the system and if they don’t they will have a lot of work to do between now and the start of the season. Training camp is the first opportunity to run those plays with pads on and if anyone is behind, they could get left in the dust.
It will be interesting to watch quarterback Marc Bulger, especially. Bulger has had a lot of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches and this is his first time in a West Coast style of offense.
3. On the Receiving End
Once a position of the utmost stability in St. Louis, the Rams enter the 2009 season facing plenty of questions about what players will form the heart of the receiving corps.
At the top of the list is emerging second-year burner Donnie Avery, who is almost certain to be the top option in the passing game. But beyond Avery, there is plenty of competition not only for roster spots but also for positioning on the depth chart.
“They are all battling with each other and that’s how I see it at all the positions,” Spagnuolo said. “I don’t think that it is any different at wide receiver.”
Behind Avery, the Rams have Keenan Burton, Laurent Robinson, Ronald Curry, Brooks Foster, Derek Stanley, Tim Carter, Jarrett Byers, Travis Brown, Nate Jones and Sean Walker vying for opportunities.
Burton is the favorite to land opposite Avery but has dealt with injury issues and is certain to be pushed by the more experienced Curry and Robinson.
One underrated factor that will almost certainly come into play when the Rams choose their receivers is return ability. Stanley is the incumbent but is coming off major knee surgery and will need some time to get back to full speed.
The players making the most consistent plays and those who show skill in the return game figure to get the longest looks from the coaching staff.
4. An Eye on the Injuries
For the better part of the past two seasons, the Rams have dealt with crippling injuries to numerous to count in this space. Last year, the team was hit hard once again and found itself in the position of again signing street free agents and playing them.
As they enter this year’s camp, the Rams are relatively healthy. Stanley will be limited some in the opening days but he is expected to participate sooner than later. Burton’s availability won’t be known until he arrives as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
Aside from that, the Rams should have their full complement of players in this year’s camp working at full speed.
With the grueling practice schedule ahead, it’s reasonable to expect some injuries to happen but there is a strong belief that the new strength and conditioning staff and program will go a long way in limiting some of the soft tissue things that crop up during camp.
“Well you’re always concerned about injuries and you’re always balancing that as a head coach,” Spagnuolo said. “How much do you hit, or how much do you go live? And then try and weigh out if you are going to get hurt by that. I know one thing, that when you get in-season it’s hard to have guys banging around then, and to think that players can get ready with Four live preseason games, I don’t think you can do it like that, so there has got to be some in there.”
5. Home Again
After a one-year stint in Mequon, Wis., the Rams have returned to the Russell Training Center in St. Louis to have camp at home again. There was some thought given to finding a location off-site but in the area.
In the end, the Rams returned home and have made their training camp one of the most fan-friendly in the league. There will be 32 open practices through the course of camp, giving fans a great opportunity to connect with the many new faces in the organization.
Staying at home will certainly have its benefits. For instance, the Rams already know their way around the fields at the Russell Training Center. In addition, the organization installed an Astroturf field to give the team a surface that will keep some wear and tear off the grass for in-season practices.
“There is a comfort level like with the equipment,” Spagnuolo said. “Everyone knows how to get around. At a university, there are more logistics involved. Hopefully we’ll pick up where we left off in the spring.”
The players will all stay at a local hotel regardless of experience or preference. The object is to continue building on the team theme that Spagnuolo has pushed from the day he arrived in St. Louis.
“We’ll talk about team chemistry and bonding,” Spagnuolo said. “It is all about team. The more you get to know each other, let’s face it, the closer you get to each other and the closer you can be. I think when push comes to shove and those hit those situations during the game where you’re going to lay it on the line for your buddy I do think it goes a long way.”
6. Settling the Strong Side
Aside from the roster battles going on at wide receiver, the only other position that seems to be completely wide open (though there’s competition just about everywhere) is the strong side linebacker spot.
All indications point to Will Witherspoon handling the weak side with rookie James Laurinaitis stepping into the middle.
That means for the second consecutive training camp, it appears the Rams will have a major competition for a starting job on the linebacker corps.
The candidates include veteran Chris Draft and a group of talented but raw youngsters such as Larry Grant, David Vobora and Quinton Culberson.
Culberson and Draft have played the position in the recent past but Grant and Vobora got some long looks during the offseason program.
It’s a hard race to handicap though Draft’s experience would seem to give him a slight edge. Still, it figures to be a hard fought contest that will last well into camp.
7. Contractual Obligations
For the past two seasons, the Rams have entered training camp with a cornerstone player in precarious contractual position.
Two years ago it was quarterback Marc Bulger who missed a practice before signing a lucrative long-term contract.
Last year it was running back Steven Jackson who held out for the entire Mequon portion of training camp before he finally signed a long term contract of his own.
This year, there will be no such problems with any of the Rams veterans. In fact, free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was the only holdout candidate after the team placed the franchise tag on him.
But Atogwe took the tag in stride unlike most players and signed his one-year tender offer with nary a complaint after he participated in the entire offseason program.
All that leaves is the rookie class and Rams management is confident all players will be signed and reported in time for the first full-squad practice on Friday. Spagnuolo is not concerned with any of that at this point.
“No, it’s the NFL,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s about the way that it happens.”
8. Second-Year Jump
One year ago, the Rams had an exciting rookie class of which much was expected. The likes of defensive end Chris Long and receiver Donnie Avery came with impressive credentials and plenty of potential.
The rest of the draft class appeared impressive as well. By the time the year was over, the Rams had received contributions from Long, Avery, Keenan Burton, John Greco, David Vobora and Chris Chamberlain.
Even cornerback Justin King showed promise before a season-ending injury in training camp and guard Roy Schuening had some saying he could eventually be a factor on the team’s offensive line.
The old NFL belief is that the biggest jump a player makes is between years on and two. If the Rams are to make a jump in terms of wins and losses in 2009, they will need plenty of players to make that kind of leap into good NFL players.
From last year’s draft class alone, the Rams could have as many as four starters. In other words, guys like Long, Avery and Burton need to make the anticipated improvement in order for the Rams to improve this year.
9. Youth is Served
The expected production from second-year players isn’t all the Rams will be looking for from young players. In fact, as the Rams enter this training camp, they are the fourth-youngest team in the NFL.
At an average age of 25.6 years old, the Rams went from one of the older teams in the league to one of its youngest in one offseason. At the end of the 2008 season, the Rams were the third oldest team in the league with an average age of 27.9 years old.
There’s no denying the Rams made a conscious effort to get young, fresh legs on the roster but now they need some of that young talent to emerge and make a difference in 2009.
If nothing else, this training camp will provide a golden opportunity for youth to shine.
10. Locating the Leaders
For the past 13 years, at least five teams have made the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous year.
The Rams would like to be one of those five teams in 2009 and among the many things that need to be sorted out for that to happen is the on going quest to figure out who the team leaders will be.
In the past few years, the Rams have waved goodbye to veterans such as Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Isaac Bruce and Corey Chavous. All brought a certain level of leadership.
After an offseason of sweeping change, some of those leadership roles are there for the taking.
Players like Steven Jackson, Will Witherspoon and Jason Brown have showed willingness to lead but there’s no better time than training camp to sort it out.
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