Wednesday, July 26, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

1. Linehan’s the Man

New head coach Scott Linehan has been in the NFL long enough to know how training camp works, but this is his first crack at running his own show. With him, he has brought the experience of working under Nick Saban in Miami and the training regimen taught to him by Saban.

Linehan’s arrival has coincided with a new attitude and enthusiasm at Rams Park. That has been good for the morale of the team and the organization has a whole. Now, it’s a matter of putting the offseason work and reorganization to the best possible use on the football field.

As part of that reshuffling, Linehan will find his niche as a head coach and adjust to watching all areas of the team as opposed to the offense. With three mini-camps under his belt, Linehan got a taste of it, but now is the time where he can really make his presence felt.

“This is where we find out about our football team,” Linehan said. “We are done with the mental side, the conditioning, now we have to find out how good we can play the game.”

2. Getting Defensive

There was no area on the Rams more in need of some changes than the defense after that unit finished near the bottom in most important categories. With that in mind, the team went out and did its best to improve the defense by spending big money on the likes of linebacker Will Witherspoon and defensive tackle La’Roi Glover.

Perhaps as important was the addition of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who brings a fiery attitude to a stagnant group. There are plenty of open positions for on defense, meaning there will be some heated battles during camp.

“I think what’s going to be interesting is what happens on the defensive side of the ball because of the competition we have in the secondary, the depth we have at linebacker and we have brought some guys that will push the veterans on the defensive line,” Linehan said. “We have created a very competitive environment on defense. That’s going to be fun watching the defensive side of the ball, especially the secondary.”

3. Secondary the First Priority

Speaking of competition on defense, the defensive backfield figures to have perhaps the most heated competition of training camp. Of the four available positions, it seems only strong safety Corey Chavous has a spot locked down. That means there are three potential starting spots available in the secondary, not to mention competition for the remaining roster spots in the secondary.

Heading into camp, the Rams have Travis Fisher, Jerametrius Butler, Tye Hill, Fakhir Brown, Ron Bartell, DeJuan Groce and Dwight Anderson as cornerbacks with experience vying for jobs. Add to that the fact that Oshiomogho Atogwe, Dwaine Carpenter, Jerome Carter and Bartell could be mixing it up for the free safety spot and there should be some heated battles all through camp.

4. The Tight End Youth Movement

The competition in the secondary isn’t going to be the only hotly contested spot during training camp. There are a number of places on offense where battles will be waged on a daily basis.

There probably won’t be a more interesting contest to watch than the one set to develop at tight end. The Rams traded incumbent Brandon Manumaleuna on the second day of the draft after selecting Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd on the first day.

“I think offensively the one that sticks out to me is the tight end spot,” Linehan said. “We’re young there – scary young – but youth is a good thing. We went into the draft knowing we were going with the youth movement at that position and the only way to go about that is to just do it. If you’re going to draft two guys, you’re going to want to play them and get them on the field and just go through the growing pains with them; they’re talented guys.”

Klopfenstein and Byrd are signed and in camp on time, meaning neither will have a distinct advantage for the starting position. There are others on the roster fighting for the spot, though. Jerome Collins, Alex Holmes, Rod Trafford and Aaron Walker also figure into the mix. Holmes and Collins, particularly, will be given every opportunity to win roster spots. The ability to play special teams should also figure into the final decision.

“We’ve got some guys here who have played some that will be pushing for the roster spots,” Linehan said. “There are only so many spots at tight end once you go to your 53 man roster, so they’re really fighting for three spots and maybe one practice squad position. We’ve got two guys that were drafted and some guys that are currently here, plus we brought in a guy who played last year as a rookie for Miami

5. Changing of the Guard

Veteran Adam Timmerman and young Claude Terrell return to the Rams this year after finishing the season as the starters at guard. But Linehan has made it clear that nothing will be given to anyone, especially on the interior of the offensive line.

The offseason program gave the new coaching staff a closer look at some of the young talent on the offensive line, especially at guard. Richie Incognito made enough of an impression to spend time with the first unit and said he expects to be working with that unit during camp in hopes of winning the starting left guard job from Terrell. Timmerman, center Andy McCollum, and Terrell are gearing up for any challenge.

Aside from Incognito, the Rams also have Ben Noll, Todd Steussie, rookies Tony Palmer and Mark Setterstrom and Larry Turner among others with potential to earn roster spots. Setterstrom was impressive in the minicamp and could make some noise in camp.

“I think the interior of our offensive line will be a battle,” Linehan said. “We’ve got some guys who are in the latter parts of their careers in Andy [McCollum] and Adam [Timmerman]. We’re certainly glad to have them here, but at the same time we know that these young guys are out here for a reason and they’re going to be pushing for a starting role. So everyone knows they’re going to have to keep pushing at a high level to keep their starting spot. I don’t foresee anything unusual happening, but if someone comes in and really plays well you reward their good performance by moving them up the depth chart.”

6. Two-a-day Every Other Day

For the first time in the recent history of the Rams, there won’t be scheduled two-a-day practices in succession. Last year at times the team would have two practices every day or so with some days of one practice and a special teams workout mixed in. With Linehan taking over, that plan has changed.

Linehan and the Rams have adopted a two-a-day every other day plan with a morning practice and an evening practice on the days with two workouts and an afternoon practice on the days with one practice.

That will take some getting used to for the players, but ultimately it should keep them happy and, more important, healthy.

“It gives us more time to prepare and the players much more time to recover,” Linehan said. “I think it’s really good for the players who have things they have to manage as far as a nagging problem or an older player has a history of a nagging problem as far as getting through camp and staying healthy.”

7. Happy Returns

One area that has caused heartache for Rams fans and coaches in the past few years has been special teams, particularly the return game. Shaun McDonald has struggled to find consistency as a punt returner and the team has gone through a plethora of players at the kick returner spot. With that in mind, the Rams took steps to solve that problem in the offseason. They brought in Brad Pyatt in free agency and Marques Hagans through the draft in an attempt to find a spark in the return game.

“When you get into the special teams area it’s one that probably hasn’t been talked about much, but what’s probably the biggest unknown for us is who’s going to return for this team,” Linehan said.

McDonald’s struggles left the door open for a number of competitors to win the job. Hagans was drafted for the express purpose of competing with McDonald and the Rams have other options on the roster already in cornerback DeJuan Groce and receiver Dane Looker.

“We’ve really put out a challenge to Shaun McDonald as a punt returner,” Linehan said. “We drafted Hagans to compete with Shaun, so there will be hot competition there. It doesn’t mean he has the job, but there are some guys in the mix.”

The kickoff return job has been even more of a conundrum in the past few years. The likes of Arlen Harris, Chris Johnson, Aveion Cason, Terry Fair and David Allen worked in the spot a year ago, but none are on the roster this season.

During the minicamp, receiver Kevin Curtis took repetitions at the spot and presents an intriguing and fast option for the position.

“Kevin Curtis has never been a kickoff returner,” Linehan said.. “The guy certainly has the ability and speed to be successful, I just don’t think that in the past a third or fourth receiver has really been called on to contribute on special teams here. I think if you’re a backup, or considered a backup, you’ve got have the ability to impact your team in more ways than one and I think special teams is a great place to start. That will be interesting to see what happens.”

8. Who’s No. 2?

The recent loss of running back Marshall Faulk to knee surgery has left the Rams a little thin at the position, meaning the team is forced to search for a No. 2 running back. There are some options being explored in the trade and free agent markets, but nothing has been done yet.

As the start of camp closes in, that leaves five running backs on the roster to compete for the three spots. Clearly, Steven Jackson is the starter, but there are other spots to be won. Tony Fisher was brought in as a third-down back and special teams specialist, but with the loss of Faulk, more could be expected.

Of course, the loss of Faulk leaves plenty of opportunity for some of the younger talent on the roster to make an impression. Undrafted rookies John David Washington and Antoine Bagwell join NFL Europe exemption Fred Russell as potential surprises.

“It’s easy to say we need more depth at running back,” Linehan said. “Unfortunately with the timing of this, you know there’s never a good time to lose maybe one of the greatest players in the history of the game. The unfortunate part is that this time of the year it’s hard to find a number two running back. Everybody else needs a number two running back, too. I’d be surprised if there was a legitimate number two out there, but I think there’s a guy that might be able to fill that role or give us two threes to give us more depth, somebody that’s played, I think that’s pretty important at this point.”

9. Who’s No. 3?

In a less pressing, but still important battle, keep an eye out for the burgeoning competition for the third quarterback spot. The Rams head into camp with four quarterbacks on the roster after releasing Jeff Smoker on July 25. It’s almost certain that Marc Bulger will hold down the starting job while Gus Frerotte will be his backup. That leaves one roster spot for Ryan Fitzpatrick or recently-acquired Dave Ragone.

Fitzpatrick is more experienced and got a large amount of reps as a rookie a year ago. Ragone also has some experience and is familiar with Linehan from their time together at Louisville.

It’s always a preseason priority to keep the top quarterbacks healthy, meaning there should be plenty of reps available to Fitzpatrick and Ragone. The player that performs the best when given the opportunity will likely emerge with the job.

10. Punting Progress

One training camp battle that might be easily overlooked is the punter spot. After the failed experiment with rookie Reggie Hodges a year ago, the Rams brought in veteran Matt Turk this year after he spent last season in Washington.

But expect Turk to be pushed by Andy Groom, a first-year punter who spent the 2005 preseason in Washington. Groom signed with the Rams during minicamp and showed a powerful leg with good accuracy. Turk also kicked well during the minicamps, but the battle for the punting job could last well into the preseason.