By Jim Thomas

Corner? Or safety? That was the great debate on Ron Bartell coming out of college 15 months ago. It's a question yet to be answered as he enters his second season with the Rams.

After a year of playing corner for coach Mike Martz and defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, Bartell has been shifted to free safety under new coach Scott Linehan and coordinator Jim Haslett.

"He's been doing a good job," Linehan said last week. "It's not an easy transition. You can ask Corey Chavous that."

Chavous didn't make the switch from cornerback to safety until midway through his fifth NFL season "" in 2002.

"He was a veteran," Linehan said. "Where Ronnie, he's still pretty green. But he's very willing. He's one of those guys that's really learning how to work, and he's really grasping everything. It just takes more than one training camp to totally get it. But he's getting there."

Well, at least he was getting there until Thursday. That's when Bartell suffered a sprained left ankle, which kept him out of two practices Friday as well as Saturday's scrimmage.

"I was covering Dane (Looker) and stepped on the back of his foot," Bartell said. "Just a freak accident."

The team didn't practice Sunday, and Bartell was back on the practice field Monday morning.

"It's not 100 percent yet," Bartell said. "I made it through half the practice pretty good. Towards the end, the pain started coming back a lot."

Bartell knows he can't afford to miss much playing time _ not when he's running third-string at free safety behind starter Oshiomogho Atogwe and No. 2 Dwaine Carpenter.

"I'm playing a new position, so I definitely want to be able to get back on the field," Bartell said. "Hopefully, by Thursday I'll be able to play at least close to 100 percent, and go out there and show what I can do at safety."

The Rams open exhibition play Thursday at home against Indianapolis.

Bartell was the 50th player chosen overall in the 2005 draft. As a second-round draft pick, that brought him a signing bonus of just under $1.5 million. With that kind of investment, the third team is nowhere to be, but Bartell figured there would be a learning curve at safety.

As for corner, the addition of Tye Hill in the draft and Fakhir Brown via free agency helped create a logjam. Holdovers Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher are healthy. And there's DeJuan Groce, who started 15 games last season because of injuries to Butler and Fisher.

Those injuries also opened the door for Bartell, who started the final seven games of last season, recording 36 tackles, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Although very raw, Bartell improved noticeably over the second half of the season. He displayed the speed to stay with receivers on deep routes, but had trouble with routes such as crossing patterns that called for quick changes of direction.

In May, before the start of the lighter practices known as OTAs, Bartell was asked to consider switching to free safety. By Bartell's estimation, he played about 60 percent of the time at safety and 40 percent of the time at corner during OTAs and minicamps.

After further discussion and evaluation, the coaching staff decided to make him a full-time safety entering training camp.

"I made no bones about it," Bartell said. "They asked me if I would mind. I didn't mind at all. I'm all about winning. My time will come.

"I still think I can play corner. But I'm fighting against a lot of veteran guys (at corner) that have played in the league and done well over the years. Even though they've had a couple injuries the past couple years, they're still good players despite what people may think."

During the monthlong break between the end of OTAs and the start of training camp, Bartell took his playbook home to study the new position. He watched a lot of film of free safeties throughout the NFL.

He also added about eight pounds, getting his weight up to 208 on his 6-foot-1 frame.

"I can't be 195 pounds tackling Steven Jackson every day," Bartell explained.

It's not as if Bartell is totally new to the position. He played both free and strong safety in college, most recently as a junior at Division I-AA Howard.

"I think (safety) gives me a chance to show my athleticism a lot more," Bartell said.

He has been getting plenty of pointers from Chavous, a nine-year vet, and even from second-year safeties Atogwe and Jerome Carter.

"I'm still learning the nuances of the position," Bartell said. "The small things. ... The run reads. The pass reads. Pattern recognition. Even in terms of technique, making sure I'm scanning the field, and not paying attention to the quarterback all the time.

"At corner, you just listen for the coverage call, line up on your side, and cover your man. At free safety, you've got to know what everybody does between the D-line and linebackers. So that's the biggest adjustment."