Columnist Jeff Gordon
(E-mail a "Letter to Gordo")By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
08/14/2008

MEQUON, Wis. -- Rams personnel czar Billy Devaney isn’t surprised to hear that fans are freaking out over the team’s horrible preseason performance last Saturday night.

“I don’t blame people for freaking out,” Devaney said. “We were pretty ticked off, too. We were expecting more. We were disappointed the way we played. But, again, we have a lot of confidence that what Scott implemented in the offseason was carried over to training camp.

“We still feel like we have the makings of a good team. It wasn’t a good start. We have a long way to go before the opener and we feel like we’ll get there.”

Why is he optimistic? He insists the rest of training camp went just swimmingly, including those sessions in Tennessee last week. That work didn’t translate into a competent performance against the Titans.

“If it wasn’t for that, we would have had a hell of a time, a really good camp,” Devaney said. “We’ve gotten better as a team. Other than that one glitch -– that one day -– we’re not going to let that negate all the good work we accomplished up here.”

Let’s look at how the team is shaping up:


QUARTERBACK

Marc Bulger had a great practice week in Tennessee . . . and then he stunk up the field against the Titans. Brock Berlin had a tough practice week . . . and then played brilliantly in the game.

So the remaining preseason games will be interesting. Trent Green is a known commodity as the back-up, but which Bulger will we see when the season opens? And can Berlin hold off former Buccaneers starter Bruce Gradkowski and win the No. 3 job?


RUNNING BACK

With Steven Jackson holding out for a contract extension, Antonio Pittman has gotten extra repetitions as a feature back. Good for him -– but the Rams still must get the big man back ASAP or this position will be a mess.

Brian Leonard is a handy third-down back, but he isn’t built to carry the load as the blocking fullback or as the feature back. As a utility guy, he is fine. But with Jackson MIA . . .

Dan Kreider and Russ Weil are staging a spirited competition for the blocking fullback role. If Kreider’s knees cost him practice time, the Rams may go with the kid.


RECEIVERS

So far all is good at this position. Torry Holt looks fresh. Drew Bennett looks like a new man. Return specialist Dante Hall is healthy, for now. Dane Looker is having a great camp.

Keenan Burton looks like a terrific middle-round pick. The kid has fabulous hands. Speedy rookie Donnie Avery is back on the field after recovering from a hip injury, so his next few weeks will be critical.

Derek Stanley is helping his cause by chipping it at cornerback in practice. Versatility will be the tiebreaker when the coaches decide those final spots.


TIGHT ENDS

This position is solid. Randy McMichael should post more typical numbers in the Al Saunders offense. Newcomer Anthony Becht, when his balky hamstring heals, will shore up the blocking. Joe Klopfenstein seems to be progressing.


OFFENSIVE LINE

Brett Romberg’s hand injury chilled the competition at center, for now. Richie Incognito could land there if Mark Setterstrom is back to full speed by the season’s start. Jacob Bell, Roy Schuening, John Greco and improved center Nick Leckey give the team an impressive set of interior linemen . . . but the depth at tackle is suspect.

Is Adam Goldberg really viable at No. 3? He is getting raves, but it would be hard to imagine him excelling if Orlando Pace got hurt again. Over at right tackle, the Rams need Alex Barron to take a giant step forward -– and there is no real competition to push him.


DEFENSIVE LINE

Chris Long is having some growing pains as he adjusts to playing end in a 4-3 scheme. He didn’t get much done during his preseason game.

But the Rams like the group as a whole, especially now that Victor Adeyanju is back on the field with a club on his hand. The return of Leonard Little and James Hall gives the team a viable pass rush and La’Roi Glover should help young DTs Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan progress.


LINEBACKERS

With Will Witherspoon sidelined, the linebacking corps got abused in Tennessee. So questions remain.

Can Pisa Tinoisamoa stay healthy? Is Quinton Culberson really a startling-caliber linebacker? Is Tim McGarigle sturdy enough to provide depth?

Can rookies Chris Chamberlain and David Vobora provide adequate depth in addition to special teams help?

We have to believe that Devaney will keep a close watch on the waiver wire for veteran help.


CORNERBACK

Justin King’s season-ending injury was a tough blow. The rookie cornerback was being counted on for depth and special teams help.

With top corner Fakhir Brown sidelined by a shoulder injury, the group is thin. Ron Bartell can fill at cornerback, but he is also a key reserve at safety.

The Rams will need Tye Hill to fulfill his self-proclaimed destiny to become a Pro Bowl cornerback. Also, second-year cornerback Jonathan Wade will have to build on his strong camp to date. David Macklin has been OK, which is critical.

Devaney says lots of teams are shopping for cornerbacks, so he isn’t expecting to locate much help as the preseason progresses.


SAFETY

O.J. Atogwe is back on the field, which is reassuring. He ought to be a Pro Bowl candidate. But the Rams staff has a much higher opinion of cohort Corey Chavous than fans do.

Devaney raves about Todd Johnson’s work as the No. 3 safety, but he admits the fourth safety (Eric Bassey or Jerome Carter, as we speak) will essentially be a special teams guy.

Keep an eye on this position. Fans want the team to chase after yesteryear hit man John Lynch, but the former Bronco would be better suited for a team like New England.


KICKERS

Donnie Jones and Josh Brown have looked like Pro Bowlers so far, which is why the Rams spent top dollar to lock them in.


OVERVIEW: Give the team a big fat “I” for incomplete so far. As Bernie Miklasz notes elsewhere on this site, this team has to show the world (and itself) that it really will compete this year.