Day 1 draft picks shine in exhibition
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
On the first night of the Rams' exhibition season, the "first day" of the team's 2007 draft shone brightly.
First-round pick Adam Carriker, second-rounder Brian Leonard and third-rounder Jonathan Wade all were selected on Day 1 of the two-day NFL draft, and all had their moments in Friday's 13-10 preseason victory over Minnesota.
"The top three (picks) really were highlights for me personally in evaluating our team," coach Scott Linehan said Saturday.
Carriker started at defensive tackle and held his own in the first quarter against Matt Birk, the Vikings' Pro Bowl center. "He actually graded out higher as a nose than he did as a '3-technique'," Linehan said. "You would think maybe differently. But I thought he did a great job."
Of the 24 plays Carriker participated in Friday, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett estimated that about two-thirds were at nose tackle — which involves more of the grunt work taking on blockers than the 3-technique spot, which is more of a playmaking position.
At running back, Leonard led all ballcarriers with 36 yards on nine carries, including a 10-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. Leonard also had a game-high five receptions — good for 30 yards — and held up well on pass protection.
"With Brian, we couldn't have scripted it better," Linehan said. "We wanted to see him run the ball. We wanted to see him catch it. We wanted to see him protect. It was a good start."
Wade was in for only eight plays at defensive back before leaving because of a blow to the head. But while he was in, Wade displayed sure tackling form, was solid in coverage, and registered a quarterback hit on a blitz. In short, Wade is looking less like a raw prospect and more like a potential contributor in '07.
"He's a guy that's got a lot of upside," Haslett said.
As they analyzed the team's first exposure to outside competition, Linehan, Haslett and offensive coordinator Greg Olson all came away with generally favorably impressions. But all saw areas that needed work as well.
On offense, starting center Brett Romberg did a nice job against the Vikings' standout defensive tackle, Pat Williams. In a mild surprise, Romberg started ahead of veteran Andy McCollum. But Linehan said McCollum would start Game 2 of the exhibition season Saturday against San Diego and said it was too early to name a frontrunner for the starting job.
The second-team offensive line drew praise for its work against Minnesota, with McCollum at center, Claude Terrell and Milford Brown at guard, and Todd Steussie and Adam Goldberg at tackle. With Gus Frerotte at quarterback, the No. 2 line did the blocking on the Rams' only TD drive of the night.
"That second offensive line has shown that we've got a lot better depth in our front," Linehan said. "I thought they blocked very well."
One of the three interceptions thrown by Rams quarterbacks Friday came on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, and is easily dismissed. But Marc Bulger's interception came on a tipped pass when he didn't see a Minnesota linebacker.
"He was scrambling, and it kind of blocked his vision," Linehan said. "But still, it was an error that we'd like not to have."
Ryan Fitzpatrick's interception, which was returned for the Vikings' only TD, came when tight end Dominique Byrd failed to recognize a blitz and didn't break off his route. But Linehan said Fitzpatrick compounded Byrd's mistake by throwing the ball in his direction.
"It was just poor execution of a blitz that we take pride in handling," Linehan said. "It cost us points going in our direction, and gave them seven points. And we can't have that."
Defensively, the Rams got strong play by young linebackers Jon Alston and Quinton Culberson. Cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Lenny Walls had a couple of tough moments in coverage, but the Vikings' offense managed only three points and 215 yards.
"I liked our enthusiasm," Haslett said. "I liked the way we hustled. There weren't a lot of mental mistakes. So from that standpoint, I thought it was very good. We did a lot of good things; we did things we can get better at. Typical preseason game."
On special teams, the coverage units were particularly good. Punters Donnie Jones and Fred Capshaw performed well. Even with Dante Hall sitting out with a sore hamstring, the return game showed signs of life. And of course, rookie free agent Kevin Lovell booted a pair of field goals, including the game winner as time expired. The downside for special teams was penalties, particularly on kickoff coverage and the field-goal unit.