ESPN Scouts Inc: Rams Team Summary
Training camps start late this year, with the first rookies not due to report until July 27. But Insider will keep the NFL fires burning all month with complete training camp previews of each team. Scouts, Inc., has sized up every roster and checks in with position-by-position breakdowns.
In terms of overall talent of the unit, the Rams are clearly not as deep with Marc Bulger and newcomer Chris Chandler than they were with Bulger and Kurt Warner. However, with coach Mike Martz and the Rams' organization finally putting an end to its quarterback soap opera, the team as a whole is much better off.
This is finally Bulger's team, and often times that confidence of knowing that you don't have to look over your shoulder every time you make a mistake can be invaluable for a quarterback. Bulger has proved that he can be effective as a starter. He is still young and has the upside to develop into an even better player with more experience in the future. However, in order for Bulger to take his game to the next level he must cut down on his mistakes, force fewer passes if his primary target is not open, and become more consistent with his deep ball. For as many good things as he did in '03, throwing as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns is unacceptable. That type of carelessness with the football will prevent the Rams from making a serious run at another Super Bowl, which is why so much time and effort in the offseason and preseason is being spent on building Bulger's confidence and working with him to limit his mistakes.
Chandler will be 38 years old in October and is nearing the end of his string quickly. He obviously has great starting experience and has proved in the last couple of seasons that he can step in for the short term and move an offense. He also is intelligent and has a history of picking things up quickly, so he should be ready to run the offense this season if needed.
However, his skills are on a heavy decline and, as a result of his age and durability problems, he no longer can be trusted as a multiple game starter if necessitated by injury. Chandler was signed to be Bulger's backup in '04, but the Rams need to make sure they find a replacement for Chandler -- whether it's rookie Jeff Smoker or another veteran addition -- in '05, because Chandler is just a decent backup at this point and he's on a steep decline.
Smoker, who slipped on draft day because of a substance-abuse problem in college, was a great find for coach Mike Martz that late in the draft. Smoker has dealt with his problems and showed a lot of courage by returning to his team and re-assuming the leadership role. He has the physical tools of a third-round quarterback and could wind up becoming Bulger's backup by '05.
Marshall Faulk is still one of the elite weapons at the position when he is fully healthy, but he is aging and the wear and tear of 10 NFL seasons has begun to take a serious toll on his body. He turned 31 in February and has had two knee surgeries in the last year.
The Rams drafted Steven Jackson in the first round not only to help spell Faulk as a short-yardage and goal-line runner, but also to take over for him in the near future as the full-time starter. If the team can find a way to keep Faulk healthy by spelling him more with Jackson, it could help to extend his career. Either way, Faulk is clearly on the decline and might only have two seasons left as a premier NFL back.
Jackson is a workhorse who never has had a major injury despite rushing for more than 3,600 yards in college. Jackson is not as fast, elusive or explosive as Faulk, but he is bigger and more powerful as an inside runner. Jackson is also a versatile back with the potential to do it all in this offense once he develops.
He emerged as one of the most complete and dominating backs in college football last season with 1,545 rushing yards on 350 carries with 19 rushing touchdowns. He also had 44 receptions for 470 yards and three receiving touchdowns. Jackson was not only drafted as a long-term replacement, but he also has a chance to play a more significant role than most think as a rookie. If Jackson proves to be up to the challenge, the Rams will likely use a lot more two-back sets with Faulk and Jackson on the field at the same time.
While Lamar Gordon has not lived up to expectations early on, we still think he has more upside than he is being given credit for. For starters, he was a raw prospect from a small school coming out of college. He needed more time to develop and he made great strides between his rookie and sophomore season in '03. He does need to prove he can stay healthy and, in our opinion, the Rams made a mistake by drafting him because he's not a great fit in their offense due to his poor skills in the passing game.
However, with another season or two of experience as a reserve, he could develop into a fine backup for Jackson in St. Louis or even could leave via free agency and push for a starting job on a team with more of a traditional power running game and offensive scheme.
Arlen Harris, who exceeded expectations as an undrafted rookie free agent last season, will become the swingman in the backfield and technically will be moved to a backup fullback role behind Joey Goodspeed. Harris not only handled a considerable load at running back, but he also did a fine job as a full-time kickoff return specialist and occasional punt return man.
While Harris should never be more than a reserve in the NFL, he certainly provides value as an economic utility-type player who can handle some carries, contribute in the passing game as a running back or fullback, hold his own as a starting kick returner and fill in if necessary as a punt returner. Harris clearly was a great find as an undrafted rookie in '03 and he should remain on the roster for several years as a versatile reserve.
Goodspeed is no James Hodgins, but he showed significant improvements as a blocker in '03 from what we saw of him early in his NFL career. He obviously will never have a big role in the Rams' typically wide-open offense, but he does a fine job as a situational blocker and also proved to be a solid special teams contributor in '03.
Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce make up one of the NFL's finest receiving tandems. They have 10 1,000-yard seasons between them and were on pace for an 11th before Bruce suffered an ankle injury that slowed him late last season.
Holt has clearly developed into the primary target in the passing game. He has averaged 92.8 receptions the last four seasons and had a career-high 117 receptions in '03. Holt doesn't have great size, isn't the most explosive receiver after the catch, and his effort as a blocker is inconsistent. However, he ranks among the elite receivers in every other facet of the game. His production has been on the rise the past three seasons. At 28, he is in the prime of his career and, through our evaluation process, he currently grades out as one of the top-three players in the league at his position.
Bruce, on the other hand, is no longer as explosive as he once was. There are some minor durability concerns and he clearly is on the downside of his career at 31. However, he is still in fantastic shape and remains very much a solid starter. He is a terrific complement to Holt and, what Bruce has lost in speed, he clearly is making up for with savvy, experience and knowledge of the system.
When Martz's offense was at its best was when Holt and Bruce had two other legitimate weapons (Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl) working out of the slot with them. By spreading defenses out, the four receivers were able to work against more one-on-one man-to-man matchups, or had more room to operate against zone coverage. Dane Looker and Mike Furrey have played as well as could be imagined as sub-package receivers, but they do not provide the same mismatches that Hakim and Proehl once did. If this offense is going to return to its old explosive form in '04, one of the big keys will be the development of second-year receivers Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
McDonald has the quickness, toughness, speed and hands to become a real weapon as a slot receiver in the Rams' spread offense. He struggled with some injuries and was not ready as a rookie, but we expect him to make big strides as a sophomore. While McDonald is further along at this point and is actually a better fit as a No. 3 slot receiver in this offense, Curtis' long-term upside is higher. Curtis has adequate size but great speed. He flashed a lot of potential in his rookie training camp and could have a breakout season as a sub-package vertical receiver who can stretch defenses out a lot better than McDonald can.
If everything works out right, Curtis and McDonald should take over as slot receivers in the three- and-four receiver sets this season, with Curtis eventually taking over as Bruce's replacement opposite Holt and McDonald settling in as a diminutive but quick slot receiver for years to come.
Looker is basically an overachieving possession receiver who takes advantage of the situation he is in, but would be unable to create on his own if he didn't have such favorable working conditions. He does give a great effort and his work ethic is laudable. He also has very good hands and is reliable in the short-to-intermediate zone. However, Looker is not going to get much better and is never going to be a great weapon as a slot receiver. In our opinion, he's a stop-gap solution who won't be in the league much longer than the next two seasons.
Furrey saw his first regular-season game experience with the Rams in '03 and finished with 20 receptions in 13 games played as a No. 3 and No. 4 receiver. He made the most of his opportunities in '03 and showed some upside in the meantime. He has good speed and shows some big-play potential in the vertical passing game. However, he has had trouble staying healthy, his route running skills are still below average, and he still drops too many catchable passes. He still has enough upside and works hard enough to be considered a solid No. 4 or No. 5 developmental WR with a lot of NFL teams, but he could have a difficult time making the Rams' regular-season roster in '04 unless they elect to keep six receivers.
The tight end position was a weakness last season and not much has changed since. Rather than overhauling the group and spending a lot of money on a position that isn't necessarily a huge part of this offense, the Rams are likely to simply use starter Brandon Manumaleuna more as an in-line blocker and try to phase him out of the passing game by using more three-and-four receiver sets now that McDonald and Curtis are healthy and Looker has emerged as at least dependable.
Manumaleuna was offered a five-year $8.3 million offer by the Panthers in the offseason, but because he was a restricted free agent the Rams were able to match it, which means he will likely be their tight end of the near future. Manumaleuna will never be a big-play receiver and is inconsistent because of his poor technique and angles as a blocker, but he continues to improve with experience and should settle in as a solid short-to-intermediate weapon in the passing game and a better than average overall blocker.
Cam Cleeland had his best season as a pro since '99 last season when he was able to stay healthy for all 16 games. He still is a big and reliable target in the passing game, and still has the agility, size and upper body strength to hold his own as a blocker. However, he has clearly lost a step, is no longer a vertical threat, and will never be a great in-line blocker due to his lack of lower body strength. If he can continue to stay healthy he can be a decent backup to Manumaleuna in '04 if the team doesn't feel that rookie seventh-round pick Erik Jensen is ready. However, if Jensen learns the blocking schemes and has a strong preseason, he could actually overtake Cleeland for the backup job. He is a solid blocker with reliable hands who will probably see action behind Manumaleuna in the team's two-tight sets in the jumbo package.
With two new starters in ROT Kyle Turley and OC Dave Wohlabaugh, and with Andy McCollum moving from center to left guard, the Rams' offensive line understandably got off to a slow start last season. However, by the end of the season, there were few better units in the NFL. With a full season of starting experience together under its belt and with all five starters returning, the Rams' offensive line could rank up their in the league with some of the elite groups.
Orlando Pace and Turley make up one of the most talented tackle tandems in the league. Pace isn't getting any younger, his contract seems to be an annual problem at this point, and he has had some minor durability problems in the past, but after he got back into the swing of things in '03 he was as good if not better than any other tackle in business.. He is still only 28, has few weaknesses and could be the most dominant offensive lineman in the league when he is on top of his game. Turley has had some trouble with his temper in the past, has never had great lower body strength, and needs to get in consistently good position to win, but he didn't have many of those problems in '03. He is a great fit for that scheme because he has terrific feet and mobility as a pass blocker and downfield blocker. He is still only 28 seems to have grown up a little bit in a new environment in St. Louis. In our opinion, Turley had his best season in '03 and should continue to shine with the Rams in '04.
The interior of LOG McCollum, OC Wohlabaugh and ROG Adam Timmerman isn't getting any younger -- each is entering his 10th NFL season -- but as a group should improve this season after feeling one another out a season ago. McCollum is on the downside of his career, he struggled a little bit in his first season at OG, and lacks ideal athleticism. However, the move was a wise one for McCollum because he is better when he doesn't have to play in space, and the Rams are not asking him to pull and trap much from the OG position. Wohlabaugh lacks ideal size and strength. As a result, he'll never be an upper-echelon starter. He struggled through some minor injuries in '03, but was able to play through the pain and, when he was healthy, proved to be a good fit because his quick feet allow him to help the less athletic McCollum out in space. Timmerman, on the other hand, rarely needs help on his side. The 32-year old re-signed with the team in the offseason and likely will finish his career in St. Louis. He is a very solid veteran who is starting to slow down just a little bit, but is still playing at a high level and should remain an above average starter for the next two or three seasons.
While the starting five is outstanding, the depth of this unit is not. Veteran journeyman Grant Williams has good experience and versatility as the backup to both Pace and Turley at the LOT and ROT positions, respectively. He is a hard worker with good size and overall strength, but there has to be a lot of concerns about his durability, lack of athleticism and below average overall pass blocking skills. In our opinion, Williams is an adequate backup ROT in the NFL, but he would be a liability if he ever had to play for an extended period at LOT. The Rams do not, however, have any candidates to push Williams for the job in '04, so it is his to keep unless something changes during the preseason.
Andy King and Scott Tercero will battle it out for the backup positions at left and right guard. King is still a work-in-progress, but he has flashed very good feet, quickness and agility, and also has a very good work ethic and has proved to be durable. He must improve his strength and continue to improve his technique, but it seems that King's progress is ahead of Tercero's at this point. Tercero is an athletic guard who has some upside because of his footwork and agility. He is a good fit in the Rams' offensive scheme, but needs to prove he can stay healthy and improve his strength before he can ever be considered a future replacement at one of the starting guard positions.
As far as it stands right now, the backup OC job is Andy Eby's to lose, but he will get some competition from rookie seventh-round pick Larry Turner. Eby needs to get stronger -- particularly in his lower body -- before he can ever be considered as a possible candidate to push for a starting OC job. He also needs to prove he can carry this weight and stay healthy.
Not much will change from a scheme standpoint for this unit, as it will remain an attacking, up-the-field, one-gap group. There are, however, a lot of questions that need to be answered between now and the start of the season from a personnel standpoint.
For starters, the defensive end position is in a potential emergency situation if LDE Leonard Little winds up missing time due to a felony charge for drunk driving, especially after letting go of veteran RDE Grant Wistrom (Seahawks) in the offseason. The shame with Little is that he's in the prime of his career and keeps getting better. He has 39 sacks in the past three seasons and has played much bigger versus the run than his listed playing weight of 257 pounds would indicate.
Veteran journeyman Bernard Holsey, who led Redskins' defensive linemen last year with 41 tackles, was signed as insurance. Holsey played mostly inside last season but has experience at end and likely will play end on running downs if Little is not available. In that situation, Holsey would give way on passing downs and could play in a heavy rotation with Tyoka Jackson, Bryce Fisher, Erik Flowers, rookie third-round pick Tony Hargrove and Nick Burley, all of whom will compete for playing time and roster spots as situational pass rushers in training camp.
The Rams signed free agent Sean Moran in the offseason and will likely use him as a rotating starter at the other end position (RDE) vacated by Wistrom. If Little doesn't miss part or all of the season, it obviously improves the depth of this unit and will allow Moran to play less. However, if the team is forced to use a heavy rotation at left end in Little's absence, Moran might need to play more than is desirable.
Either way, Fisher is likely to be the primary backup to Moran on the right side and Jackson should be the primary backup to either Little or Holsey on the left side. Fisher has shown the upside potential to develop into a starting RDE for the Rams in the future, but we're not sure that he's ready for that role right now. He still lacks great lower body strength and, in order to protect himself, needs to play with more consistent leverage. He is very active when on the move and can be very productive when fresh, but if he is forced to play a more consistent role we're not sure that he will hold up as well. Jackson, on the other hand, will turn 33 during the '04 season and has lost a step with age, but he is still a very productive situational edge rusher who will fit well as a complement to Holsey if necessary at left end.
The Rams got a decent value in DE Tony Hargrove in the third round, but he is very much a risky proposition after sitting out the entire 2003 CFB season due to academic problems. Hargrove has the physical tools to eventually become Wistrom's replacement, but he will need some time to get back into football shape and prove he is capable of handling the role.
Flowers and Burley, on the other hand, are long shots to make the roster. The Rams signed Flowers in order to give him one last opportunity to prove himself. He does have an enticing combination of size, speed and athleticism, but has never been able to translate those physical tools into production on the NFL level. Burley was a great pass rusher on the college level, but he lacks the speed and explosiveness to ever make a great impact in that area in the NFL, and he does not have the size or strength to ever become a first or second down end.
The defensive tackle position is much less confusing but has questions of its own that need to be answered. As it stands right now, Ryan Pickett will start at the nose tackle position and Damione Lewis will start next to him at the left defensive tackle position. Pickett has been a decent starter the past two seasons for the Rams. He has the potential to be a very solid starter and a more complete player, but his technique, durability and conditioning must improve. As it stands right now, he's a solid run stuffer with upside but has a ways to go before his production matches his potential. Lewis has been a disappointment in his first three seasons, and there are major questions about his ability to stay healthy for a full 16-game schedule. However, he is a lot more explosive than Pickett and is a great fit as a one-gap penetrator if he ever plays to his potential level. Lewis has the physical tools and experience to have a breakout season in '04 if he can stay on the field.
The team is hoping that '03 top pick Jimmy Kennedy bounces back after an abysmal rookie season. Kennedy is a massive defensive tackle with good quickness for his size when he is fresh and in shape, but conditioning, durability and weight will always be variables in his success that are concerns. In a 15-20 play per game role this season, Kennedy should make progress and stay fresh enough to make an impact when he is in the game.
Outside of those three, the Rams don't have legitimate depth at the defensive tackle position to work with, but Holsey can also move inside to give this unit help in its rotation, especially if Leonard is back on the field.
This unit is an ideal fit for the scheme in terms of its overall athleticism and speed. Consistency is an issue with three young starters, as is durability with three undersized linebackers, but MLB Robert Thomas, SLB Tommy Polley and WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa make up one of the league's youngest and most athletic linebacking corps in the NFL.
Thomas has had trouble staying healthy, and even when he hasn't missed games he has played nicked and less than 100-percent. However, when he has been fully healthy he has shown the potential to develop into a playmaking middle linebacker. He is an active, high-energy player who does an excellent job in space. Thomas is undersized but he knows how to protect himself and has the speed and athletic ability to do so. He is an every-down player with the potential to quickly develop into an upper-echelon starter if he can continue to improve his recognition skills and find a way to stay on the field and healthy.
Of the three starters, Polley graded out the worst from our evaluation last season, but he is still a solid starter with the potential to develop into an even better player if he can become more durable and provide more consistency versus the run.
Tinoisamoa was impressive for a rookie and should only get better with improved technique and angles. He started 14 of the 16 regular-season games he played in last season and really developed into a solid starter with a lot of playmaking potential. Tinoisamoa is an aggressive, attacking and instinctive linebacker with very good tackling skills and range in coverage. Tinoisamoa was the only starter in the group to play in all 16 games, which makes depth a major factor.
There are several candidates vying for spots on the roster as backup linebackers, including Jeremy Loyd, Brandon Spoon and rookie fourth-round selection Brandon Chillar. Lloyd was a college SLB who was moved to WLB as a rookie and seemed to have trouble with his angles and technique in more space. He should be a better fit at WLB, but needs to make strides at the position and also needs to become more consistent on special teams in '04 training camp in order to make the Rams' regular-season roster. Spoon was an overachiever coming out of college who made an immediate impact because of injuries at the LB position in Buffalo in '01, but he has not played since because of injuries -- most notably a lingering biceps injury that resulted in surgery. Spoon was signed during the '04 offseason by the Rams and has a chance to make their roster as a reserve MLB/SLB who can contribute on special teams. However, he needs to prove that he can stay healthy and that he has enough special teams' value in order to make it.
Chillar is a versatile backup who can play both inside and outside for the Rams, which is exactly what they were looking for. He is athletic and showed flashes on the college level of becoming a good pass rusher as a blitzing linebacker. As a rookie, however, he'll have to earn his paycheck on special teams.
New defensive coordinator Larry Marmie will keep the base cover-2 zone scheme that new Bears head coach Lovie Smith used, but he is expected to add some more "wrinkles" and more man-to-man looks to it in order to get offenses to guess more than they have had to in the past.
While many believe that Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler make up an adequate starting tandem at the cornerback position for the Rams, we have to disagree. Both have very good quickness and are good fits as short-area cover corners in the cover-2 scheme. They also have improved their aggressiveness and tackling skills. However, while Fisher is clearly the more developed of the two and has better speed to turn and run, neither is a good starter in our opinion. They both grade out as excellent No. 3 cornerbacks who would fit well as slot cover corners, but are below average as full-time outside starters. If this group is forced to turn and run more this season with what could be a struggling pass rush if Little has to miss part or all of the season, the Rams cornerbacks could become a group that becomes exposed for its lack of size, experience and consistency.
The Rams are much better off at the safety position with SS Adam Archuleta and FS Aeneas Williams. Archuleta is a dominating run stopper and a presence in the middle of the field in the passing game. He has quickly become one of the most effective run-stopping safeties in the NFL and has improved his zone coverage skills to the point that he has enough range to handle the deep one-half necessary in the team's base cover-2 scheme. Archuleta has some limitations in man-coverage, he will always be better near the line of scrimmage than at the high-point, and durability concerns will never go away. However, Archuleta has improved to the point now that he can be considered an upper-echelon starting SS in the NFL.
Williams has clearly lost a couple of steps with age and is likely a season or two away from retiring. However, the move to FS may have extended his career and it certainly helped him to use his savvy to make up for what he has lost in terms of speed and quickness with age. Williams should remain a solid starting FS in '04 for the Rams and is a good fit in the Rams' secondary, not only because his style complements Archuleta well, but also because of the youth that the Rams possess at cornerback with Butler, Fisher, Kevin Garrett and DeJuan Groce.
The interesting dynamic with this group is that Williams spent a lot of time as the nickel slot cover corner last season, which led to Rich Coady coming in the game as the fifth defensive back. If that's the case this season, Coady will have to fight off rookie fifth-round pick Jason Shivers for playing time in the role. However, with second-year cornerbacks Groce and Garrett making progress, the team would be much more athletic if one of those two could play the nickel cornerback role, allowing Williams to remain in deep-half coverage in the cover-2 zone scheme.
Re: ESPN Scouts Inc: Rams Team Summary
And that will be in the back of his mind on every attempt, which may lead to holding the ball longer, which will lead to more sacks. Bulger's durability may be tested this year.
However, in order for Bulger to take his game to the next level he must cut down on his mistakes, force fewer passes if his primary target is not open, and become more consistent with his deep ball.
He's not All-Pro, but I think he can be as prolific as Proehl. Once again, Looker is being under-estimated.
Looker is not going to get much better and is never going to be a great weapon as a slot receiver. In our opinion, he's a stop-gap solution who won't be in the league much longer than the next two seasons.
That's all our TEs have to do. The difference this year is that TE is all he has to play. Technique can be learned, and learned quicker when you only have one position to learn.
Manumaleuna will never be a big-play receiver and is inconsistent because of his poor technique and angles as a blocker, but he continues to improve with experience and should settle in as a solid short-to-intermediate weapon in the passing game and a better than average overall blocker.
Just my opinion (which I've been ripped on before), but I think this will be a factor in Bulger's improvement next season.
This is finally Bulger's team, and often times that confidence of knowing that you don't have to look over your shoulder every time you make a mistake can be invaluable for a quarterback.
Re: ESPN Scouts Inc: Rams Team Summary
Definitely they are underestimating Looker.
I agree with the statement about our corners. They have probably over-achieved a bit the last 2 years, and to some degree the cover-2 hides some of their weaknesses, which is good.
Also, I like the positive comments about Gordon. I would like to see him remain on the team this year. In case Faulk get's injured (knock on wood), I don't like our depth without Gordon, as I'm not sold on Harris as anything permanent.