By BILL COATS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The subject was tight end Randy McMichael and his return to the Rams after missing most of last season with an injury. Unprompted, quarterback Marc Bulger added this:
"Daniel Fells is also playing lights out. I think we'll have a couple tight ends that can do some things."
Apprised of that assessment, Fells smiled broadly and said, "That's good to hear. When your quarterback gives you a shout out, it's always a good feeling."
A year ago, Bulger probably never had heard of Fells, who had bounced around the NFL for a couple of years. Undrafted out of California-Davis, Fells was inactive for all 16 games with Atlanta in 2006, then spent 2007 on Oakland's practice squad. http://us.bc.yahoo.com/b?P=d74dff96-...B%3d-1%2fV%3d0
He made Tampa Bay's practice squad last summer, and the Rams signed him to their 53-man roster Oct. 6, shortly after McMichael suffered a season-ending leg injury.
Fells, 25, suited up for a regular-season game for the first time Oct. 12 at Washington. He made his first reception — for a 26-yard gain — Nov. 23 vs. Chicago, and finished the season with seven catches for 81 yards.
But it was the sticky hands that Fells showed during the weeks of practice that really got him noticed. He's continued to impress during the Rams' first offseason program under coach Steve Spagnuolo.
"He's very athletic, been making a lot of plays," Spagnuolo said after practice Friday. "We don't know the blocking part yet, because we don't have the pads on. But I'm very pleased."
And open-minded about giving players a chance to show off their skills, Spagnuolo stressed. "There's a lot of guys out here like that, and they're all going to get it," he said. "This is the land of opportunity right now."
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Fells — nicknamed "Big Smooth" by his teammates — has moved past Joe Klopfenstein, the team's second-round draft choice in 2006, into the No. 2 spot behind McMichael. If Fells can stick there, he figures to get plenty of balls thrown his way in the West Coast-style offense that coordinator Pat Shurmur is installing.
"In the passing game we're trying to put in, the quarterback distributes the ball to a lot of people, (including) the backs and the tight ends," Spagnuolo said. "People think that the pass game is just wide receivers. In this league nowadays, you've got to defend everybody."
Sets featuring two tight ends are common, which means that McMichael and Fells could be on the field together a lot.
"The West Coast system is very, very versatile for the tight end," Fells said. "They have the tight ends moving around a lot, got us in the backfield a little bit, got us running a lot more routes. It's my belief that if you want to have a good offense, you've got to be able to utilize the tight end. And this offense definitely does that."
Fells' prowess during the week didn't always translate into success on Sundays in 2008, though. Inexperience, more than nervousness, was the culprit, he explained.
"You practice like you play," he said. "You come out here and you work hard ... and you get used to it. Then in the game, when the ball's in the air, you've just got to go get it. It's either me or nobody."
Admittedly a work in progress, Fells said he's been trying to fine-tune "pretty much everything" about his game during the spring so that when training camp kicks off in late July, he'll be as prepared as possible to earn his time on the field.
"Because it's a new system and new coaches, you've got to learn everything; everyone's starting out raw and fresh," he said. "I'm trying to tighten up my routes, because they have me out in space a little bit. And blocking is one thing I'm always trying to focus on. I've got a lot of critics out there who think I'm not physical enough, so I've got to work on my blocking and prove people wrong."
More than anything, Fells doesn't want to jeopardize his first real shot to prove himself in the NFL.
"I've always felt that I've been able to play in this league, and ... I'm finally getting an opportunity," he said. "With this team, I think things are falling into place for me now."