Guard Competition Just Getting Started ..
By Nick Wagoner
For now, identifying who the Rams starting left guard will be in 2012 is probably nothing short of an exercise in futility.
In what figures to be one of the team’s most heated battles at perhaps the most wide open starting position available over the next few months, the only thing that seems to be known about the starter at left guard is that he’s already in the fold.
Coach Jeff Fisher was asked whether the player that will eventually emerge in that role was on the field for the team’s second Organized Team Activity on Wednesday and confirmed that he is.
“Yeah, he’s here,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a lot of options and we’ll continue to rotate guys in there but he’s here and he’ll play well for us.”
The John Doe of starting left guards will eventually step forth and reveal his identity though it may not happen until the end of training camp in September. But for now, the best we can do is identify who the candidates are and sift through them as Fisher and line coach Paul Boudreau cycle through them during the 10 OTAs and the final veteran minicamp.
Heading the list at least for Wednesday was four-year veteran Bryan Mattison, who actually started the final four games of the 2011 season for the Rams at right guard after Harvey Dahl kicked outside to right tackle.
Mattison figures to be joined in a competition that could include free agent additions Robert Turner and Quinn Ojinnaka, second-year holdover Tim Barnes and rookie Rokevious Watkins.
For one day, at least Wednesday, Mattison took the majority of the repetitions with the first team. Fisher said he saw some good things from Mattison from the end of last year but also openly said not to rule out the rookie Watkins.
“Yeah, there’s ability there,” Fisher said. “We’ve got flexibility. I wouldn’t rule out Rok there, either. Rok has showed in just a couple of days that he’s heavy handed, he’s smart and he can move people. That’s what we are looking for.”
In the interim, the Rams appear to have some confidence in Mattison; a quiet, unassuming type who is still really only scratching the surface of what he can do on offense after he spent his college career and his first year in the league playing defense with Baltimore.
With the hard-nosed Boudreau running the offensive line, Mattison believes his development should continue at a rapid pace.
“Absolutely,” Mattison said. “For me, no matter who is coaching I am pretty sure I can learn something from anybody. That’s what I try to do. I keep my mouth shut, take notes and try to learn something every day. That’s just kind of how I do it.”
Mattison, who is listed at 6’3, 310 pounds, switched to the offensive line in his second year and played on the practice squad before getting his first call up to the active roster for the Ravens midway through his third season.
Last year, Mattison not only got a taste of playing on the offensive line but starting. He wasn’t entirely pleased with how he performed but makes the valid point that with each day he learns his craft, he’s improving.
“I am still trying to keep my head above water,” Mattison said. “Hopefully some day I can look back and say (how far I’ve come) but like today, I feel more comfortable than the first game I started. But with the coaching staff we have and the players that are around, the other guys on the O line, it’s hard not to feel comfortable. We communicate well and we are just having fun, that’s what it’s all about.”
Still, Mattison isn’t oblivious to the fact that he is working in a land of opportunity right now. The Rams did not spend big money on some free agent offensive lineman nor did they expend a high draft choice on filling that hole.
Clearly, Fisher, Boudreau and Co. felt good enough about the players in place already to eschew that position to fill needs they believed were more pressing.
“I think every day no matter where you’re at is an opportunity to prove yourself,” Mattison said. “All you can ask for is an opportunity and right now the main focus is learn the offense, get the offense right and master it and just competes. Everything else will work itself out down the road.”
That doesn’t mean Mattison doesn’t take the chances he does get with the first team offense lightly even if he’s splitting those repetitions with others.
“We have a little rotation going,” Mattison said. “It’s exciting, you always want to be out there with the first unit but when I’m not and I’m with the second unit I am just as excited to do the play right. Competition is good for anybody no matter what happens. That’s what makes teams good is competition. That’s why we’re here.”
In only a few days with the team, Watkins has already made a strong impression on Fisher and figures to earn a long look as the season nears as well.
At 6’3, 338 pounds, Watkins best fits the physical description of what Fisher likes in an offensive lineman. For right now, it’s not the physical aspect that is of utmost importance.
“(I’m) doing a lot of learning, I’m just sitting back and trying to pick up everything, listen to everything the veterans and my coach tell me,” Watkins said. “Coach Boudreau is a heck of a coach and I just listen to everything he tells me. I am just trying to learn everything I can as fast as I can.”
Watkins said he hasn’t given much thought to the possibility that he could go from fifth-round draft choice to first-year starter because he’s more worried about getting the playbook down and translating it to the field.
“Honestly I am just working as hard as I can,” Watkins said. “That’s going to be up to Coach Boudreau, I am going to follow whatever he tells me. If that’s the word he gives me then that’s what it will be. If not, I’ll sit back and learn as much as I can.”
That isn’t to say that Watkins wants to sit back and learn. He is well aware that he plays a position that’s wide open.
“Definitely,” Watkins said. “If you are a competitor you are always going to try to win a spot but you don’t want to jump in there too fast or too soon so I am just trying to learn everything I can.”