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Thread: Inside Slant
The Rams were jolted two weeks before the beginning of training camp when word arrived that starting cornerback Fakhir Brown had been suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on drugs of abuse and alcohol.
The substance in Brown's case is not known, but he will be able to participate in training camp and play in preseason games before his suspension officially begins Aug. 31.
Said coach Scott Linehan, "I'm disappointed for the team; we're losing a guy we were counting on for the first four games of the year. And I'm disappointed for Fakhir, but it's the policy. We just hope that the necessary things are done to alleviate whatever the problem is."
The question for camp is how coaches will deal with Brown in practice, since they have to get other players ready to not only start, but play nickel back in passing situations.
Prior to the suspension, Brown was slated to start at one cornerback spot with second-year man Tye Hill at the other. Ronald Bartell, Lenny Walls and rookie Jonathan Wade were expected to compete for the nickel spot. Now, there are two jobs open, at least for the first four games of the season.
The team's first four opponents are Carolina, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Dallas.
Bartell started seven games as a rookie in 2005 and played nickel back last season. Walls has started games with Denver and Kansas City during his career.
Added Linehan, "It creates an opportunity for great competition at the other corner spot opposite Tye."
Wade might have the most natural skill of any of the contenders, but was sometimes undisciplined in college.
Linehan said of Wade, "We'd be pretty young if Jonathan played there, but still it's a chance for him to compete and for us to see where he's at."
Hill started 10 games as a rookie last year after being selected with the 15th overall pick in the draft.
With training camp set to open July 26 and the first practice the following day, the Rams have signed all of their selections except the first two picks: DT Adam Carriker and RB Brian Leonard.
The latest rookies to agree to deals were NT Clifton Ryan and C/G Dustin Fry, both fifth-round picks, and OT Ken Shackleford, a sixth-round choice.
Coach Scott Linehan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he had spoken with defensive tackle Claude Wroten, who was involved in a June incident during which he allegedly kicked the door open of a former girlfriend's apartment at Louisiana State University.
"Some of the particulars are still a little gray with that whole situation," Linehan said. "I think it'll all be worked out before camp starts."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The guys are more comfortable. You can see it." - Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett on players adjusting to their second year in his defensive system.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
CB Jonathan Wade: 3/84; $1.63M/3 yrs, $516,375.
C Dustin Fry: 5/139; terms unknown.
NT Clifton Ryan: 5/154; $1.244M/3 yrs, $129,000 SB; 2007 cap: $328,000.
OT Ken Shackleford: 6/190; terms unknown.
NT Keith Jackson: 7/248; $1.143M/3 yrs, $28,200 SB.
WR Derek Stanley: 7/249; $1.143M/3 yrs, $27,900 SB; 2007 cap: $294,300.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter Marc Bulger. Backups Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Berlin.
The only question regarding Bulger is whether he will have a new contract by the start of training camp or the regular season. He is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and has ascended to be one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Frerotte is the perfect veteran to have behind Bulger: someone who understands the system and his role. Fitzpatrick will see a lot of time in preseason games, and at some point the team has to decide if he will be a viable No. 2 behind Bulger. Berlin is likely just a camp arm, as are most fourth quarterbacks.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters Steven Jackson, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups Brian Leonard, Travis Minor, Kay-Jay Harris, Rich Alexis, John David Washington, FB Brad Lau.
Jackson has set a goal of gaining 2,500 yards from scrimmage, but he'll need a lot of rushing yards to get it done because it's unlikely he'll catch 90 passes again. Still, Jackson is set to once again be the workhorse of the offense. The challenge from coaches will be to not overuse him. Leonard should be a versatile backup, who could spell Jackson when necessary and also be a solid receiver. Minor and Harris are probably competing for the No. 3 job, and the decision will likely be determined on special teams. Alexis is a longshot, while Washington appears destined for another year on the practice squad. Hedgecock might be the only fullback retained on the roster, although long snapper Chris Massey could help in an emergency. Keeping one fullback could result in four tight ends making the roster.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups Drew Bennett, Dane Looker, Dante Hall, Dominique Thompson, Marques Hagans, Derek Stanley, Shaine Smith, Nate Morton, Markee White, Lamart Barrett.
This is a group as deep as any in the NFL, yet so few seem to notice. Bruce seems to be written off by someone in the national media every year, but just turns in another 1,000-yard season. Holt should be better than ever after off-season knee surgery. Bennett's size will help in the red zone and on sideline patterns. Looker is very dependable and is also the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins. Hall could have some special plays designed for him, but coaches don't want to over-expose him, keeping him fresh for kick returns. On another team, Thompson might be able to contribute. But this is a tough group to crack. The same goes for Hagans, who is in his second year of the conversion from quarterback to receiver, and might also have potential as a punt returner. The latter five are probably hoping for a spot on the practice squad.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter Randy McMichael. Backups Joe Klopfenstein, Aaron Walker, Dominique Byrd, Mark Anelli, Steve Buches.
The arrival of McMichael should make the entire offense better. An accomplished receiver, McMichael should open things up for the rest of the receivers. The Rams still love the potential of Klopfenstein, and now he will be able to advance at a less pressurized pace, while learning from McMichael. Walker is a solid blocker, while Byrd has worlds of talent if he can ever put it together on a consistent basis. He also has two arrests in the last eight months hanging over his head. It's not out of the question the final roster will include four tight ends if only one true fullback makes the team. Anelli and Buches are longshots at best.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters LT Orlando Pace, LG Mark Setterstrom, C Andy McCollum, RG Richie Incognito, RT Alex Barron. Backups T Todd Steussie, G/T Adam Goldberg, G Claude Terrell, C Brett Romberg, T Jeremy Parquet, T Drew Strojny, T Ken Shackleford, C/G Dustin Fry, T Chris Messner, T Anthony James, C Donovan Raiola.
The return of Pace from a torn triceps will be huge for a line that played with numerous combinations last season because of injuries. Pace saw limited action in the off-season, but is cleared to participate fully at the start of camp. Barron needs to cut down on false starts, but he still has potential to be one of the better young tackles in the game. McCollum will be battling Romberg for the starting job at center, but as long as he stays healthy, it's difficult to imagine Romberg beating him out.
Along with Romberg, Setterstrom and Incognito were the starters inside at the end of the season and played well. Now, the challenge will be to show they can maintain that level of play for an entire season. The competition for backup jobs will be intense. Terrell returns after missing last season because of a wrist injury. Goldberg has the versatility to play guard and tackle, while the rookie Fry is tough, and can play center or guard. Steussie is a lock for one backup spot. Parquet will be interesting to watch to see what he has left after playing for the NFL Europa champion Hamburg Sea Devils and being named to the league's All-Pro team.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters LE Leonard Little, DT La'Roi Glover, NT Adam Carriker, RE James Hall. Backups E Victor Adeyanju, E Eric Moore, E Trevor Johnson, E Alton Pettway, E Ryan Willis, T Claude Wroten, NT Clifton Ryan, T Tim Sandidge, NT Keith Jackson.
Coaches will experiment with several line combinations in training camp, and will also try alignments that feature right and left tackles, rather than having a true nose tackle. It's imperative the front office gets Carriker signed in time for most of camp, as he adjusts to playing inside and on the nose. Little should be more productive having Hall on the other side. Adeyanju is a solid third end, but he isn't much of a pass rusher. Moore has a chance to win the fourth end job, but that's a spot the club could be looking to fill by seeing who other teams cut during the summer unless someone unexpectedly emerges.
The battles for jobs at tackle will be intriguing. Coaches don't want Glover playing more than 25-30 snaps a game, and they are hoping Wroten is the answer. However, there remain off-field concerns after he was involved in a dispute with a former girlfriend in late June. Sandidge is back after a stint in NFL Europa, where he injured his knee. Ryan and Jackson will get plenty of opportunities to show whether they are capable.
LINEBACKERS: Starters WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB Will Witherspoon, SLB Brandon Chillar. Backups Chris Draft, OLB Raonall Smith, OLB Jon Alston, MLB Tim McGarigle, Quinton Culberson, Kevin McLee.
Get used to it: Witherspoon will be the team's middle linebacker, and it won't be long before critics accept the fact it's a smart move. He'll be able to go sideline to sideline to make plays, rather than be limited to a side of the field if he was on the outside. The key to this unit will be Tinoisamoa staying healthy. He didn't do much during the off-season, and has to prove he can be consistent and stay on the field. Chillar is solid, and comes off the field in passing situations. The versatile Draft can play any position, and could challenge Chillar or be available at Tinoisamoa's spot if he has any injury issues. Wherever he's been, Draft has simply found a way to get on the field. Alston could challenge coaches to find a way to use his talents, but at the least will help the special teams. Smith is also a solid backup and special teams contributor.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters CB Fakhir Brown, CB Tye Hill, SS Corey Chavous, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe. Backups CB Ron Bartell, CB Jonathan Wade, CB Lenny Walls, CB Mike Rumph, CB Josh Lay, CB Darius Vinnett, S Jerome Carter, S Todd Johnson, S Andre Kirkland, S Jeffery Dukes.
Even with the departures of Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler, the cornerback depth is solid. Or it was until the Rams learned Brown will be unavailable for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Brown and Hill were expected to be the clear-cut starters. Now, Bartell, Wade and Walls will vie for both the starting spot at the beginning of the season and the nickel spot. Bartell came on strong at the end of last season, while Walls has considerable NFL experience. Wade will face a rookie learning curve, but he has exceptional physical skills. Lay played in NFL Europa this spring, and will be watched closely, along with Vinnett, an undrafted free agent. Chavous provides leadership to the back line, and Atogwe should improve even more than he did from his first to second seasons. Depth isn't great at safety, after backups Johnson and Carter.
SPECIALISTS: K Jeff Wilkins, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Dante Hall, K Kevin Lovell, P Fred Capshaw.
There's never a worry with Wilkins as the kicker, and now the punting situation appears solidified after the signing of Jones to a five-year contract. Their presence means Lovell and Capshaw will be hoping to do well so other teams see them in preseason games. Massey has had one bad snap in five seasons, while Wilkins loves having Dane Looker as his holder. Hall is being counted on to be a difference-maker in the return game, leading to better field position for the offense and defense.
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