Things are different for Dane Looker as training camp approaches.
Once hailed as "Little Ricky" because of his style of play is similar to former Rams receiver Ricky Proehl, Looker accepts the compliments, but wants to be his own man.
That was tough for a while, as he struggled to make an NFL roster. He was an undrafted free agent in the Rams' 2000 training camp, and was opening some eyes when he was surprisingly traded to the Patriots on Aug. 7 that year.
He made New England's roster, but ended the season on injured reserve and was then released on July 31 because of a hamstring injury. Looker was right back with the Rams for three weeks, but he wasn't healthy enough to make an impact. Out of football for the rest of the year, he re-signed with the Rams in February and excelled in NFL Europe, but the numbers game caught up to him again.
Released on Sept. 2, he spent most of the season on the practice squad until being added to the active roster for the final three games of the season.
Last year turned out to be his coming-out party. Making the roster also resulted in him being the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins. Wilkins wanted him all along after the departure of, you guessed it, Proehl, but there was no guarantee Looker would make the roster.
He helped Wilkins tie a league record with 39 field goals and offensively was third on the team with 47 receptions for 495 yards and three touchdowns. More important, 27 of his catches, including 18 on third down, were first-down plays.
Despite his success, Looker takes nothing for granted.
"We've got some good receivers on this team, so I'm going to have to improve on what I did last year and play better," he said. "Nothing's a guarantee."
Coach Mike Martz loves his work ethic and competitiveness.
"Dane was terrific last year, and looking at him out here, he just picked up where he left off," Martz said during the offseason.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
The Rams report to training camp in Macomb, Ill., on July 27 with the first practice scheduled for the next day. They will be in camp until Aug. 20, three days before a Monday night game in Kansas City.
The Chicago Bears, coached by former Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, will visit Rams camp for three days from Aug. 5-7. There will be one practice the first day, two the second and then a scrimmage on Aug. 7.
Said coach Mike Martz, "Having a scrimmage there at the stadium on Saturday morning makes it exciting for everybody. It gives us a chance to look at a lot of our young players under competitive situations, and the same for the Bears. The most important aspect of it is after seven or eight days (of camp), you get a chance to look at your players in a different environment against other players. Normally this can be kind of dangerous because it gets highly competitive and you run the risk of losing a good player in a drill.
"However, with the Bears, Lovie and I know each other so well, these practices will be tempered and controlled. We'll talk to the players about maintaining their composure. Lovie and I will do a good job of preparing our teams for practice that that's what it is, and let's keep it professional. The scrimmage, though, will be a lot of fun for everybody."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I have to stay on top of my game. I have to really focus in on being a technician, being complete every single down. Guys are going to come out and challenge us from this point on out." - WR Torry Holt, on what he has to do match his league-leading totals of 117 receptions for 1,696 yards last season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter Marc Bulger. Backups Chris Chandler, Jeff Smoker, Russ Michna
The depth chart is clear at quarterback, with Bulger entering camp as the starter, Chandler the backup, Smoker the rookie looking to learn and Michna the undrafted free agent probably little more than a camp arm. However, with practice squads expanded to eight players this season, Michna could stick around if he shows ability and a willingness to learn during the summer. Chandler has the reputation of being fragile, but his arm remains strong despite the fact he turns 39 years old in October. He has learned the offense quickly, and with the talent around him would be competitive if he was forced to play. Still, the obvious key for any success is the improvement of Bulger, whose record as a starter in the regular season is 18-4. And one loss was to Seattle in 2002 when he departed early because of an injury. He did have some difficult stretches during games last season, but usually came up big when games were on the line. There's no reason to believe he won't continue to get better under the tutelage of coach Mike Martz.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters HB Marshall Faulk, FB Joey Goodspeed, HB Steven Jackson, HB Lamar Gordon, HB Adam Matthews, HB Dusty McGrorty, FB Arlen Harris.
Faulk's 31st birthday was in February, but he had offseason knee surgery that is said to have him feeling better than he has for several years. But what happens when the hits starting coming again? Is he really healthy? We'll find out at some point during the summer. Even if Faulk isn't what he once was, he can still be a presence as a runner and receiver. The addition of Jackson should in the least improve the Rams' productivity in the red zone, and provide a tough overall runner in the event Faulk isn't 100 percent. With Jackson's star rising, that of Gordon may be falling. There are those that question his toughness, while nagging injuries have affected him when he's had the chance to play. His roster spot is probably secure unless Matthews or McGrorty open some eyes in camp. Both looked solid in minicamps, but when the pads go on it's a different ballgame. Matthews has excellent quickness, and might have potential as a kick returner.
Goodspeed and Harris are the only fullbacks on the roster, and Harris would only be used there in certain situations as a possible runner or receiver. How he is utilized could also impact Gordon's role in the offense. Harris showed toughness after making the roster as an undrafted free agent last year, and also excelled on special teams. Goodspeed had some moments after joining the team during the 2003 season, but was inconsistent as he attempted to learn the system. Coaches hope an offseason of working in the offense will make him the consistent blocker needed when called upon.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups Cam Cleeland, Erik Jensen, Mike Brake, Joel Jacobs.
Yes, there were raised eyebrows when the Rams matched an offer made to Manumaleuna by Carolina, but one way of looking at it is that the Panthers obviously saw something in him. The hope is that by staying at tight end and not moving around as much, he can concentrate on that position and avoid the mental mistakes that led to breakdowns. Manumaleuna also has to use his size as an asset and be tougher as a blocker and runner after the catch. He goes down far too quickly after receptions. Cleeland caught only 10 passes for 145 yards last season, but might be utilized more in the passing game. He's simply not a strong blocker. The Rams believe Jensen could upgrade the blocking if he can overcome a lack of size. Brake and Jacobs must show quickly they can compete at this level to have any chance.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups Dane Looker, Kevin Curtis, Mike Furrey, Shaun McDonald, Michael Coleman, Jamal Jones, Kelvin Kight, Derek McCoy, Ryan McGuffey, Brian Sump.
The wide receiver corps remains virtually identical to what it was last season. Holt will try and duplicate a season in which he led the NFL in receptions (117) and yards (1,696). Bruce continues to perform at a high level, and could see his production increase if officials actually follow through with the expected emphasis on defensive holding. There is still no one better in the league coming in and out of breaks, and unimpeded routes for Bruce should lead to even more defensive headaches. Looker made an impact as the third receiver last season when Curtis hardly played because of a broken leg suffered in the preseason. He had 47 receptions for 495 yards and was consistently effective on third down. If Curtis is truly healthy and recovered from his leg injury, the speed he brings to the table should help open up the offense even more. Furrey was the surprise on the roster last season, and should make the final six again unless an unheralded rookie or Coleman makes a major step up. Coleman was on the practice squad most of the season, and has shown some pass-catching prowess in workouts. It's unknown whether he would be successful when live bullets are flying.
Coaches were hopeful McDonald could supply to the offense what Az-Zahir Hakim once did, but he has to show he can be durable. He contributed little last season (10 receptions, 62 yards) in limited action. Jones, Kight, McCoy, McGuffey and Sump represent the team's usual camp receivers that have ability, but rarely are able to crack the top group. Sump has some intrigue because of his kick return ability in college. If one or two of the latter receivers emerge, they could wind up on the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters LT Orlando Pace, LG Andy McCollum, C Dave Wohlabaugh, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Kyle Turley. Backups T Grant Williams, G/T Andy King, C/G Scott Tercero, C/G Larry Turner, C Andy Eby, T Ryan Schau, T Joel Hofmann, T Matt Morgan, T Ben Noll, T Jeremy Phillips, T Brandon Stephens.
While fans found ways to find fault with the play of the line last season, production was better than the perception. Yes, there were some struggles with Turley and Wohlabaugh new to the system and McCollum switching to left guard, but the unit was healthy and compared to the rest of the league, problems were few. Now, all starters return, and assuming Turley and Wohlabaugh are recovered from injuries, a year together should create a better overall performance. The only question is whether Pace will miss most of camp again as the unsigned franchise player.
The backups should be solid, with Williams at tackle, along with King and Tercero. What could be an issue early in camp and during preseason games is having tackles good enough to protect the quarterback if Pace is absent and Turley not playing much following back surgery. Coaches believe King's best position will be guard, and he could challenge McCollum down the road, but he might be forced to play tackle early if Schau can't handle the tackle chores. As noted above, there are several undrafted free-agent tackles on the roster, but it remains unknown whether any can develop fast enough to be counted on. Tercero is versatile, as is the rookie Turner. Eby missed last season because of a knee injury, and the coaches like his technique. But he might be a victim of the numbers game.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters RE Bryce Fisher, T Damione Lewis, T Ryan Pickett, LE Leonard Little. Backups E Anthony Hargrove, E/T Tyoka Jackson, T Jimmy Kennedy, E Erik Flowers, T Bernard Holsey, T Brian Howard, E Sean Moran, T Sean Mulcahy, E Nick Burley, T David Thompson.
The departures of Grant Wistrom and Brian Young as free agents has created some roster battles that will be watched closely. Fisher and Jackson combined for as many sacks (7.5) as Wistrom had last season, but it's questionable whether either can play the amount of downs Wistrom did and still be consistently productive. Hargrove is the wild card, a rookie with impressive natural pass-rushing ability that needs seasoning. How quickly he can become a force is unknown. There is also a question whether Little will be distracted by the drunk driving charges hanging over his head. After his arrest in late April, Little was not around Rams Park for the remainder of the offseason.
Moran is a savvy veteran that can contribute snaps, while Flowers is trying to have an impact for the first time since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2000. Inside is where several players have to step up. Pickett was a major force in 2002, but slipped last season while playing most of the year with a high ankle sprain. Lewis also was hampered by the same injury in the second half of the season. Kennedy worked hard in the offseason, and should benefit by the new approach to how much players weigh. He will be fine at 335 pounds, as long as he can be effective.
The addition of Holsey provides veteran depth, which is needed. The only other tackles are the undersized Howard, Mulcahy, who might surprise, and Thompson, who played this past spring in NFL Europe.
LINEBACKERS: Starters OLB Tommy Polley, MLB Robert Thomas, OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups Brandon Chillar, Trev Faulk, OLB Jeremy Loyd, OLB Tony Newson, OLB Justin Smith, Brandon Spoon, OLB Jason McWilliams, MLB Fred Pagac.
The first four are set, assuming Chillar wins a job as the top backup. It's unlikely the fourth-round pick would be released, and his versatility makes him a potential backup at all three positions. Polley is in the final year of his contract, and needs to avoid injury and make more big plays to earn a lucrative deal. Thomas can be exceptional in the middle if he can stay on the field every game. Tinoisamoa should emerge as the leader of the group, and should be improved now that he understands the defense better.
The competition for the final two or three jobs will be intense. Newson played for linebackers coach Joe Vitt in Kansas City, and might be the darkhorse. Loyd was around all last season, on and off the roster and practice squad, and has excellent speed. Smith also has shown solid ability, along with Faulk and Spoon. Spoon started for the Bills in 2001 before a biceps injury cost him the 2002 season. McWilliams suffered an injury in NFL Europe this past season, while Pagac appears a notch below the other candidates.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters CB Jerametrius Butler, CB Travis Fisher, SS Adam Archuleta, FS Aeneas Williams. Backups CB DeJuan Groce, CB Kevin Garrett, S Rich Coady, S Jason Shivers, S Justin Lucas, S Shedrick Copeland, CB/S Nijrell Eason, CB Dwight Anderson, S Kailan Williams, CB Corey Yates.
The emergence of Butler last season resulted in the Rams matching a restricted free-agent offer he received from Washington. Fisher also continues to improve, while big things are expected from Groce and Garrett. Groce got some experience last season, while Garrett was bothered by injuries. Archuleta could be on the verge of a Pro Bowl, while Aeneas Williams keeps on ticking at the age of 36, moving to the slot in the nickel defense. Shivers could compete with Lucas for the nickel safety job. Coady provides versatile backup help and solid special teams play.
The Rams like the potential of Copeland, and Eason might also have a chance. Whether Anderson, Kailan Williams or Yates can make the roster will likely depend on special teams.
SPECIALISTS: PK Jeff Wilkins, P Sean Landeta, LS Chris Massey, H Dane Looker, KOR Arlen Harris, PR DeJuan Groce, KR Brian Sump, PR Mike Furrey, PR Dane Looker, PK Mark Jensen, P Jesse Nicassio.
The top four are as good as it gets. Wilkins tied an NFL record with 39 field goals last season, while Landeta rolls on at the age of 42. Massey's name is rarely mentioned, which is good, because virtually every snap is dead-on. Looker was very good in his first year as the holder. But who will return kicks? Harris was steady, if not spectacular, last season. Groce is probably the best punt returner on the roster, but for that to happen, he has to be allowed to do it consistently, even if there is a mistake or two along the way. The kick returners had their jobs last season mainly because of ball security. Jensen and Nicassio are likely hoping to be seen by other teams during the exhibition season.