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Lack of experience on D-line may be a gamble
By Bill Coats
Only five of 13 defensive linemen on the Rams' current roster boast more than one year of NFL experience. The eight others include five rookies — draft picks Adam Carriker, Clifton Ryan and Keith Jackson, plus free agents Alton Pettway and Ryan Willis.
Second-year coach Scott Linehan might not seem like a gambler, but he's ready to roll the dice in this vital area. "We've kind of taken a leap of faith with some of these younger players," he acknowledged.
The No. 1 challenge for the Rams defensively is improving against the run. They were 31st in the 32-team league in that category last year and ranked no higher than 15th in any of the past five seasons. During that span, their overall record was 42-41.
In contrast, the Rams were the best in the league vs. the run in 1999, when they won the Super Bowl. They were No. 3 two years later, when they lost in the title game. Their combined record those two seasons was 32-6.
The team's commitment to new faces on the defensive line was underscored Friday when Jimmy Kennedy was traded to the Denver Broncos. Kennedy was the Rams' first-round draft choice (No. 12 overall) in 2003; he brought only a sixth-round pick in '08.
Kennedy never fulfilled the promise of a first-rounder. But he did start all 16 games last season at nose tackle, a position that Linehan said only a few weeks ago he expected Kennedy to fill again in 2007.
Yet once the coaches got an extended look at the newcomers, they decided that Kennedy was expendable.
Carriker's rapid development was key in prompting that conclusion. The 6-foot-6, 296-pounder played defensive end at Nebraska, but the Rams pegged him as a tackle from the beginning.
"He's really got a natural feel for playing inside," Linehan said. "Sometimes we'll have him at the three (-technique), sometimes at the nose, or we could go right and left if we think it'll utilize his skills more. But right now, he's handling both tackle positions with relative ease."
As the Rams head into their full-squad minicamp this week, Carriker is the first-team nose tackle. Ryan and Jackson back him up, and Tim Sandidge, who is playing in NFL Europe, also could figure in.
La'Roi Glover and Claude Wroten are expected to share the duties at the other tackle spot. The Rams want to limit Glover's reps in his 12th NFL season, and Wroten's progress after a spotty rookie year apparently will make that possible.
"He had an excellent offseason, as far as his training and preparation," Linehan said. "He understands a lot more what we're trying to get done."
Leonard Little returns at left end after piling up 13 sacks last year — the second-highest total in his nine seasons. James Hall, acquired from Detroit for a fifth-round draft pick, is the projected starter on the right side, although his work has been limited as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Linehan had been seeking a strong pass rusher to complement Little, and he believes that he has his man. Hall recorded five sacks last year in only seven games before he was injured, boosting his seven-year total to 33. He collected a personal-best 11½ in 2004.
"Leonard had a very impressive year, considering he was getting double- and triple-teamed most of the time," Linehan said. "To be able to put somebody on the other side that has the capability to give you similar things as Leonard does takes a lot of pressure off of him."
Victor Adeyanju, who was putting together a strong rookie season before breaking an arm, and Eric Moore provide depth. Trevor Johnson and undrafted rookies Alton Pettway and Ryan Willis also will be vying for roster spots.
Linehan would like to find another veteran end. And, in the wake of the Kennedy trade, the Rams are expected to seek a tackle, via free agency or trade.
"I would say that that door is wide open; if there's somebody we'd be interested in, we'd do it," Linehan said. "One thing I've learned is that the roster gets put together over the entire year. You have free agency, the draft ... a lot of things happen."
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