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Long shots are working hard to earn a job with Rams
BY JIM THOMAS
With the current 90-man roster limit, there are nearly 2,900 players working in the NFL right now. Even if you include practice squad players, that number shrinks by more than 900 when the final roster cuts are made in three weeks.
That's tough math for the young and the unproven, particularly those who weren't drafted. But there's always hope of beating the odds. It happens every year all around the NFL.
There may be no greater example than the 1999 Rams. They won Super Bowl XXXIV over Tennessee with a 53-man roster that included 18 undrafted players — or one in every three. Among the undrafted were linebackers Mike Jones and London Fletcher, defensive tackle D'Marco Farr and some guy named Kurt Warner.
As the Rams close in on their 2012 preseason opener, here's our annual look at a few roster long shots chasing that dream.
DT Matthew Conrath
It may be a stretch to say Conrath idolizes defensive end Chris Long, but he certainly looks up to him. Conrath was in his first year at the University of Virginia when Long was a star senior for the Cavaliers.
"Basically, I'd just be watching him during the games," said Conrath, who played the same position as Long at the time. "He had a great senior year, and he's continued it here."
The relationship continued after the Rams made Long the No. 2 overall selection in the 2008 draft.
"He's had a place out in Charlottesville, so he would come back during the summers and stuff," Conrath said. "So I've always kept in contact with him. I was always able to bounce questions I had off him. He's always been a mentor for me."
And now, here they are on the same roster once again after the Rams signed Conrath as an undrafted free agent 3½ months ago. Conrath has opened some eyes the first couple weeks of camp, getting reps with the starting defensive line — particularly in the nickel.
"He's an interesting guy," said one member of the coaching staff.
Another team official was asked if Conrath's early play was surprising.
"No," came the reply. "We targeted him."
The Rams went after rookie free agents this year with the kind of gusto not seen in these parts for a while. Not only did the team invest $75,000 in signing bonus money on undrafted rookies — the maximum amount allowed by the league that doesn't count against the rookie pool — the team committed an additional $27,500 in guaranteed money on rookie free agents.
There was a time several years ago when the Rams didn't spend a cent on signing bonuses for undrafted rookies. A $5,000 or $10,000 bonus may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but it can be the difference between a player signing with your team or another.
Conrath, who said he had four or five teams expressing interest in him after the draft, received a $6,000 bonus from the Rams. He also liked what he heard from Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle, who talked with Conrath frequently during the pre-draft process.
"Most of the teams were looking at me as kind of the 3-4 (front) D-end," Conrath said. "I went with my gut and made the decision to come here."
Conrath was a 3-4 end his first two seasons in college. But the Cavaliers switched to a 4-3 front his junior season, and Conrath was moved inside to tackle. It was an unusual move given Conrath's unusual size: he's just shy of 6 feet, 7½ inches.
Even in the NFL, one of the cardinal rules for line play is: low man wins. It's a leverage game. It's difficult to get leverage when you're as big as a basketball forward, especially playing inside.
"I've always been tall," Conrath said. "Coming out of high school, I was 6-7. So that's always been something I've had to work on because if you don't stay low being my size, you're being driven back to the linebacker. I've learned the hard way a few times, but that's definitely something I focus on."
Conrath struggled at first playing defensive tackle in college, but he's grown comfortable in the position. At Rams Park, he's as surprised as anyone to be getting time with the starting defense, but he realizes the depth chart could change based on what happens in preseason play.
"Every rep that I get, I've just got to make it count," Conrath said. "Make plays when I can and do my job, and then be there to support my teammates."
DT Jermelle Cudjo
Cudjo quietly was a feel-good story during the Rams' 7-9 season in 2010, making the roster as an undrafted rookie out of Central Oklahoma and appearing in 10 games with 16 tackles and one-half sack. But his 2011 season was derailed before it started.
"I had a bulging disc, it caused a herniation," Cudjo said. "It was pinching the nerve down my leg. It was frustrating mentally and physically."
The issue cropped in training camp. Cudjo was placed on the injured reserve list and underwent surgery last September. Now he must prove himself again for the new coaching staff. Partly because of Trevor Laws' knee issues, Cudjo has been getting work with the second-team defense. If that holds, he could win a job as a backup defensive tackle.
"I'm just trying to make the team, work hard, take coaching," Cudjo said. "Just do what I can, like I did when I first got here."
Listed at 6-2, 311, Cudjo looks trimmer yet stronger than he did a year ago. "I lost a couple pounds so I could get faster out here," he said. "We do a lot of running, so I don't want to carry too much bad weight. I'm where I need to be physically."
WR Nick Johnson
Johnson didn't play for a football powerhouse in college, playing for the Henderson State Reddies in Arkadelphia, Ark. He didn't pile up eye-popping stats, either, with a modest 28 catches for 350 yards last season. He's also on the small side at 5-11, 187.
But the Rams saw something they liked in Johnson, who ran a 4.41 at his pro day before signing with them as a rookie free agent after the 2012 draft. His best hope may be a practice squad spot given the competition at wide receiver, but Johnson hasn't been overwhelmed so far in camp.
"I see that this is the elite level, but also I deserve to be here and I'm trying to prove that point," Johnson said.
He already knows what it's like catching passes from an NFL quarterback. He was working out in San Diego this past offseason when he met former Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia.
"I guess he liked what he saw," Johnson said. "He said, 'Who's your agent?' I told him. He said, 'You need a local guy.' "
Garcia isn't a registered agent but works with on, California-based David Silva. So Johnson switched agents to Silva. One of the fringe benefits of this arrangement is that Garcia threw to him during workouts. "He zips it," Johnson said. "He's still got it."
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