By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The No. 14 on Keenan Burton's Rams jersey isn't there by mere happenstance. The "4" is a reminder that Burton was selected in the fourth round of the draft in April. The "1" is a reminder that he hoped to go in the first round.
For motivation during his rookie season, all he has to do is glance down at his jersey.
As for Dane Looker, every year is a fight for playing time, a struggle to prove he belongs. It seems as if he's on the bubble every August, sweating out the final roster cuts.
Now, with Drew Bennett sidelined for at least a month because of a broken foot, Looker and Burton get more of a chance to show what they can do, starting with Sunday's home opener against the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants.
Looker seemingly had a breakthrough year in 2003, when he caught 47 passes as the No. 3 receiver on the Rams' last division championship club. Instead, his career got stuck in neutral. In the four seasons that followed, Looker caught a combined 42 passes — and only six over the past two years.
There was the usual speculation during training camp and preseason that Looker was on the bubble. It was only natural, given the arrival of Burton and Donnie Avery in the draft.
But when it comes to job security, Looker, 32, has advanced beyond the worry stage.
"Not anymore," Looker said. "I try to make it as hard as I can for them to find a reason to get rid of me. I know every year that there's (new) guys coming in. I don't want to sound cocky, but I just know that I'm valuable on this team."
Looker was in the starting lineup in Philadelphia because the Rams came out in a running formation, and Looker might be the best blocker among the team's wide receivers. And after Bennett went down on the first offensive series, Looker gained his most extensive action at receiver in years.
"Even though we didn't complete a lot of balls, it was great to be in there blocking guys and just being involved in the offense," Looker said. "I felt good. It kind of took me back to 2003, when I was out there all the time. I feel after watching film that I can compete with anybody. I don't see too much of a falloff when I get in there."
So he's still got it?
"I think so," Looker said.
Looker's only catch was a 21-yarder in the fourth quarter, setting up Josh Brown's 46-yard field goal for the Rams' only points of the day.
Meanwhile, Burton's NFL debut consisted of a modest eight plays on offense, and one on defense — where he was a defensive back in a "Hail Mary" prevent defense. The only pass thrown Burton's way on offense was broken up by Asante Samuel in the first quarter.
Veterans always tell rookies that the speed of the game increases once the regular season starts. But Burton's first impression of the NFL — at least in a game that counts — was a little different.
"It's not as much about (the game) being faster, it's about knowing what you have to do," Burton said. "The mental part is different. You can try to prepare for something all week, and then on Sunday you go out there and it's something totally different. ... So as a rookie I have to learn to adjust to it."
Neither Looker nor Burton knows exactly what to expect in terms of playing time Sunday, particularly with the arrival of Eddie Kennison. But Avery is ailing (sprained knee) and they'll play, and probably play a lot.
Offensive guard Jacob Bell and defensive end Leonard Little, both sidelined with hamstring injuries, did not practice Thursday. It looks as if Adam Goldberg will start in Bell's place at left guard Sunday.
— James Hall will start in place of Little but will slide over to right end — his natural position — with rookie Chris Long moving from right end to left end.
— The Rams are ranked 23rd in the annual Forbes team valuations list, with a worth of $929 million. The league average is $1.04 billion.