PD: Rams' position-by-position outlook
Rams' position-by-position outlook
9 hours ago
BY JIM THOMAS
By the numbers, Sam Bradford had a fine preseason, completing 58.8 percent of his passes with five TD passes, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 116.3. But what some observers and many fans can't get past is Bradford's first half against Dallas in preseason game No. 3 when he was harassed, hit often, looked antsy in the pocket, and completed only six of 17 passes. Also lurking in the background is his left ankle, which Bradford indicated earlier in camp still wasn't 100 percent. Will the ankle hold up? Will Bradford hold up? Will Bradford get his career back on track after a rough 2011? We'll see. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that Bradford's only backup is an undrafted rookie, Austin Davis. Not that Davis' play wasn't eye-opening during the preseason, and not that he isn't an intriguing prospect. But is he ready if — say, Ndamukong Suh — falls on Bradford's ankle Sunday afternoon?
No one was happier to see the arrival of run-oriented Jeff Fisher as head coach than the most productive ballcarrier in the history of Rams football, Steven Jackson. Jackson reported to camp as fit as ever and about 10 pounds lighter. He looked fresh and quick, and still very powerful at 236 pounds. Barring injury, there's no reason to think he won't post his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. Jackson shows no signs of slowing down at age 29. In rookies Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, and Terrance Ganaway, he is complemented by the most talented corps of backups in his career. Pead and Richardson are smaller, darting change-of-pace backs. Waiver-wire pickup Ganaway is a bruiser at 239 pounds, but it may take him a few weeks to get comfortable with the playbook. There's no doubt that Pead and Richardson will be worked into games, but make no mistake, Jackson remains the workhouse.
This remains the biggest question mark on the team other than the offensive line. Can the wideouts get consistent separation against the league's better secondaries? To be determined. Can they catch enough deep balls to keep opposing defenses from loading the box to shut down Steven Jackson? TBD. In the big picture, the faster rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens can start having an impact, the better the entire offense will perform. Quick's big frame (6-3, 220) gives him the potential to make the tough catch and be a red zone threat. Givens is the fastest member of the receiver corps, and needs to get established as a deep threat. Whether he's in the slot or playing outside, Danny Amendola figures to be Sam Bradford's security blanket. Veteran addition Steve Smith is a precise route-runner and sneaky fast. Brandon Gibson was having a strong camp before missing three weeks with a hamstring injury.
Lance Kendricks enters the season as the undisputed starter, with a chance to become more of a factor in the passing game. After some early camp struggles catching the football, Kendricks started coming on strong as the regular season approached. He needs to become better at making "out of frame" catches, but has the size, speed, and athleticism to be a valued target. Picked up in free agency from the Jets, newcomer Matthew Mulligan is a blocking specialist who should help make the running game go. He had nine penalties, including six false starts, last season for the Jets so he must cut down in that area. One of the pleasant surprises of camp and the preseason was the play of Mike McNeill, the pride of Kirkwood High. McNeill beat out 2010 draft pick Michael Hoomanawanui for the No. 3 job, showing the coaching staff that he had sufficient blocking skills to go along with his pass-catching ability.
This unit has been uprooted like none other. Of the nine players on the active roster, only left tackle Rodger Saffold and right guard Harvey Dahl were with the Rams prior to this season. So it may take a while to develop the consistency that is so important for effective line play. After missing much of the spring practice period and training camp following knee surgery (and a trip to Africa to adopt three children), Pro Bowl center Scott Wells is ready to roll. The free-agent pickup from Green Bay is strong, savvy, and tough, three necessary qualities for successful blocking. The hot spots are left guard and right tackle. Barry Richardson bested the now-departed Jason Smith for the right tackle job, with former New York Jet Wayne Hunter in reserve. After starting all four preseason games, Quinn Ojinnaka was cut, leaving the left guard job there for the taking for rookie Rokevious Watkins.
This unit has the potential to be special. Right end Robert Quinn must show he can hold up against the run, but he was practically unblockable as a pass rusher in the preseason and on the practice field. At left end, Chris Long is just hitting his prime coming off a 13-sack season in 2011. Potentially, the Rams could have two 10-sack players for the first time since Grant Wistrom (11) and Kevin Carter (10½) in 2000. At tackle, rookie Michael Brockers' ankle injury may slow the progress of this unit early in the season, but the first-round pick from LSU looks like everything the Rams hoped for when they drafted him. Brockers and free-agent pickup Kendall Langford are big and strong enough to occupy blockers, but athletic enough to push the pocket. Because of injuries, the depth at tackle is questionable, but Jermelle Cudjo had a strong preseason, and waiver-wire pickup Kellen Heard is a wide-body.
Once again, the burning question here is outside linebacker, a position the Rams have been unsuccessfully seeking to upgrade for years. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Rocky McIntosh may not be household names, and they may not be Pro Bowlers, but it looks like they will provide a boost in performance at weakside LB and strongside LB, respectively. Dunbar is extremely competitive. He can get through traffic to the ball, but is strong enough to shed blocks as well. His recognition skills are good. McIntosh, who won a close battle with Mario Haggan for a starting job, had four 100-plus tackle seasons as a Washington Redskin, so he knows his way to the football, too. Once again, James Laurinaitis is the quarterback of the front seven in the middle. He reported lighter to camp because he wanted to play quicker and improve his endurance. Backups Haggan, Josh Hull, and Justin Cole are all good special teams players.
Nowhere is the youth movement more evident than at the back end of the defense. Five of the 10 defensive backs are rookies, including undrafted rookies Quinton Pointer at cornerback, and Mathew Daniels and Rodney McLeod at safety. When the Rams are in their nickel package, two of the three corners will be drafted rookies Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Free agent pickup Cortland Finnegan is "Old Reliable," a seven-year veteran whose feisty play leads the group. At free safety, Darian Stewart vs. Craig Dahl was expected to be one of the most hotly contested battles of camp, before Stewart missed almost all of camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury, that is. All three of the team's top safeties — Stewart, Dahl, and strong safety Quintin Mikell — must cut down on missed tackles. There have been coverage issues here as well, which opposing teams may test with seam routes to tight ends.
The preseason results were excellent. Now let's see what happens under the pressure of the regular season. Rookie punter Johnny Hekker was erratic at times on the practice field in camp, but was much more consistent in preseason games with a 47.2 overall average, a 43.2 net, and five of 12 punts inside the 20. If he posts those kinds of numbers in the regular season, he'll contend for a Pro Bowl berth. Kicker Greg Zuerlein was so impressive, he already has two nicknames: "Greg the Leg" and "Young Jeezy." His only missed field goal in the preseason was from 62 yards, and four of his made field goals came from 50 yards-plus. Isaiah Pead (29.8-yard average) and Chris Givens (30.0) were very good on kickoff returns, with Pead expected to open with the job. On punt returns, Danny Amendola can get you a first down; Janoris Jenkins has home-run potential. Jake McQuaide returns as long snapper.