By STL Shane Gray
On Saturday, the St. Louis Rams’ second annual #RamsFanFest attracted approximately 15,000 spectators to the Edward Jones Dome and, according to head coach Jeff Fisher, served to wrap up the first phase of training camp.
“This actually, for us … kind of culminates one phase of camp because there’ll be a day off on Sunday and then three days later we’re going to travel (to Cleveland for the preseason opener),” Fisher said.
With the first phase of camp completed, here are my top 10 observations thus far:
-The Front Four
The Rams’ starting defensive front has the potential to be as good as any in football. We know what they can do in getting to the quarterback, posting 28 of a league-leading 52 team sacks last year.
What’s extraordinary about this group, as detailed here, is that they are young and possess the potential to still improve substantially.
Furthermore, what could this unit do if actually playing with a lead on more than rare occasions? If the offense can produce more points and leads, it will give some of the game’s premier pass-rushers many more prime opportunities to pin their ears back and unabashedly go full throttle after the opposing QB.
As defensive end Robert Quinn told Ben Fredrickson of foxsportsmidwest.com, the potential is there for him and the entire line to surpass the sack numbers from a season ago.
“I definitely think the numbers can increase,” Quinn said, “not just for me, but for the whole defensive line.”
If the impressive quartet can bolster its run D, which is an area that needs improvement, there might not be a better starting front four anywhere than what we see St. Louis field this fall.
-Fierce Front Seven
A season ago, the defense was six-sevenths of the way toward possessing a front seven with across-the-board top-tier talent. With the addition of first-round outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, St. Louis is now in position to trot out one of the fiercest such groups in the game.
This unit has it all: depth; interior size, strength and quickness; ends with burst and elite-pass rush talent; a smart and productive leader at middle linebacker; and two extremely talented, skilled, fast and physical outside linebackers – one of whom has proven himself as a terrific run stopper (Jo-Lonn Dunbar) and a former safety (Ogletree) who should give the Rams a chance to man-up and cover some of the game’s better tight ends more successfully than they have in years. If so, this will allow MLB James Laurinaitis more opportunities to play downhill rather than having to drop back in pass support all too frequently.
-Who’s Winning the RB Battle?
Having witnessed many of the Rams’ practices to this point, second-year runner Daryl Richardson has clearly been the Rams’ best back. A year ago, he excelled on exterior runs. To my surprise, however, he recently told me that his favorite runs are of the inside variety. Watching Richardson, his burst is phenomenal and he hits holes decisively. He gets to top speed quickly and explosively exploits open running lanes. He has also improved in regard to pass protection.
In short, Richardon looks different – in a good way – than his competitors at the position.
On Tuesday, Fisher himself expressed an expectation that Richardson will start – at least for now.
“I think Daryl comes back as our starter because he played significantly more last year than anybody, and so Isaiah (Pead) is working himself up and competing with Daryl.”
Speaking of Pead, the 2012 second-rounder has been the team’s second-most impressive back thus far. He has improved in pass protection, and his hands have looked much improved as compared to a year ago. Unfortunately for Pead, he doesn’t hit the hole as decisively or as consistently well as Richardson does at this stage.
Rookie Zac Stacy has flashed both good burst and nice hands thus far. He will certainly make the roster and – when considering that Pead will be suspended for the season opener – he will likely receive several reps and an opportunity to establish himself in Game 1. If nothing else, Stacy will serve as a nice change of pace from the smaller Richardson and Pead. He offers good power and should be a solid short-yardage runner. He is very patient back with terrific vision. He is also faster than some might expect.
If the Rams keep a fourth at the position, it will likely come down to second-year back Terrance Ganaway or rookie Benny Cunningham. A long shot could be Chase Reynolds, a solid player who could have a shot due to his special teams attributes.
-Speed, Speed Speed at WR
This group has speed to burn. From top to bottom, it is one of the league’s fastest receiver corps, particularly when throwing hybrid tight end Jared Cook into the mix, as he will line up as a de-facto wideout quite often.
The Rams boast something that few if any teams match, and that is top-tier speed at three pass-catching positions: outside with Chris Givens, inside with rookie Tavon Austin and at hybrid tight end with Cook. The 6-4 Brian Quick is no slough in regard to swiftness, either.
According to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, this is probably the fastest group he’s yet to coach.
“We had a team back with the Jets that was pretty fast with Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards and those guys, but this is probably the fastest unit I’ve been around.”
Quarterback Sam Bradford has also expressed praise for his wide receiver corps’ collection of swiftness.
“Obviously, we have a lot of speed and a lot of playmakers now.”
Although the entirety of the unit is getting love for its superlative speed, rookie Austin is specifically being heralded by many – including Mike Mayock of the NFL Network – for his rarified foot fleetness.
“He might be the most explosive player I’ve ever seen in my life, from a static start to full speed. He’s almost impossible to cover in short spaces.”
-Quick is Quicker, But Will He Catch On?
Talking with Quick recently, he told me he is faster this year. Watching him, it is absolutely true. He has calmed down, is running better routes and is playing smoother, quicker and a bit bigger than he was a year ago.
At 6-4, Quick has Terrell Owens-like size, speed, movement and athletic ability. Watching him stroll around the practice field, he even walks like T.O. Quite simply, Quick has all the physical tools necessary to develop into an outstanding receiver.
Unfortunately for the Rams and Quick, he is still dropping far too many passes. Late last week and during FanFest last Saturday, Quick dropped a plethora of should-have-been receptions. Some were easy chances and some were tough, but all should have been reeled in.
For the St. Louis O to play at an optimal level, it is imperative that Quick shores up his hands and plays bigger and stronger this season. He has the size, speed, leaping ability and overall athleticism to be a formidable force. Quick should be a staple in the red zone on fade patterns, for example, and should be able to go-up-and-get any ball thrown his way in one-on-one coverage, a la a Michael Irvin.
But will he do so? No matter how much his route running has progressed or how many ways he has grown his game, it won’t mean much if he cannot show an ability to consistently catch the ball.
As camp and the exhibition slate play out, it will be interesting to see if his hands begin cooperating with the rest of his noticeably enhanced game.
Could this defense be a top-five troop? Last year, the Rams finished No. 14 in points allowed while starting rookies at several positions, implementing a new scheme and deploying lesser players at outside linebacker and safety than what they will this season.
My biggest concern heading into camp was the safety spot, but so far so good there. Veteran Darian Stewart – who produced eye-grabbing numbers in 13 2011 starts – has been able to stay healthy after struggling with injuries through camp last year. Rookie T.J. McDonald – a player possessing great size and a tremendous football pedigree – has progressed and impressed more quickly than expected.
This defense can only reach its maximum potential if the back end of the secondary can hold up. If it does, a top-five ceiling projection seems to be a reasonable one.
According to Dunbar, the potential for this unit to ascend to an elite level is there.
“The potential is endless. We can be one of the nastiest defenses in the league.”
St. Louis backup quarterbacks Kellen Clemons and Austin Davis have alternated second-team reps at QB every other day. Thus far, Davis would look to have a slight edge, but neither has stood out.
The preseason will, of course, help to sort this battle out.
In the spring, Fisher alluded to a likelihood of second-year man Davis winning the backup job. Time will tell if he is ultimately able to do so.
-The Promising Punter
During last year’s camp, rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein found a way to steal the show on frequent occasions by blasting and connecting on big-time kicks from 60 yards and beyond.
This year, second-year punter Johnny Hekker has taken his turn at grabbing the attention of media and fans. Yes, he showed a strong leg in 2012, but this year that leg has seemingly been amped up and looks stronger. In addition, his accuracy on directional punts has been upgraded.
If this trend continues, it certainly bodes well for the Rams’ coverage units. A top-flight punter can help to maximize field position and make a defense’s job as doable as possible.
-More Quality Starters and Depth
With what looks like a second consecutive offseason, it appears the Rams will boast some of the best all-around offense/defense/special teams starters that they have in the better part of a decade.
In addition, these consecutive productive offseasons is beginning to bolster the backups, aka the roster’s depth. If injuries occur or if starters falter, we all know that a quality, well-rounded roster is paramount.
For example, if rookie Ogletree were to come out of the gate slow or if a linebacker were to get dinged up, the Rams can confidently run veteran Will Witherspoon in with confidence.
We see what looks like fortified depth at other spots, too, such as at wide receiver, center, running back and tight end.
-The Pleasant Surprises
Franchises, like any of us, don’t always enjoy surprises. However, they certainly love pleasant ones.
Thus far in camp, the Rams have enjoyed a plethora of pleasant surprises – from wide receiver Andrew Helmick of Lindenwood University, to former safety-turned-outside linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong of Miami, to cornerbacks Brandon McGee and Andre Martin.
The preseason will largely determine which of these and other pleasant surprises make the Rams’ roster or practice squad. To this point of camp, the end of phase one, the preceding have done a nice job making positive impressions upon the coaching staff.