Rams Position Analysis
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Sep. 11 2004

QUARTERBACKS

Starter: Marc Bulger.
Reserves: Chris Chandler, Jeff Smoker.

For the first time in his career, Bulger enters an NFL regular season as a
starting quarterback. He actually got a lot less work in exhibition games this
preseason as opposed to his previous three campaigns with the club. After
averaging 75 throws in the 2001, '02, and '03 preseasons, he threw only 36
times this preseason.

After a rocky game against Kansas City, and a few erratic tosses against
Washington, Bulger closed strong against the Redskins and looked sharp in his
only series against Oakland. He must cut down on his interceptions, improve his
deep touch and avoid rushing through his reads. If he does that, he will make
the jump from a good NFL quarterback to an elite one.

Veteran Chris Chandler outplayed Bulger in the preseason, with a 97.9 passer
rating and a 65.9 completion percentage, easing concerns about his ability to
be an effective QB at age 38. He looks like a good fit for this offense, and
can still zing the deep ball.

The third QB, rookie Jeff Smoker, isn't close to being ready to play in an NFL
game.

The Stat: Bulger's .818 winning percentage (18-4) is the best among
active NFL quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 regular-season starts.



RUNNING BACKS

Starters: Marshall Faulk (RB), Joey Goodspeed (FB).
Reserves: Steven Jackson (RB), Arlen Harris (RB/FB), Chris Massey
(FB), Stephen Trejo (FB/TE).

Faulk says he feels better entering this season than he has in a few years. But
who knows how his right knee will hold up in this, his 11th NFL season? Faulk
doesn't have the burst he displayed three years ago. But his vision,
intelligence, pass-receiving skills, and competitive fire appear to be as good
as ever. It's unrealistic to think he can get 20-25 touches a game and hold up
for most, or all, of a 16-game season. That's where rookie Steven Jackson comes
in.

Jackson led the NFL in rushing during the preseason with 323 yards, and is a
good pass catcher. How he handles a regular-season game plan remains to be
seen. The same goes for his blitz pickup and pass-blocking in general, an area
in which Faulk excels.

Slowed for part of the preseason with a hamstring injury, Joey Goodspeed has
shown that he can at least be a competent fullback. He's a willing blocker,
with decent pass-catching skills.

Although no game breaker, Arlen Harris can do a solid job running the ball and
also may be used at fullback in certain formations. Once again, Chris Massey is
a good insurance policy at fullback. Trejo just joined the club on Thursday, so
his role is uncertain.

The Stat: Only Jerry Rice (205), Emmitt Smith (166), and Marcus
Allen (145) have scored more career TDs than Faulk (131).



TIGHT ENDS

Starter: Brandon Manumaleuna.
Reserve: Cam Cleeland.

In matching Carolina's five-year, $8.3 million offer sheet to Manumaleuna last
March as a restricted free agent, the Rams made a commitment to him as their TE
of the present and future. Manumaleuna dropped about 15 pounds during the
offseason, and looks rather nimble at about 275. This should make him more
effective as a receiver, while leaving him plenty big to do what he does best -
block at the line of scrimmage. The key with Manumleuna is eliminating - or at
least minimizing - mistakes in blocking and blitz pickup.

Cleeland missed half the preseason with a hamstring injury, but has been
impressive blocking and receiving when healthy. He caught four passes for 72
yards in the preseason finale against Oakland. After catching just 10 balls
last season with the Rams, he should be more of an option in the passing game
in '04.

The Stat: Manumaleuna established career highs in catches (29) and
reception yards (238) last season.



WIDE RECEIVERS

Starters: Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt.
Reserves: Dane Looker, Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis, Mike Furrey.

As he enters his 11th NFL season, Bruce has shown no signs of slowing down at
age 31. If the league is serious about enforcing the illegal contact and
defensive holding rules throughout the season, Bruce should be even more
effective. There might not be another receiver in the league who gets grabbed
and tugged as much as Bruce.

Although Holt has yet to match Bruce as a big-game receiver, he has surpassed
him as the team's go-to receiver over the past couple seasons. Holt led the NFL
in catches (117) and reception yards (1,696) last season, and at age 28, is in
his prime athletically. Besides the obvious talents of Holt and Bruce, what
potentially makes this receiving corps special is its depth of talent.

Looker established himself as a viable No. 3 receiver with 47 catches a year
ago. After injury-plagued rookie seasons, second-year men Kevin Curtis and
Shaun McDonald had impressive preseasons. McDonald could provide the kind of
open-field elusiveness in the slot not seen since Az-Zahir Hakim was on the
club. Mike Furrey plays aggressively and isn't afraid to go over the middle.

The Stat: Bruce enters the season ranked 15th in reception yards
(10,461) and 20th in receptions (688) in NFL history.



OFFENSIVE LINE

Starters: Orlando Pace (LT), Chris Dishman (LG), Andy McCollum (C),
Adam Timmerman (RG), Grant Williams (RT).
Reserves: Darnell Alford (G), Tom Nutten (G), Blaine Saipaia (G),
Scott Tercero (T/G), Larry Turner (C)

The return of Pace after another contract stalemate helps stabilize this unit,
which was jolted by the loss of '03 starters C Dave Wohlabaugh (hip) and RT
Kyle Turley (back). Dishman, who came out of retirement to play left guard,
looks like a good addition. Quick moves will give him trouble, he plays with an
attitude and can be a road grader in the running game.

The Rams won't miss a beat at center, where the savvy McCollum returns after
spending '03 at left guard. Timmerman has been an anchor on the right side
since joining the team in 1999 as a free agent from Green Bay. He is
technically sound and still moves well. Williams replaces Turley as the
starting right tackle. He's nearly 30 pounds trimmer than a year ago, which has
helped his footwork and quickness. Although not as athletic as Turley,
Williams' height (6-7) and wingspan make him difficult to get around.

The depth situation is questionable, although Nutten should help once he gets
over a turf toe injury and gets back into football shape. He also came out of
retirement, and was out of football last season. Tercero's play leveled off in
the final two exhibition games, but still was one of the pleasant surprises of
camp.

The Stat: Including playoffs, Timmerman has played in 159
consecutive games.



DEFENSIVE LINE

Starters: Leonard Little (LE), Ryan Pickett (DT), Damione Lewis
(DT), Bryce Fisher (RE).
Reserves: Erik Flowers (DE), Anthony Hargrove (DE), Brian Howard
(DT), Jimmy Kennedy (DT), Tyoka Jackson (DT/DE).

Even with the loss of Grant Wistrom via free agency, the Rams should be fine at
end. Not only is Little a premier pass rusher, his run defense and pursuit make
him one of the league's top all-around ends. Little's drunken-driving trial
isn't expected to be heard until January at the earliest, so his availability
shouldn't be a question - at least not in the regular season.

Bryce Fisher replaces Wistrom at right end. Fisher matches Wistrom in effort,
but lacks Wistrom's speed. Rookie Anthony Hargrove and Erik Flowers are speedy
backups. Defensive captain Tyoka Jackson also will be in the mix at DE, but
might be used more at DT early in the season where the Rams are shorthanded
because of Jimmy Kennedy's broken foot and Brian Young's free-agent departure.

It is imperative the team get solid play from starting DTs Ryan Pickett and
Damione Lewis, or it's going to be a long year for the defense. Pickett has
rounded into shape after reporting heavy to Macomb. Lewis has had a good camp
and preseason, but must transfer that play into games and must stay healthy.
Undrafted rookie Brian Howard is a high-effort player who will be part of the
rotation at DT.

The Stat: Only Michael Strahan (52) and Simeon Rice (41 1/2) have
more sacks over the past three seasons than Little (39).



LINEBACKERS

Starters: Pisa Tinoisamoa (OLB), Robert Thomas (MLB), Brandon
Chillar (OLB)
Reserves: Trev Faulk (MLB), Tommy Polley (OLB).

In one of the major surprises of camp, it looks as if Chillar has beaten out
Polley for the starting job at stronside LB. If that's the case, the Rams will
start a rookie at linebacker for the third straight season. This is a very
fast, but very young LB corps, with Polley - a fourth-year player - the
graybeard of the group. Chillar has shown good range and instincts, plus some
blitzing ability. Thomas is growing into his job as one of the leaders of the
defense, and could be poised for a breakthrough year.

An offseason in the system should help Tinoisamoa make fewer mistakes and
become more disciplined in the system. It's difficult to imagine Polley not
making a significant contribution over the course of the season, particularly
in pass coverage - which is his strength. Backup Faulk is expected to be a
major contributor on special teams.

The Stat: Tinoisamoa became the first rookie in franchise history to
lead the team in tackles (121) in 2003.


SECONDARY

Starters: Jerametrius Butler (LCB), Adam Archuleta (SS), Aeneas
Williams (FS), Kevin Garrett (RCB).
Reserves: Zack Bronson (S), Rich Coady (S), Travis Fisher (CB),
DeJuan Groce (CB), Jason Shiver (S), Dwight Anderson (CB).

Fisher's broken forearm has left the Rams one corner short, and puts the onus
on second-year players Garrett and Groce to hold down a starting spot for most,
or all, of the season. Garrett has superior speed, which gives him the
"recover" ability many CBs lack when a wide receiver gets a step or two on
them. But Garrett isn't as polished as Groce, who was slowed by a knee injury
late in the preseason.

Butler, who was pursued in the offseason by Washington as a restricted free
agent, returns for his second season as a starter. Butler has good range and
athleticism, has been more physical in run support, and is playing with more
confidence. At free safety, Williams looks more comfortable in his second
season there since switching from corner. Once again, he will move up to cover
the slot receiver - in cornerback fashion - when the Rams go to their five- and
six- defensive back packages.

At strong safety, Archuleta has had a quiet preseason. But he is one of the
team's top defenders, particularly in run support. Coady will be the fifth
defensive back, and Lucas enters the season as the No. 6 DB.

The Stat: Including playoffs, Williams has 15 TD returns on
interceptions, fumble recoveries, and a blocked field goal.



SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker: Jeff Wilkins.
Punter: Sean Landeta.
Kickoff returns: Arlen Harris, Mike Furrey.
Punt returns: Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey.
Holder: Dane Looker.
Deep snapper: Chris Massey.

Under new special teams coach Mike Stock, the coverage units were noticeably
improved in the preseason. Punt coverage was excellent. There were a few leaks
on kickoff coverage, most notably Ahmad Merritt's 87-yard return for Chicago.
But overall, these units have been sound. It looks as if McDonald gets the
first crack at the punt returner's job, and he showed flashes of being an
effective one in the preseason. On kickoff returns, Harris is steady, but lacks
breakaway ability.

Wilkins is one of the best kickers in the league, and is coming off one of the
best seasons for a kicker in NFL history. As he enters his 20th season as an
NFL punter, Landeta remains better than most.

The Stat: Wilkins is tied with Mike Lansford for the franchise
record for points scored (789).