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Rams' rookie class gets hands-on training
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
When the Rams opened the 2005 season Sept. 11 in San Francisco, only four of their 11 draft picks played - all in a reserve role.
In large part because of injuries to veterans, things changed dramatically over the next 3 1/2 months. By the time the ***** and Rams met again, on Christmas Eve in St. Louis, only four of the 11 rookies did not play.
Call it on-the-job training. Since Mike Martz became head coach in 2000, a period encompassing six drafts, no Rams draft class has played as much in its inaugural NFL season as the Class of '05. With one game still to play, the group has played in 84 games overall, with 36 starts among six rookies.
"You know, we've got to take our bumps and bruises together," said one of those draft picks, offensive guard Claude Terrell. "We'll get better together. And as we get better, we'll make this team better. But it's a learning experience for all of the rookies."
Over the second half of the season, four rookies have been regular starters. The apex for the Class of '05 was Nov. 27 in Houston. Terrell, right tackle Alex Barron, fullback Madison Hedgecock, cornerback Ron Bartell and strong safety Jerome Carter started.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick came off the bench in the second quarter, triggering a dramatic comeback in a 33-27 overtime victory over the Texans. As a topper, yet another '05 draft pick - safety Oshiomogho Atogwe - made a key sack of Houston quarterback David Carr in overtime.
"This is a good draft class," Rams general manager Charley Armey said. "These guys are all going to be good players."
Time will tell if that's indeed the case. It will be tougher to judge this class over time because it is heavy on offensive linemen and defensive backs, and light on skill position players.
The only "skill" players in the draft class who have had much playing time are the seventh-rounders - Hedgecock and Fitzpatrick. Hedgecock has been the regular fullback all season, but he officially has only six starts, because the Rams frequently begin games in three- or four-receiver sets. Following the stellar relief work in Houston, Fitzpatrick started against Washington, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
Normally, offensive linemen are brought along slowly, but that hasn't been the case this season for the Rams. Barron will start his 11th game of the season at right tackle in the finale Sunday in Dallas; Terrell will make his 10th start at left guard.
You must go back to Tom Newberry to find a Rams offensive lineman who started more games as a rookie. Newberry had 14 starts at left guard in 1986. (Orlando Pace had nine starts as a rookie tackle in 1997; Wayne Gandy had nine starts at a rookie tackle in 1994.)
"Barron's pluses are his size and intelligence," Armey said. "His long arms. His demeanor. He's extremely tough, physically and mentally. He's as tough an offensive lineman as we have. This is a highly competitive player.
"He needs to work on his technique, and he needs to get his pad level down. But the natural things that he does, that are easy for him, will just get more and more refined."
That Barron is starting is no big surprise. He was, after all, the 19th pick overall in the '05 draft. Terrell is another matter; he was the 134th player chosen.
"Terrell's a good run blocker," Armey said. "He's very stout. He's very intelligent. He makes a lot of rookie mistakes right now, which you would probably expect him to do. But he's getting more and more refined all the time."
When it comes to mistakes, the same goes for Barron. Barron has been responsible for almost 25 percent of the offensive penalties charged against the Rams this season. He has been nabbed for 15 of the 62 offensive flags against the Rams. (And Barron's total does not include two penalties against him that were declined by the opposition.)
Barron had a particularly tough stretch at midseason, getting called for 10 penalties over a three-game stretch: New Orleans (Oct. 23); Jacksonville (Oct. 30); and Seattle (Nov. 13). Five of those flags were in the second quarter against Jacksonville.
Barron has since cut down on his penalties. He has impressed interim head coach Joe Vitt with his willingness to play hurt the past two games following thumb surgery. Overall, he has been an above-average pass blocker as a rookie.
Terrell also has had some penalty problems. He's second among Rams offensive players with nine penalties this season, including three false starts against Philadelphia.
Terrell must improve his blocking on the second level - that is, getting off the line of scrimmage to block linebackers. He also must improve his co-op blocking - at times he is slow to react to stunts and loops by defenders. In the long run, Terrell figures he will be better for the experience.
"This season's just been a wonderful opportunity for me," Terrell said. "The Rams drafted me, and they gave me a chance. I worked myself into a position, to (earn) a spot. So I'm just trying to get better each day, and make a name for myself in this league."
Barron and Terrell could be fixtures on the offensive line for years to come. The prognosis for the three defensive backs taken in the '05 draft is murkier. Second-rounder Ron Bartell will make his seventh start of the season in Dallas. All have been in place of injured Travis Fisher.
"Bartell is getting better and better and better every week," Armey said. "There's a lot of things that he has to learn. First of all, he's starting to figure out that the speed of this game's different than it was at Howard."
Bartell's coverage has improved noticeably over the second half of the season, but his tackling and run support need work. Nonetheless, he has come a long way since being placed on the inactive list the first five weeks of the season.
"I always saw myself contributing, even with all the ordeals I was going through early in the year," Bartell said. "But I never thought I'd be starting pretty much half the season. So it's been a good year for me, except for the losing."
Carter has been a regular in the Rams' dime package (six defensive backs), and he started two games when Adam Archuleta was out with a concussion. He came to the Rams with a reputation as a big hitter in college but hasn't displayed that to date in the NFL. But he has been bothered much of the season by a nagging foot injury, and he may miss the Dallas game after aggravating the injury against San Francisco.
"He's starting to show up more and more in the right place," Armey said. "He's highly competitive. And once he gets comfortable with it, he's going to be a hell of a player."
Atogwe fell into disfavor with the coaching staff after making a few mistakes on special teams in the season opener. He didn't dress for the next four games. He has gotten some playing time on defense over the second half of the season, but not enough to get a good read on his future as an NFL safety.
Re: Rams' rookie class gets hands-on training
Barron will have 11 starts. Terrell will have 10 starts.
As a rookie, Pace (the 1st overall pick) only had 9 starts. That speaks volumes as to the state of current affairs.