Monday, August 20, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

The expected absence of Fakhir Brown for the first four games of the regular season has created plenty of opportunities for other cornerbacks to find a niche.

By now it’s clear that Ron Bartell will get the opportunity to be the starter on the outside in Brown’s place, but that leaves openings for others to land playing time.

Included in that shake up is the question of what will happen with the nickel position.

“I don’t think it will really change,” coach Scott Linehan said. “Bartell will slide in there and then the biggest thing will be who will be the next guy in. With Lenny (Walls) and Jonathan (Wade), we still just have to keep seeing how things play out with the first four games being the way they’re going to be with Fakhir being out.”

In other words, it’s not a question of who will fill the nickel back role rather who will be the guy to fill in on the outside when Bartell slides inside. >From all indications, Brown will regain his job when the time comes.

But beyond that, there is going to be plenty of early opportunities for a third cornerback to get on the field in the early process. That competition has come down to two main competitors: Wade and Walls.

Both of those players got snaps against the Chargers and Vikings in the first two preseason contests and both have had varying degrees of success.

For his part, Wade has been one of the most rapidly improving rookies on the team. His performance against Minnesota gave a glimpse of a speedy, athletic corner who doubles as a willing tackler.

Wade didn’t fare as well against San Diego, but defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Wade has looked better than expected considering he hasn’t played cornerback for that long.

“Jon drives you crazy sometimes at practice, because he’s got a lot to learn,” Haslett said. “You ask a guy to learn corner, play nickel, play man, play zone, so there’s a lot on his plate for him, for a guy who is really an ex-wideout at one time. He has a lot on his plate, but in the games, he kind of reacts. He just kind of does it and does a pretty good job of it.”

Wade has been a bit of a revelation for a team searching for depth at the position. And while the coaching staff appreciates Wade’s eagerness to tackle, he finds himself out of control at times, an area Haslett would like to see improve.

“The thing I always say to him is if it was third and two, go be aggressive and go try to make the tackle,” Haslett said. “Third and eight, come under control and who cares if the guy gains 5 or 6? Gather him, get him under control and make the tackle. He was out of control, but he does make tackles. He’s a pretty good tackler, but he was so out of control that he missed the tackle, and the guy gets a first down. He has to understand the down and distance, where he’s at on the field, all those situations.”

Walls, meanwhile, certainly looks the part of a player capable of being a solid cover corner. At 6’4, 197 pounds, Walls has the size to match up against the biggest receivers and many tight ends.

Walls is more of a physical type of cornerback who prefers bump and run coverage to zones. Despite his size, though, Walls has been a career underachiever. Injuries and inconsistency have made it hard for Walls to find a permanent home in his five years in the league.

“I have so much more to prove,” Walls said. “I feel like I have underachieved. The sky is the limit for me if I can stay healthy and continue to grow. I am just very talented but I haven’t proven to the world what I think I am capable of doing.”

Because of his size, Walls is more suited to the outside than the nickel, but it’s uncertain whether he will win the job as the No. 3 corner. For now, it seems Wade has the inside track on filling that role.

With two preseason games to go, there is still plenty of time for Wade or Walls to solidify his position.

TIME TO WORK: Running back Steven Jackson hasn’t quite received the LaDainian Tomlinson treatment in the preseason, but he’s been pretty close.

While Tomlinson will not and has not played at all in San Diego’s two preseason contests, Jackson has been on the field. But he’s only played about six snaps total with a pair of catches and zero carries.

As usual, the third preseason game is the time when most regulars get the most work. That will apply to Jackson this week as he is expected to get more of a workload against the Raiders than he has in the first two games combined.

Linehan said he has made it a point to keep Jackson healthy and to give the other backs an opportunity to prove their value.

“If Steven weren’t in the game, who are we going to play?’” Linehan said. “I don’t have any question about what Steven is going to be able to do. My biggest thing with running backs is that they get hit a lot. During the regular season they get hit a lot more than any other position on our football team. You try to be really smart about that in preseason. He takes all of the reps with the ones in practice; you guys know he’s out there. We keep him out of some, but he gets a lot of snaps during the week.”

With Jackson essentially sitting out the first two preseason games, the opportunity has presented itself for rookie back Brian Leonard to carry the banner.

“Our biggest question and we are answering it, is, ‘Can Brian fill that number two spot?’” Linehan said. “The only way to figure that out is to play him like he is in a starting role. As far as the snaps, the plan all along was to play Brian a lot in the first half of all of the preseason games.”

GETTIN’ HIS KICKS: Another big name Ram who has been able to relax in the first two preseason contests is kicker Jeff Wilkins.

Wilkins is following his normal preseason routine and not kicking until the third preseason game. So, Wilkins will get some work this week against Oakland.

“He’ll kick this game,” Linehan said. “You guys have been around here – this is probably the sixth or seventh year that this has been the program and it’s worked. We went in with the plan last year that we were going to do that and we’ll do the same thing this year, so he’ll be our kicker for this particular game.”

In the meantime, undrafted rookie kicker Kevin Lovell is shining with his opportunity. Lovell has converted all four of his field goal attempts and both extra points. While Lovell will not be on the final 53 (barring injury to Wilkins), he has certainly made a strong impression on the coaching staff and other teams around the league.

“I think the young kid has really helped himself,” Linehan said. “I’m really impressed with Lovell’s kicking. He didn’t kickoff quite as well as he did last week, but he still was very accurate with his field goals and he’s doing a real nice job.”

RAM BITS: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is still recovering from a rib injury from the hard shot he took in the preseason opener. Fitzpatrick has been limited and didn’t play in the game against San Diego. Still, Fitzpatrick (who returned to practice Monday) will almost certainly be the No. 3 quarterback when the final roster is formed…While it’s unclear whether the Rams will keep three or four tight ends, expect Dominique Byrd to be one of them…Richie Incognito (ankle) and Todd Steussie (neck) missed Monday’s workout. Joining them was center Brett Romberg, who is also nursing a sore ankle…Receivers Dane Looker and Dominique Thompson broke out the red jerseys for the first time as they went through practice but were off limits to contact…Guard Mark Setterstrom took some repetitions at center in Monday’s practice with Romberg out…Linehan all but confirmed that the Rams will keep four running backs in addition to a fullback with Steven Jackson, Brian Leonard and Travis Minor seemingly safe and sound...With the absence of tight ends coach Judd Garrett because of his wife's death, Jim Chaney and Jeff Horton are working with the tight ends in practice.