7/23/2006

By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Despite offseason efforts to improve special teams, the return game appears as wide open as ever. Rookie Marques Hagans has a real shot to earn the punt return job because of his change-of-direction skills and ability to make people miss. But several others will get a look there in the preseason, including last year's primary punt returner, Shaun McDonald. WRs Brad Pyatt and Kevin Curtis could figure into the mix as kickoff returners. The Rams have lacked home run threats in the return game since the days of Tony Horne (kickoffs) and Az-Zahir Hakim (punts).

QB Marc Bulger enters training camp with a sound shoulder and has displayed his normal pinpoint accuracy and touch during the spring minicamps . Being out of the playoff race early in 2005 proved to be a blessing in disguise for Bulger. It allowed him to rest his shoulder an extra few weeks late in the season; had the team been in the playoff hunt in December, he would have rushed back into the lineup and slowed the recovery process. The hope at Rams Park is that a more balanced offensive approach and more reliance on the short and intermediate passing game will lead to less wear and tear on Bulger.

SCOUTING REPORT: Coach Scott Linehan's offense makes more use of an H-back than a pure fullback, but that might not necessarily result in reduced playing time for last year's surprise starter at fullback--Madison Hedgecock. Hedgecock has the size, mobility and good enough pass-catching skills to still be a contributor in the offense. A seventh-round draft pick in 2005, Hedgecock has good hands and some ability to get yards after the catch. He is a willing blocker but must still refine his blitz pickup and decision-making in the backfield.

SOMETHING TO PROVE: With his return from knee surgery slowed by a hamstring injury in late May, Jerametrius Butler needs a quick start in training camp in order to hold down his starting job at cornerback. In recent years, Butler was one of the few defensive backs to display any playmaking skills in coverage. But with first-round draft pick Tye Hill and free-agent pickup Fakhir Brown nipping at his heels, Butler could be left at the starting gate if he misses any significant amount of time during training camp.

INSIDE DISH: After a tumultuous final two years of the Mike Martz coaching era, empty seats started to pop up in the form of no-shows at the sold-out Edward Jones Dome. A fast start by the new regime of Coach Scott Linehan would limit any further erosion in what has been a solid fan base for the team since moving to St. Louis in 1995. Linehan already has earned high marks by employees at Rams Park for his positive approach. But team management knows morale--both inside and outside the building--ultimately comes down to winning football games.

RUNNING BACKS ANALYSIS: GRADE: B Steven Jackson has the size, the power, and the speed to be an elite back in the NFL, but there's not much depth behind him.