By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
PERSONNEL ANALYSIS: Free-agent pickup Paul Smith has emerged as the surprise starter at fullback ahead of second-year player Madision Hedgecock. Smith was signed as an unrestricted free agent in May after Detroit showed no interest in re-signing him. Smith is a tough, physical player who has shown good lead-blocking ability for feature back Steven Jackson. Smith's work on blitz pickup needs work, however. . . .
Despite the occasional challenge from Mark Setterstrom and Claude Terrell, Richie Incognito is holding onto the starting spot at left guard. In many ways, Incognito is a natural at guard, with his size, strength, mobility, and attitude. He has shown few signs of rust. . . .
The addition of DT La'Roi Glover should pay dividends for DE Leonard Little on passing downs. Little has faced consistent double-teaming and chip blocking over the past couple of seasons, which has affected his sack totals. But Glover still looks like a pass-rush threat on the interior, and may command his share of double teams as well, which should free up Little. Rookie Claude Wroten will provide another pass-rush threat at tackle; he has been replacing Jimmy Kennedy in the lineup in passing situations.
NEWCOMER REPORT: A potential $33 million was invested in free agency to make Will Witherspoon the centerpiece of the St. Louis defense at middle linebacker. The early returns have been encouraging. Witherspoon always seems to be around the ball, no matter what the situation-- pass, run, up the middle or sideline play. His speed and coverage ability will make him an every down linebacker. Teammates will feed off his enthusiasm and production. He still needs to refine some of the finer points of coordinator Jim Haslett's defense, but that should come in time. Witherspoon has his weight up to 240 to better handle some of the pounding that comes playing in the middle.
SCOUTING REPORT: So far second-year FS Oshiomogho Atogwe is making the most of his opportunity at a starting spot. Atogwe rarely played as a rookie, but has the range and overall speed needed to play the free safety position. An added bonus in the preseason has been Atogwe's willingness to play physical football, whether it's attacking a running back breaking through the line of scrimmage or punishing a receiver coming over the middle. It's an element of his game that wasn't evident as a little-used rookie last season. There is still a lot that Atogwe hasn't seen in terms of coverages and recognition, but he has a veteran to learn from in SS Corey Chavous.
TRAINING CAMP BATTLES: Rookie CB Tye Hill has shown impressive resiliency in his early weeks in training camp and the preseason. If he gets beat on one play, he comes back and wins the next one. But so far he cannot beat out veteran CB Travis Fisher for the starting spot at left corner. Fisher is a slim 187, and has been aggressive defending the pass and on run support. But Fisher needs to stay healthy; already he has experienced some groin problems but has missed very little practice. . . .
Ryan Fitzpatrick has the clear edge over Dave Ragone for the No. 3 quarterback spot, outperforming Ragone in both a team scrimmage and the preseason opener. Both QBs have good mobility, but Fitzpatrick has displayed better accuracy and better decision-making. Ragone was a late addition to the roster; having the entire offseason program to digest Linehan's offense has helped Fitzpatrick, who has shown more zip on the ball than he did late last season. . . .
In the battle of the rookie tight ends, second-round draft pick Joe Klopfenstein looks like the opening day starter over third-rounder Dominique Byrd. Klopfenstein has been more consistent catching the football and has done a better job blocking. In fact, Aaron Walker has been pushing Byrd for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart -- and Linehan figures to use two tight ends a lot.