Position battles begin for Rams
BY JIM THOMAS
jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197

With the first full-squad practice of training camp Sunday afternoon, let the position battles begin. Rarely has there been as much offseason roster upheaval for the Rams as what took place in recent months under coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and executive vice president Kevin Demoff.

It will make for an interesting camp and preseason. Injuries will complicate matters; they always do. And who knows what undrafted rookie will jump out and surprise. As they embark on their 18th season in St. Louis ó where did the time go? ó a position-by-position look at the 2012 Rams.

QUARTERBACKS

The question of whether Sam Bradford can have a bounce-back season wonít be answered for months. The priorities for Bradford are much narrower in focus:

1.) Continuing to familiarize himself with another new offense, this one run by new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

2.) Getting in sync with a still-young receiver corps that could feature at least three new members on opening day.

Because of his past association with Schottenheimer as a member of the New York Jets, veteran Kellen Clemens is the odds-on favorite for the No. 2 job. If Fisher decides to keep three QBs, undrafted rookie Austin Davis of Southern Mississippi could give Tom Brandstater a run for his money.

RUNNING BACKS

Barring injury, this is one of the most settled positions. Steven Jackson, duh, is the starter. Rookie second-round pick Isaiah Pead is the top backup. And rookie seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson is the favorite for the No. 3 job. Preseason play, particularly Games 2 and 3, should provide hints on exactly how the Rams will use Pead, but it may take several regular-season games for his role to be fleshed out.

RECEIVERS

Undoubtedly, the most interesting unit in training camp with eight obvious candidates for probably six jobs. Listed alphabetically, the eight are Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Steve Smith and Brian Quick. Other than Amendola and 2012 draft picks Quick and Givens, itís hard to say if any of the eight are roster locks. Salas was coming on strong as a rookie in 2011 before a season-ending fractured fibula in Week 8. He was impressive in the spring.

Veteran Smith, picked up from Philadelphia in free agency, got better as the spring progressed, and could be a "sleeper" find if he stays healthy. Pettis flashed at times in the spring, but has two games remaining on his four-game suspension for violating NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. As a result, he wonít count against the 53-man roster limit at the start of the season, which will make the final roster cuts a little easier.

That leaves local favorite Alexander and Gibson. We all know the story with Alexander: big-play potential but chronic knee problems that have kept him off the field. Gibson had 89 catches for 1,051 and three TDs over 2010 and í11, but what appears to be a stronger receiver corps could push him to the bubble.

TIGHT ENDS/FULLBACKS

Entering camp, the top three are Lance Kendricks, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, a free-agent pickup who played for Schottenheimer with the Jets. The Rams have eight tight ends in camp, so itís almost as if Fisher is telling the group: Show me something. One of the eight, former Bradford college teammate Brody Eldridge, is suspended for the first four games for violating the performance-enhancing substance policy. The situation becomes more fluid if the talented but injury-plagued Hoomanawanui canít stay healthy. At fullback, the just-signed Ovie Mughelli will duke it out with Brit Miller for the job.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The hot spots are left guard and both tackle spots. Left guard is wide open as can be. The coaches like the potential of fifth-round draft pick Rokevious Watkins, a wide-body with strong hands who can move the line of scrimmage. Trouble is, Watkinsí body got a little too wide during the six-week summer break. Other than stretching and conditioning work, he didnít participate in the three-day rookie camp after reporting overweight and out of shape. That could open the door for Bryan Mattison, Robert Turner, Quinn Ojinnaka Ė or a player to be named.

At left tackle, Rodger Saffold recently was cleared for full practice, completing his recovery from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2011 season seven games prematurely. Saffold wasnít playing all that well before the injury and must return to his strong rookie form of 2010. At right tackle, itís now or never for former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith. Plagued by concussion issues his first two seasons, Smith could be one major concussion away from being out of the league. The team is thin at tackle, even with the offseason addition of former Chief Barry Richardson. Pro Bowl center Scott Wells, one of the teamís major offseason acquisitions after being signed away from Green Bay, will be worked in slowly as he recoveres from knee surgery.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Thereís no suspense on the starters. The front four will consist of Chris Long at left end, Robert Quinn at right end, and first-round draft pick Michael Brockers and free-agent pickup Kendall Langford at tackle. This could be the strongest unit on defense if Brockers can adjust quickly to the NFL and Quinn shows he can play the run (and avoids a suspension following his July 10 arrest for driving while intoxicated). William Hayes and Eugene Sims are the top backups at end; Darell Scott and Trevor Laws should fill those roles at tackle.

LINEBACKERS

Once again, James Laurinaitis will be a cornerstone of the defense at middle linebacker. Once again, the question is can the Rams upgrade their play at outside linebacker. A pair of modestly priced free-agent pickups ó Jo-Lonn Dunbar (from New Orleans) and Mario Haggan (Denver) ó are projected starters on the outside, with Dunbar on the weakside and Haggan on the strongside. Former Redskin Rocky McIntosh, signed on the final day of the spring practice period (June 14), can play inside or out. Josh Hull should provide quality depth, leaving seventh-rounder Aaron Brown and three undrafted rookies fighting for backup jobs.

SECONDARY

Even with the moves on the D-line, cornerback could be the most improved position on the team, what with the addition of Pro Bowl free agent Courtland Finnegan from Tennessee; the expected return to full health of Bradley Fletcher from knee surgery; and draft picks Janoris Jenkins (second round) and Trumaine Johnson (third round). Jenkins could be a starting corner (over Fletcher) and Johnson the top nickel back (over Jerome Murphy). But donít count out Josh Gordy, who was one of the defenseís top spring performers. Fisher has said on a couple of occasions that there could be a corner or two cut by the Rams who end up being claimed by other teams.

The safety position looks cut-and-dried with Quintin Mikell, Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl the top three. But keep an eye on undrafted rookies Matthew Daniels and Rodney McLeod.

SPECIAL TEAMS

A rookie punter (Johnny Hekker) AND a rookie place-kicker (Greg Zuerlein)? The Rams may be asking for trouble here. It will take a while to sort out the return game, with Amendola, Jenkins, Pead, Richardson and Salas among the candidates for return duties.