Tight End Competition Heating Up
Sunday, May 14, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Not many rookies enter their first minicamp with a starting job dangling in front of them. But for Rams’ rookie tight ends Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd, that’s exactly what could be in the not-so-distant future.

After using a second-round choice on Klopfenstein and a third-round selection on Byrd, coach Scott Linehan made it clear that he was looking for a changing of the guard at tight end. The next day, he traded incumbent Brandon Manumaleuna to San Diego for a fourth-round pick.

That flurry of moves means the longest-tenured Ram at the position is Jerome Collins, who is entering his second season and Aaron Walker, who has been in the league for four seasons, is the most experienced. In other words, the starting tight end job is one that will likely be hotly contested well into the summer months.

“I think they are all competing for a spot,” Linehan said. “We haven’t named a starter at tight end obviously. I don’t think we are going to be in a hurry to say who is in the lead. Right now they are just picking it all up. They know they are in competition, but we are going to be in a lot of tight end sets so one or two of them are going to be on the field quite a bit anyway. I think they are finding their way right now. The competition picks up hot and heavy when you get to training camp.”

In the meantime, Byrd and Klopfenstein join a group of young tight ends that includes Collins, Ed Nelson, Rod Trafford and Jonathan Williams in what figures to be one of the more interesting competitions to watch over the next few months.

While there’s little doubt about the talent that group has, Linehan isn’t terribly fond of the lack of experience. Linehan has never had a rookie start at tight end for him in his years as an offensive coordinator.

“I haven’t and we are not too wild about the idea at this point,” Linehan said.

This is the first weekend Linehan and the coaching staff has had an opportunity to look at the rookies and most of the weekend is spent learning the basics and making the adjustment to the speed of the game at this level.

Neither Klopfenstein nor Byrd is worrying too much about competition right now with so much left to learn.

“They are saying they need someone to step up and it’s an open job,” Klopfenstein said. “It’s a battle out there and we are all going to be fighting for it. I am just focusing on myself and doing the best I can and whatever happens, happens.”

Byrd was excited to see the opportunity, but he views it as just that, an opportunity.

“Maybe I’m a little more optimistic, but you don’t take anything for granted,” Byrd said. “I am going to come here working hard as if there were Pro Bowl tight ends working in front of me.”

That’s the kind of healthy competition Linehan hopes to see develop in the next few months. And though it’s still possible the Rams could find a tight end with more experience, Linehan could find comfort in starting a rookie because of the wealth of talent and experience surrounding him.

“The thing I am comfortable with is we have a very veteran offense,” Linehan said. “If we weren’t a veteran offensive team, like at Miami last year, I’d be more concerned about that.”

ALSTON APPEARS: Linebacker Jon Alston arrived in St. Louis for the rookie minicamp on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately for Alston, it will be his only appearance at Rams Park until June.

NFL rules state that players who have not completed their school years cannot compete in any minicamps or workouts until their school year is complete. There is an exception made for the rookie minicamps, hence Alston’s appearance this weekend.

“I wish I could be here for all of that stuff because there is a lot of defense going in and stuff to learn,” Alston said. “I want to be here to compete and be the best I can be.”

Alston said he expects to return to St. Louis soon after the June minicamp, when Stanford’s classes finally come to a conclusion. In the meantime, he hopes to add some weight, saying he’d like to be between 225-235 pounds for the season.

“It will give me an opportunity to go home and try to put on a few more pounds,” Alston said. “I will get the tape from the coaches and I think that will help me kind of make up the difference. But obviously you can’t replace on the field.”

When the Rams drafted Alston, Linehan said he envisioned using him in a variety of ways. Alston is working as a weak side linebacker (WIL) right now, though, but expects to be involved on special teams and as a situational pass rusher.

Alston doesn’t care much where he lines up, so long as he gets a chance.

“I just love the game, whatever I am doing,” Alston said. “I love the contact, being out there with the guys and competing.”

Even if he has to wait.

CATCHING UP: A big reason for separating the rookies and younger players from the grizzled veterans for at least one minicamp is to let the youngsters grow accustomed to the speed and tempo of an NFL practice.

That adjustment can be bigger for some than others, but no matter who the player is, there is at least some fine-tuning to be done.

“A lot of these guys were at places that practiced at a high level, but what’s different here for them is it’s like going from being an eighth grader to a freshman in high school,” Linehan said. “You have to start all over and it’s the same when you go to college. We talked about that. You have to take the anxiety away from that initial shock to the system.”

So, while it would be ideal for the rookies to be able to come in and learn all the plays and be ready for camp in three days, it simply isn’t realistic.

“We want to teach them how we want to practice, not as much what we are putting in plays, but how we are going to practice,” Linehan said.

WASHINGTON RETURNS: John David Washington made his Rams debut in yesterday’s practice sessions, but didn’t stick around last night. Washington’s family came to St. Louis to pick him up so he could walk in his graduation at Morehouse College on Saturday night.

Washington missed Sunday’s morning session, but returned in time for the afternoon workout.