Rams Team Report
June 4, 2008

Jim Thomas
For Sporting News

After showing flashes of playmaking skills in coverage over the past two seasons, cornerback Ron Bartell could be on the verge of a breakthrough season as the 2005 second-round pick enters his contract year. Bartell has good size and speed for the position but will need to beat out either Fakhir Brown or Tye Hill for a starting position in camp.

Although he prefers corner, Bartell has added value because he also has been used at safety in some situations. Behind Bartell, the Rams will be looking for continued improvement from second-year man Jonathan Wade.

Raw rookie Justin King probably isn't ready for more than just special teams duty. Free-agent pickup David Macklin has the savvy that comes with previous starting experience, but his lack of deep speed could make him a liability in man coverage. . . .

Running back Steven Jackson isn't setting any lofty goals for '08, at least not yet. But after falling well short of his targeted 2,500 yards from scrimmage a year ago, Jackson is poised for a bounce-back season.

Like Bartell, Jackson is entering a contract year, which can be a great motivation. Although the team didn't add a pure lead-blocking fullback in the offseason, something Jackson had hoped for, improvements in the offensive line, plus the addition of blocking tight end Anthony Becht should help the running game.

New offensive coordinator Al Saunders had great success with big backs in Kansas City, including Larry Johnson, and his track record as a play-caller indicates he will stay more committed to the run than head coach Scott Linehan did calling plays for the Rams.

SCOUTING REPORT Will Witherspoon may be a natural weakside linebacker, but the team seems determined to keep him in the middle where his speed and range allows him to make plays all over the field. Witherspoon played at a Pro Bowl level for most of last season but appeared to wear down late in the season. Taking on blockers at the point of attack isn't his strong suit.

Witherspoon is at his best when he can run around them or avoid the blocks. A sure tackler who never leaves the field, Witherspoon is above average in his coverage of tight ends and running backs. Another element was added to his game last season, when he was used with surprising success (seven sacks) as a blitzer. As long as the defensive front is keeping blockers off the undersized Witherspoon, he is very effective in the middle.

DEFENSIVE ENDS ANALYSIS:

A healthy Leonard Little and the addition of No. 2 overall draft pick Chris Long should do wonders for an end corps that was one of the team's weakest links a year ago.

Little, coming off toe surgery, seems determined to reestablish himself as one of the game's better edge rushers as his career winds down. Little may be used less in run situations to reduce wear and tear.

Long will start at right end, but expecting big things out of him immediately may be unrealistic since he will be facing each team's top pass blocker at left tackle. Last year's starting right end, James Hall, provides nice depth in the rotation. Grade: B. Pro Bowl-caliber players: None.