Thursday, August 30, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

1. Catching On

Perhaps no position up for grabs in the preseason finale has drawn as much intrigue as the competition for the sixth receiver spot. It’s a battle that appears to be down to three players: Marques Hagans, Dominique Thompson and rookie Derek Stanley.

“We have a pretty veteran group, but we’re looking for a guy that’s going to be somebody we can call on or count on,” coach Scott Linehan said. “What that means in the first game? I don’t know that that means a person’s going to be actively playing, but you know how things work. You have to have a guy ready to step in and play.”

Of that group, Hagans seems to have emerged as the leader. He has been steady throughout the preseason and has made a number of big plays in practice and the games. Additionally, he has showed improved ability as a returner.

Stanley has also had his impressive moments, including some big plays in the preseason opener against Minnesota. Thompson has been injured but is probably the most polished of the three.

Each member of that group will get a chance to prove himself against the Chiefs for the final time. Ideally, the Rams would keep all three rather on the practice squad or active roster, but Linehan knows that’s not the reality of the NFL.

“That’s the tough part,” Linehan said. “That’s the gamble. Ultimately, we’ll probably have to expose a player that we may want to keep on the practice squad, but maybe aren’t going to be able to. That’s the reality of what happens and everybody’s going to be doing the same thing come Saturday and Sunday with these guys that are really good, young players, but people didn’t have room because of the depth you have.”

ANSWER: While Stanley and Thompson made a few plays, Thompson in particular, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Hagans doesn’t make the team after yet another big performance. Hagans finished with four catches for 53 yards including the game’s lone touchdown, adding a 19-yard punt return and a kick return for 27 yards. Needless to say, Hagans would seem pretty safe in his position.

2. In the End

Another interesting battle brewing is at the defensive end position, where a potential fourth spot remains up for grabs.

Leonard Little, James Hall and Victor Adeyanju are safe in their positions, leaving a battle between Trevor Johnson and Eric Moore for the final spot.

“We have a defensive end battle that’s getting real interesting,” Linehan said. “We have two guys that bring different things to the table and play pretty well all camp.”
Johnson had a sack in his first play as a Ram against the Vikings and has experience playing linebacker which makes him a versatile option.

Moore spent the end of the 2006 season with the Rams and has an advanced knowledge of the defense as well as the ability to work as a rush linebacker if the need arises.

Both players will get plenty of opportunities against the Chiefs to state their case and the one that makes more plays will likely land the job.

ANSWER: Not much was decided as both players came up with some big plays. Johnson and Moore each registered a sack and Johnson finished with a pair including a forced fumble. Moore left the game late with back spasms, but Linehan will have a difficult decision this weekend for the fourth spot.

3. ‘Backing Up

As for the linebacker position, it’s pretty clear there are five with their jobs solidified. Will Witherspoon, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brandon Chillar, Chris Draft and Jon Alston are ready to go, leaving the potential for three guys competing for what will likely be two spots.

Tim McGarigle, rookie Quinton Culberson and Raonall Smith are angling for the possible two spots.

McGarigle has been injured in camp and missed considerable time which has hurt his chances. He will play against the Chiefs and will get every opportunity to make up for lost time.

Culberson was a hit early in camp for his ability to always be around the ball, but has tapered off a bit in recent weeks. Smith has the most experience and worked plenty as a rush linebacker last season.

The Rams will probably keep seven linebackers with six expected to be active on Sundays. It’s still unclear who will man those positions, but McGarigle and Culberson are eligible for the practice squad if they don’t land a spot.

“It’s fairly tight as to who is going to be – who our six active linebackers will be on game day,” Linehan said. “I think we have a pretty good idea of one through five, but that sixth player. Who is that guy going to be?”

In addition to the work at linebacker, keep an eye on special teams as the player who is the sixth active linebacker must always be a key component of that unit.

ANSWER: If McGarigle was in the bottom of the ninth in terms of making the team, he might have hit a home run with his touchdown-saving interception early in the game. That play saved a score and ultimately the game for the Rams. Smith and Culberson were relatively quiet, but Culberson made a few nice tackles. Regardless, it seems McGarigle landed himself on the roster with his effort against the Chiefs.

4. Down on the Corner

With Fakhir Brown scheduled to miss the first four weeks of the season because of a suspension from the league, the Rams will need to carry another cornerback into the regular season for depth.

As it stands Tye Hill, Ron Bartell, Lenny Walls and Jonathan Wade form the core group of corners, leaving an open spot for another youngster to make a difference and land on the roster at least until Brown returns.

That battle has been trimmed to a two-way contest with one player emerging in the lead. Josh Lay and Darius Vinnett are vying for the position, but Vinnett seems to have an edge heading into this game.

“Lay’s improved,” Linehan said. “Vinnett made a great play tackling a guy as a safety on the kickoff return last week. Yesterday he made a great interception in practice. What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed and heart. He’s probably made a pretty big impression on somehow having a Rams uniform in one way or another. I think this game’s real big for both those guys.”

Vinnett and Lay will get plenty of playing time on defense and special teams. It’s a chance for Vinnett to sew up a spot and for Lay to make an impression in a battle that isn’t over yet. If neither does well tonight, it's also possible the Rams could opt to scour the waiver wire for a more experienced corner.

ANSWER: If last week was Vinnett’s week to show up, Lay made a nice case for himself against the Chiefs. At one point in the third quarter, Lay came up with consecutive pass breakups. But Vinnett made sure he was forgotten with a nice special teams tackle to help preserve the win late in the fourth quarter. It appears Vinnett would be the favorite heading into the cut down, but nothing definitive could be determined from Thursday’s game.

5. On Guard

One of the most difficult things to sort out in the battle for roster spots during the preseason is along the offensive line. Questions abound about how many linemen the team will keep and that too is still undecided according to Linehan.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do offensive line –wise,” Linehan said. “How many we’re going to carry – if we’re going to carry nine. Someone who plays well enough, we may consider carrying another one. If someone doesn’t play well enough obviously that effects what you do with your roster.”

It’s safe to write in pen that Orlando Pace, Alex Barron, Richie Incognito, Mark Setterstrom, Brett Romberg and Todd Steussie will land on the final roster.
Andy McCollum will likely be there as well as Romberg’s backup, but a trade or move isn’t completely out of the question. Keep an eye on Setterstrom to see if he gets any work at center which could become a telling sign.

Beyond that, there are a few players fighting for spots that depend on whether the team keeps nine or 10 linemen.

Adam Goldberg, Claude Terrell, Milford Brown, Jeremy Parquet and Dustin Fry remain in consideration for those spots.

Terrell seems to have an edge for one of the guard positions and Goldberg is likely a fit because of his versatility.
Still, there could be as many as four offensive line spots up for grabs when all is said and done.

ANSWER: Steussie broke his foot and is probably going to be placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. That opens up an additional spot on the offensive line heading into the season. Brown got some work at tackle and will likely continue that if he lands on the roster. Goldberg is safe and sound now and the Rams could carry an extra lineman heading into the season.