Training Camp Preview: St. Louis Rams
by Ted Carlson - Fanball.com
Notable Offseason Moves: According to the Chinese Calendar, the Year of the Ram ended on January 21, 2004 and gave way to the Year of the Monkey. As far as the people of St. Louis are concerned, the Rams' year stopped on January 10, when the team suffered a disappointing overtime loss to the Carolina Panthers on January 10. Despite that defeat, the Rams enjoyed a successful 2003 season, posting a 12-4 record and leading the NFC in points scored.
The Rams wisely made very few changes to their prolific offense during the offseason. Headlines and controversy surrounded Kurt Warner and his eventual release, but for this team's fantasy outlook, the news proved fairly worthless. Warner ceded his starting job to Marc Bulger early in the 2003 campaign, and the Rams solidified Bulger's position when they handed him a four-year, $17.25 million contract on May 3.
In anticipation of Warner's departure, the Rams signed veteran, injury-prone statue Chris Chandler to a three-year deal in March. The franchise then completed their quarterback depth chart by selecting Michigan State's Jeff Smoker in the sixth round of April's draft.
The bigger draft news, however, was the Rams choice to move up two spots in the first round to grab Oregon State running back Steven Jackson. According to head coach Mike Martz, the selection prompted the entire draft room to burst into boisterous applause, and we can only assume that Martz is telling us the unexaggerated truth. Maybe the Rams personnel was elated to find Martz once again following in Dick Vermeil's footsteps, as the Chiefs walked a similar path by choosing Larry Johnson in 2003.
Also on offense, the Rams opted to bring back tight ends Brandon Manumaleuna and Cam Cleeland, both of whom were free agents. The pair combined for an uninspiring 39 catches, 435 yards, and two scores in 2003, and we don't anticipate that their pay increase or another year of experience will greatly boost those stats.
On the defensive side of the ball, the club took a couple sizable hits over the past few months, starting at the top of their staff. Assistant head coach-defensive coordinator Lovie Smith signed up for the Bears' head job, and Martz responded by hiring old Arizona State pal Larry Marmie for the defensive coordinator position. Marmie held the same title for the Arizona Cardinals over the past three-plus seasons, and we all know how tough it's been to gain yards and score on those defenses over the past few years.
Marmie's biggest challenge will be to reconstruct the Rams' defensive line. Starting right end Grant Wistrom signed on with the rival Seahawks, and starting defensive tackle Brian Young took his game down to New Orleans. The Rams could also be without pass-rushing stud Leonard Little, who is in trouble with both the law and the league after being arrested for a DWI in April.
On a positive note, the starting defensive secondary remained in tact after the Rams matched the Redskins offer for cornerback Jerametrius Butler.
Position Battles: The Rams are returning their entire starting offense, so all the fighting occurs further down the depth chart. The biggest battle of fantasy note is at running back, where Lamar Gordon will aim to hold off Jackson for the right to start when Marshall Faulk gets hurt again. Gordon is the primary backup heading into camp.
The receiver ranks are also an area of strong contention. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are the unchallenged starters, but Dane Looker, Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis, and Mike Furrey all have a shot at taking the field on three-receiver sets. Considering how often Martz employs his third receiver, that struggle is certainly worth watching.
Ryan "Big Grease" Pickett and Damione Lewis occupy the starting defensive tackle spots entering camp, but the Rams would love to see the Jimmy Kennedy Experiment step forward to claim more playing time. Considering that all three are former first-round selections, the Rams are fairly optimistic that the interior of their line will be well filled. However, former Redskin Bernard Holsey is around just in case.
On the ends, Sean Moran and Bryce Fisher will fight for Wistrom's old spot, while Tyoka Jackson will likely stick on the left side in anticipation of a Little suspension. The team speaks highly of rookie Tony Hargrove, but he probably won't push for a starting job after sitting out the entire 2003 season due to academic ineligibility.
Keep an Eye On: Martz will be tinkering heavily with his backfield throughout camp. Knowing Mad Mike, though, he likely won't showoffs his tricks until the regular season. We expect his bag of sets to include some combinations of Faulk and Gordon or Faulk and Jackson in the backfield together. Marshall remains the primary weapon but the existence of other able runners could cut down on his touches.
As usual, left tackle Orlando Pace is flying under the franchise tag but wanting a long-term contract. The Pro Bowl lineman will likely sit out most (if not all) of training camp and send scares into any fantasy owners with Rams on their squads. We expect Pace to show up before the regular season, but his situation and participation is always something that needs close watching.
Staying with that theme, fantasy owners should be very worried if the Rams incur any injuries or other problems along the line. Their starting unit is one of the best in the league, but the team lost backups David Loverne and John St. Clair to free agency and now have very little experience down the depth chart.
Lastly, as touched upon earlier, the Rams defense could be in serious trouble if they are without Little. Wistrom and Little accounted for 20 of the team's 42 sacks last season, and a lack of pressure would obviously increase the stress on the linebackers and secondary. Without Leonard, Marmie's unit could easily turn into one of the more beatable defenses in the league, which could make them a welcome target for fantasy owners when setting lineups throughout the 2004 season.
Re: Training Camp Preview: St. Louis Rams
For fantasy purposes, Holt and Bruce are sure picks, but the rest of the pack of WRs (Dane Looker, Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis, and Mike Furrey) all have potential but all seem to be wild cards at the moment. Will a favorite appear during training camp or pre-season?
Picking the Rams defense would not be wise with the loss of seasoned players and Lovie. I'll be staying away from picking them for my team. Sorry Ram fans. The defense will probably struggle this year.