ST. LOUIS — With expectations soaring after a bountiful offseason, the Jeff Fisher era kicks off its second season — OK, preseason — Thursday night at Cleveland. You can watch the pregame show on FOX Sports Midwest at 6 p.m., followed by the 7 p.m. kickoff on FOX Channel 2.
Here are six things to watch (and one thing not to):
The first play
Who cares if offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s first play call of the preseason has absolutely no bearing on what he’ll call on the first play of the regular season? As great as is the anticipation about the Rams’ new offense, the first play will mean the regular season is a little bit closer. Besides, you never know. Maybe the first play of the preseason will provide a little insight about the offense we’ll see in the regular season.
At last Saturday’s FanFest workout, one portion of the practice began with a run by Tavon Austin. The second play was a short pass to Austin. We at least can hope that was a clue about what we’ll see in the regular season.
Speaking of Austin, he has to rank No. 1 on the rookies-to-watch list, perhaps nationally as well as in St. Louis. He says he considers himself a slot receiver, but he grew up a running back before excelling as a multipurpose back at West Virginia. Look for the Rams to get him the ball as many ways as they can. Austin’s college teammate, Stedman Bailey, has looked good in training camp but still ranks no better than fifth on the depth chart. Hopefully, that means getting to see more of him in the preseason.
Linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald are the other rookies who appear to already have secured starting jobs. Among the team’s running backs, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy has the size to best run inside. He didn’t practice Tuesday because of general soreness — “Zac took a veteran’s day,” fellow Vanderbilt alum Chris Williams joked — and could be limited against the Browns.
As the third-team center, Alabama All-American Barrett Jones should see a lot of playing time in the preseason. That’s fine by me. He’s an easy guy to root for.
The running backs
If there was any doubt about who would be starting in the backfield, Fisher ended it the other day when he said Daryl Richardson enters the preseason as No. 1. It makes sense. Richardson is the only returning back who carried the ball for the Rams more than 10 times last year. Plus, first-team candidate Isaiah Pead already has been ruled out of the regular-season opener because of a one-game league suspension.
With a starting spot secured, Richardson probably won’t be used as much as the other backs Thursday. Which, in turn, means Pead should see it more. After his disappointing rookie season, Pead has plenty to prove in the preseason as well as the regular season.
The new guys
Tight end Jared Cook already seems to have emerged as Sam Bradford’s favorite target. It’s easy to understand why. Cook has good size, great hands and enough speed to be able to line up on the outside as well as the inside. To see the comfort level Bradford has already developed throwing to Cook takes only a few plays, which is good because they won’t figure to play more than that against Cleveland.
You really don’t want to see much of new left tackle Jake Long. If you are, it likely means that you’re watching replays of Long being beaten for a sack. The Rams are paying him a lot of money to protect Bradford.
The other receivers
Let’s assume Austin and Cook will be as productive as advertised and Bailey also will have his moments. Bradford still will need more targets. The Rams believe he has them in Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brian Quick. But for that to be the case, all three will have to be much improved over 2012. This will be the first chance to see if they are.
The special teams
If you really want to know the players most likely to be filling out the 53-man roster, watch the special teams. Chances are good the players you see on the kicking and return teams Thursday night will be on the final roster.
As Fisher said after the FanFest, “We’re anxiously awaiting our new core group of special teams players to see what they can do in live situations against the Browns.”
What not to watch: Final score
“Any time you play a game, you’re playing to win,” Fisher said. “That’s what we’re going to Cleveland for and that’s what they’re going to try to do.”
OK, sure. A head coach always is obligated to say that.
But Fisher knows the final outcome will be forgotten by the time the Rams play their second preseason game, which will be Aug. 17 at the Dome against the Packers.
Besides, the Browns don’t provide much of a test these days. They went 5-11 last year and aren’t predicted to be much better in 2013. Their top offensive threat, running back Trent Richardson, will not play against the Rams because of a bruised shin suffered when he was kicked in practice last week.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.