Sorting out what the Rams need to accomplish before Week 1
Will Kenny Britt find a way to contribute? Can Jake Long stay healthy AND productive? How will St. Louis keep Sam Bradford upright? Howard Balzer, in his debut article with FOX Sports Midwest, takes a look at the key issues facing the Rams in training camp.
The Rams are hoping Kenny Britt (right) can add a new dimension to the receiving corps.
Jeff Roberson / AP
By Howard Balzer
ST. LOUIS -- It's finally time for some football in St. Louis, six months after the Rams' 2013 season ended with a 7-9 record. Following an offseason that saw the organization tread lightly in free agency, Jeff Fisher's squad was able to load up with 11 draft picks who will keep the team as one of the youngest in the league.
Rookies got a head start with workouts at Rams Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Friday kicking off the first full-squad practice. Here is what the Rams hope to accomplish in the next 46 days leading up to the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at the Edward Jones Dome on Sept. 7:
SORT OUT THE RECEIVER CORPS
The only significant addition was Kenny Britt, who was drafted by Fisher in Tennessee and has the best size-speed combination of anyone on the roster. If Britt's head is on straight, he should stick with the first team in practices, even though the team's camp press release listed Chris Givens and Tavon Austin as expected starters, with Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick as key contributors. No Britt. Is that a motivational ploy?
Austin's main role should be as the third receiver, while the improving Bailey will miss the first four games of the season because of a PED suspension. This third season is an important one for Quick, who has shown flashes but not enough to be on the field consistently. The best result would be for Britt and Givens to start, with contributions from everyone else.
SOLIDIFY THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The key to this unit is left tackle Jake Long playing at a high level after an ACL injury, and staying on the field all year. He hasn't been able to do so for the last three seasons. If he can, the newbie guards Greg Robinson (left side) and Rodger Saffold (right) can gain stability at their respective positions. If one has to play left tackle at some point, at least the vacated guard spot should be in good hands with Davin Joseph.
Center Scott Wells needs to stay healthy or Barrett Jones could be ready to take over the position. The underappreciated Joe Barksdale will be the right tackle. Rookies Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrius Rhaney, both seventh-round picks, will compete for depth spots, but could end up on the practice squad.
T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod were the starting safeties last season, and it seems unlikely that will change anytime soon. The question is whether defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can find a way to turn them into playmakers, which Williams always wants from his safeties. Last season, McDonald and McLeod combined for just three interceptions and eight passes defended.
The larger question is depth and whether any of the other safeties can challenge for a starting job. Fourth-round pick Maurice Alexander missed most of the OTAs after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, but he was cleared for practice Monday and was on the field Tuesday. Seventh-round choice Christian Bryant is still on the sideline recovering from a foot injury suffered in Ohio State's fifth game last season. He is beginning camp on the non-football injury list. The wild card is the talented Matt Daniels, who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but has ended both his seasons on injured reserve. He has played a total of six games in two seasons.
MIGHT AS WELL WORK ON CORNERBACK, TOO
Like the safety group, this is another incredibly young unit. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are the starters, but who will be the nickelback, which in the pass-happy NFL is often on the field at least 50 percent of the plays? Bet on second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner, who will be deployed all over the field and could be a difference-maker early. Second-year man Brandon McGee and sixth-round pick E.J. Gaines will also be in the mix, along with undrafted free agent Marcus Roberson. The oldest player in the entire secondary is the 25-year-old Jenkins.
The embattled quarterback got more work than he expected during the offseason and felt good, but throwing while wearing a don't-touch-me jersey in OTAs is just a tad bit easier than competing with bodies flying around his surgically repaired knee. Bradford must show confidence, exert leadership and remain healthy for the offense to operate at high efficiency. Two of his four NFL seasons have been marred by injury, and that must change for the Rams to continue their upward ascent. Backup Shaun Hill will get a good deal of work during the summer, but Bradford can only hope Hill won't be needed when the calendar turns to September.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.