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NFL team preview: St. Louis Rams

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INSIDE SLANT

For a team that averaged less than 11 points a game in 2009, it was paramount that the Rams exit training camp with a unit that had the potential to be a lot better.

To do that meant making sure running back Steven Jackson was healthy following April back surgery, putting together an offensive line that could hopefully develop chemistry and, most importantly, getting rookie quarterback Sam Bradford ready to play.

It appears to be mission accomplished on all those fronts, which has resulted in some guarded optimism surrounding a team that has won just six of 48 games over the past three seasons.

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There remain questions about the wide receiver corps, but the tight end group looks promising. Still, everyone knows a healthy Jackson is most important.

Said Jackson, three days before the preseason finale against Baltimore, "I'm really excited. I'm ready for Sept. 12. As the days go by, I'm getting more anxious.

"I think as an offensive group, we're making great strides. For us to have so many young guys and be able to move the ball like we have these last two preseason games, it's very encouraging. We're going in the right direction."

Most impressive was how Bradford played in third preseason game against New England. It's looking more and more like Bradford will be under center when that Sept. 12 game is played, at home against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals.

The line is providing the most hope. At the end of OTAs in June, there were six offensive linemen on the sideline, including left tackle Rodger Saffold (knee), left guard Jacob Bell (knee) and right tackle Jason Smith (toe).

When camp opened, Saffold was at left tackle with Smith limited. Bell was sidelined by an abdominal injury and didn't play in the first preseason game. Smith played, but struggled in pass coverage against Minnesota. However, Bell returned following the game against the Vikings, and since then, the first unit hasn't missed a practice or game.

It all came together against the Patriots as the Rams totaled 462 yards and scored 36 points.

"Much better," Spagnuolo said of the play of the line. "I thought they all worked well together. I think the left side of the line is coming together; the right side is following. The communication is much better."

And with that is the hope that the offense can make three awful seasons a distant memory.

COACHING: Steve Spagnuolo, 2nd year, 2nd with Rams (1-15).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 1-15 (4th in NFC West).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record 5-11 (3rd in NFC West).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Rams made a pair of odd trades with Washington two days before the cut to 75 players. Traded to the Redskins was defensive end Hall Davis, who was their fifth-round pick, for a conditional draft pick. The Rams acquired fullback Dennis Morris, Washington's sixth-round pick, also for a conditional draft pick. The Redskins gave Davis a look at linebacker for two days, and then waived him Tuesday.

PLAYER NOTES

--OT Phil Trautwein was waived/injured with a knee injury that was expected to sideline him until some point in October.

--WR Keenan Burton was shut down in practice Tuesday when he experienced swelling in his knee. Burton has had persistent knee problems going back to his collegiate days at Kentucky.

--S James Butler (sprained MCL) has been running on the side and appears close to returning. There is hope he could be ready for the season opener, but that's not a certainty.

--QB A.J. Feeley threw on the side Tuesday, and the soreness in his thumb is diminishing.

--DE George Selvie returned to practice this week after missing time because of a lower leg injury.

--WR Danario Alexander is still practicing with a knee brace, but said he is close to being 100 percent. It is likely Alexander will open the season on the practice squad.

--WR Brandon Gibson has had a good two weeks of practice after missing time because of a hamstring problem. Gibson has a chance to see significant time after the loss of Donnie Avery for the season.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/1, QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma -- It would be a surprise if Bradford isn't the starter when the season opens. He has showed rapid improvement and, more important, has impressed his teammates.

Rd. 2/33, OT Rodger Saffold, Indiana -- He's been the starting left tackle from the first day of training camp and hasn't missed a snap. A natural pass blocker, Saffold should be at this spot for a long time.

Rd. 3/65, CB Jerome Murphy, South Florida -- An ankle injury slowed him during training camp, but he's in the hunt to be the nickel corner.

Rd. 4/99, WR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati -- Was slowed by missing some OTAs and then was hampered by a forearm injury, but he's coming on strong, and should get even more opportunity after the season-ending knee surgery suffered by Donnie Avery.

Rd. 5/132, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois -- The Rams became impressed with his hands during Senior Bowl week, and he hasn't disappointed. Has a chance to be the top receiving threat at tight end.

Rd. 6/170, TE Fendi Onobun, Houston -- The coaches are trying to figure out a way to get his speed on the field. Still raw with only one season of college experience, he has the ability to stretch the field.

Rd. 6/189, DE Eugene Sims, West Texas A&M -- Is making a late push for a roster spot after an early camp injury, and has a chance to be a contributor.

Rd. 7/226, DE George Selvie, South Florida -- Was off to a good start in camp when a leg injury put him on the sideline. He's back now, and could end up being a situational rush end on the right side.

Rd. 7/254, LB Josh Hull, Penn State -- Next-to-last pick in the entire draft, but he's played at a higher level than that. Might end up as the backup in the middle, and has special-teams ability.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Sam Bradford. Backups -- A.J. Feeley, Keith Null, Thaddeus Lewis.

We'll never know what would have happened had Feeley not injured his thumb in the second preseason game, but that enabled Bradford to get all the snaps with the first team in practice. He was outstanding against New England, but coach Steve Spagnuolo is waiting for the final game against Baltimore before making a decision. It would be a shock now if it's not Bradford. Feeley is a big help because of his experience in the offense, but Bradford has quickly made the offense his offense. There is a spirited battle for the No. 3 job between Null and Lewis. Null has one season in the offense, but Lewis brings a dimension of speed that could make him attractive.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney. Backups -- Kenneth Darby, Chris Ogbonnaya, Keith Toston.

Jackson has exhibited no ill effects from April back surgery, and is ready for the start of the season. He has matured into a leader and never complains that he has been toiling for a bad team. Jackson is invested in the program and believes he can be part of a turnaround. Of course, he needs to stay healthy because of the depth behind him. Darby and Ogbonnaya are OK in brief appearances if necessary, but if Jackson were to miss extended time it likely wouldn't be good. Both Ogbonnaya and Darby are solid pass-catchers. Toston has shown some power, and might have potential. The question is whether the Rams keep four running backs on the roster. Karney has stayed healthy this summer, something he wasn't able to do last year, and remains a banger in the running game.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Billy Bajema. Backups -- Michael Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun, Daniel Fells.

The question is whether Fells makes the team. His 2009 season ended because of a knee injury, and his knee has limited him this summer. Plus, when Fells plays, while having the ability to make plays, his consistency is lacking. Bajema is a solid blocker, and adequate as a pass-catcher. Hoomanawanui scored two touchdowns in the third preseason game against New England, and is an absolute bargain for a fifth-round pick. Onobun is more advanced than coaches thought he would be, and he could end up being used on the outside as more of a receiver than tight end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola. Backups -- Brandon Gibson, Keenan Burton, Mardy Gilyard.

The loss of Donnie Avery stung. Entering his third season, improvement was expected, and even though he hadn't lived up to expectations, he was still a starter when his knee blew out against the Patriots. His speed will be difficult to replace. Robinson is solid, but the question is how the Rams will deploy the other receivers. Amendola is more of a slot receiver, but he might be needed on the outside unless someone else steps up. Gibson showed promise last season after being acquired in a trade in October, but a hamstring injury affected his OTA work and for times during training camp. He did score a touchdown against New England, and has finally had two weeks of practice. If he can stay healthy, he can be productive. Gilyard will also get a shot on the outside, and it could be that coaches will use a variety of different packages. Burton has a knee problem again, which has affected his playing time. That could open the door for Jordan Kent, Dominique Curry or Brandon McRae. The latter two, along with Danario Alexander, are candidates for the practice squad.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Rodger Saffold, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Adam Goldberg, RT Jason Smith. Backups -- C/G Hank Fraley, T/G Ryan McKee, T/G Renardo Foster, G John Greco, G/C Drew Miller.

Knock on wood: If the starting line can stay together, this unit is a lot better than popular perception. The Rams played their best offense last season when the four starters from Bell to Smith were in the lineup for three straight games. Saffold replaces Alex Barron, and while there will be some growing pains, Saffold wants it a lot more than Barron ever did. The key is staying together, which means avoiding injury. Bell had injury concerns last season and this year in OTAs and early in camp. Smith has had a knee injury, concussion and toe injury since last September. Depth is a major concern. Fraley is the most experienced backup, and after him, there is a void. Greco could be in danger of being released because of his injury issues. McKee and Foster might have an edge for a backup spot because they practiced at both tackle and guard during camp.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Chris Long, DT Fred Robbins, DT Gary Gibson, DRE James Hall. Backups -- DE George Selvie, DE Eugene Sims, DE C.J. Ah You, DE Victor Adeyanju, DT Clifton Ryan, DT Darell Scott, DT Jermelle Cudjo.

The biggest surprise of camp was when Gibson moved ahead of Ryan as a starter inside. Could Ryan be in danger of being released because of his $1.684 million contract? Perhaps. Hall, who has missed a few weeks because of a hip injury, is expected to be ready for the opener, and he usually moves inside on passing downs. The wild card is Cudjo, an undrafted free agent who has been impressive. Robbins adds experience to the line, and he also has the ability to penetrate. At end, Long is comfortable on the left side and should be able to reach double digits in sacks. The question is whether Sims and/or Selvie push Adeyanju off the roster. Coaches still like Ah You, who also can fill in on the inside.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Larry Grant, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Na'il Diggs. Backups -- Chris Chamberlain, David Vobora, Bobby Carpenter, Josh Hull.

Laurinaitis is the leader of this group and the leader of the defense. Grant was the surprise of the summer, and he has solidified his spot as a starter on the weak side, with Diggs on the strong side. The coaches like Chamberlain as the nickel linebacker, which could make Carpenter vulnerable if the decision is to keep just six linebackers. All though, including Carpenter, Vobora and Hull are likely special teams contributors.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Ron Bartell, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Oshiomogho Atogwe, S Craig Dahl. Backups -- CB Kevin Dockery, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Justin King, CB Quincy Butler, S James Butler, S Kevin Payne, S Darian Stewart.

The corners are strong with Bartell and Fletcher, especially with Fletcher apparently having made it back from his season-ending knee injury. The competition is for the nickel corner between Dockery and Murphy, and potentially between King and Quincy Butler for a roster spot if only five corners are kept. Atogwe shows no signs of problems from his 2009 shoulder injury. Dahl holds down the other safety spot until James Butler (knee) is healthy. Payne has had a knee injury late in camp. Stewart might steal a roster spot.

SPECIALISTS: PK Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Mardy Gilyard, PR Danny Amendola.

This remains the unit without many questions. Brown has been kicking as good as ever after missing time in camp with a hip injury. Since returning, he has made seven consecutive field-goal attempts. Jones and Massey remain as consistent as anyone in the league at their positions. One question is how the return duties will be split. With Amendola having a larger role in the offense, it's unlikely that he would return kickoffs and punts. It's possible Amendola will be the punt returner, with Gilyard returning kickoffs.
 

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