Rams rebuilding job leans heavily on kids
ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Rams players are assigned parking spots outside the training facility based on seniority, and the roster is so heavy on youth, quarterback Sam Bradford is close to the front of the line.
At age 26, the first overall pick in 2010 is a grizzled veteran on this team.
"Yeah, it’s interesting," Bradford said. "Feeling a little older every year."
Training camp opened with 62 players age 24 or younger, many of them front-liners. The Rams are counting on the kids to grow up fast and lead the way for a franchise seeking its first winning season since 2003.
"Despite the age on paper, the team doesn’t act that way," coach Jeff Fisher said. "The team acts much more mature, and will be much more prepared."
Last season the Rams had the NFL’s youngest team and reached seven wins for the second straight season while accepting mistakes general manager Les Snead calls "spilled milk." They might be the youngest team again, but with enough experience to withstand the growing pains.
There’s already been plenty of learning on the job, and not just for rookies who arrived last Monday. Snead refers to front-liners who left college early, some of them in their second or third year in the lineup, as "redshirt sophomores and juniors."
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis emphasizes to younger teammates that every snap counts, even in practice.
"When it comes down to it, you can’t have repeat mistakes," Laurinaitis said. "Darren Bates shouldn’t be making the same mistake I made because he should be paying attention and getting those mental reps."
Outside linebacker Alec Ogletree unseated Laurinaitis as the team’s leading tackler as a 21-year-old rookie last year. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, 23, is entering his third season.
Guard Greg Robinson, 21, was the second pick of the draft after two seasons at Auburn. Fellow Tigers alum Tre Mason, the youngest player on the roster at 20, figures to be in a job share at running back with grizzled vet Zac Stacy, 22.
The gold standard for players they’ve plugged in early is defensive end Robert Quinn, who set a franchise record and led the NFC with 19 sacks. He’ll be entering his fourth season at age 24.
"You saw what Robert did," Snead said. "What happens is those guys are maturing, too, and not only physically but also mentally.
"You have got to just let them evolve."
Wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, both 23, are looking to build on promising rookie years.
Fisher and Snead presided over a roster teardown in 2012 with the Rams coming off a rock-bottom five-year stretch in which they totaled 15 wins. They didn’t necessarily come in with a three-year turnaround plan.
"This isn’t a cookie-cutter league," Snead said. "If you really feel like you’re progressing, then ‘Let’s stay the course.’ So that’s kind of where we’re at right now."
The Rams have only three players age 30 or older — center Scott Wells, backup quarterback Shaun Hill and guard Davis Joseph. They’ll lean on a solid core to help lead the way.
End Chris Long is entering his seventh season, Laurinaitis his sixth and Bradford his fifth. All three have endured extreme lows and are cautiously optimistic this team has the goods to climb the rugged NFC West, which has produced the last two Super Bowl champions.
Expectations were high in 2011 coming off a seven-win season under coach Steve Spagnuolo, followed by a nosedive back to the bottom of the NFL.
"We have a lot of potential, but that stuff has to play itself out on the field," Long said. "We’ve been here before where we’ve said, `This has got to be the year.’
"Well, it’s got to be the year if we make it the year."