Postcard from camp: Rams
Steve Spagnuolo was on Eagles staff that slow-played Donovan McNabb as rookie
Getting a healthy offensive line to jell is a main priority in St. Louis
Steven Jackson's game intensity is also present on the practice field
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Rams camp in Earth City, Mo. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Rams practice at their year-round facility outside St. Louis. On Monday they held one workout in shells (helmet, shoulder pads and shorts). The talk of the day was the weather. After more than a week with a heat index approaching triple digits, the temperature dropped beneath 90 and the humidity took a timeout, making it San Diego-like, relatively speaking.
1. With only six wins over the past three seasons, the Rams know they're in rebuilding mode. But there is an air of confidence that they're headed in the right direction. Top pick Sam Bradford continues to get a lot of work with the No. 1 offense and looks prepared to win the starting job. People marvel at his poise, accuracy and competitiveness. Coach Steve Spagnuolo was an assistant on the Eagles staff in 1999, when Philadelphia drafted QB Donovan McNabb second overall, spotted him the first two months then placed him in the starting lineup. But Spagnuolo cautions against jumping to conclusions that he plans to handle Bradford in the same manner. The coach says he has no timetable for naming a starter. Says Bradford: "I really don't know if there's a right way to do it. I know for me, as a competitor, I want to be on the field as soon as our coaches feel I'm ready."
2. The offensive line had a rough outing in the exhibition opener against the Vikings, allowing Bradford to be sacked four times. But there is no sense of panic within the organization. The reason is that the projected starting five has yet to work together. Left guard Jacob Bell has been nursing an injury, and right tackle Jason Smith, the second pick overall in 2009, only returned from a fractured toe two weeks ago. The Rams also have been experimenting on the interior, aligning incumbent center Jason Brown at right guard while playing free-agent Hank Fraley at center. The team got another scare Monday when left tackle Rodger Saffold, an impressive 2010 second-round pick, left practice with a back injury. X-rays were negative.
"As an offensive line we really look forward to getting into a rhythm where you know the guy that you're playing next to on the left and on the right, and you get to a point where you know what they're thinking without communicating," says Brown.
Spagnuolo says he hopes to settle on a lineup this week. Ultimately the Rams figure to start (from left to right) Saffold, Bell, Brown, Fraley or Adam Goldberg, and Smith. The plan at the end of last year was to have Smith return at left tackle, but that changed when Saffold was still available at the top of the second round. The former Indiana standout has never played right tackle, so the Rams moved Smith because he played both right and left tackle in college.
"I think the whole team begins with the offensive line, not just the offense," says Spagnuolo. "If you look at all the good football teams, if you have an offensive line that is mean, tough and talented and can run the ball and protect the quarterback, that team is usually pretty good. Because when they go against the defense in practice, it makes the defense better. With all the injuries we've had, it's been a struggle for us to get that smoothed out."
3. If Bradford is to succeed, it will be without a true No. 1 receiver. Projected starters Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson are both better-suited to No. 2 roles. Plus, each has had injury problems during his career. Robinson has missed 23 games the past two seasons because of injury, while Avery has been hampered at times by minor ailments. Danny Amendola has the inside track at slot receiver, but the team is also high on rookie fourth-round pick Mardy Gilyard, who this week returned from a forearm injury. Gilyard has not only straight line speed, but also a natural "wiggle" that makes him a threat in the open field. With no true No. 1 at the position, the Rams will try to capitalize on each player's skill set.
To facilitate the rebuilding effort, Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney brought in free agents who not only have ties to Spagnuolo, but also are accustomed to playing on winning teams. Guys such as defensive tackle Fred Robbins, interior offensive lineman Hank Fraley, linebacker Na'il Diggs and quarterback A.J. Feeley. They also traded for Dallas linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who is making the switch from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. The Rams believe Carpenter will be more effective as a pass rusher in this system.
"These guys have an idea of what it's supposed to look like," says Spagnuolo. "I've always felt that players on any team tend to put more weight in what another player says than the constant pounding of the coach. They'll listen to coaches, but when it's backed up by veterans who are saying the same things, that helps."
The key signing could be Feeley, who understands and accepts that Bradford is the face of the franchise and possibly the quarterback of the present instead of the future. Feeley is committed to helping Bradford grow and won't be a distraction if Bradford wins the starting job from the outset.
One of the things Spagnuolo is selling to the players is opportunities. It appears this class will get a lot of work. Bradford appears on schedule to be the opening day starter, Saffold, at this point, has locked up a starting job, Gilyard will get a lot of looks, and tight end Fendi Onobun is an intriguing prospect who has opened eyes.
There is a smoothness to Bradford that grabs your attention. Some guys simply look the part, and he's one of them. He zips balls downfield with relative ease and often places his passes where only his receivers can make a play on them. On Monday, he was lethal on a seam route, floating the ball behind a linebacker and in front of a safety. He did it twice during one team drill.
1. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis should have received more votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. The former Ohio State star expects to be even better this year because he's more comfortable with the system. "Last year I'm trying to get guys lined up and make sure I make the right calls," he says. "This year I know what the calls are; now it's, 'What formation are they in? What can I play?' Another year in the system allows you to play faster."
2. After going 6-of-13 for 57 yards with four sacks and no touchdowns in the exhibition opener, Bradford did not rush to watch replays of the game. He said: "I like to take a little time off. If I tried to watch it right after the game, I might still have some emotion and probably not be thinking as clearly as I would be going back the next day with a clean slate."
3. Watching running back Steven Jackson practice is almost as fun as watching him in games. The intensity is no different. Monday, he chided Avery when the wideout allowed himself to be pushed into the hole when he was supposed to seal the edge after motioning toward the line. The goal was not to show up Avery, but to educate him and stress the importance of focusing on the details. By allowing himself to be pushed backward, Avery reduced the size of the hole and wound up being a roadblock for Jackson, who otherwise had a clear lane down the field.