NFC West: St. Louis Rams

Rams Camp Report: Day 4

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp.
  • The Rams were finally able to put the pads on Monday morning and did so for a special teams workout before the full squad puts them on this week. Coach Jeff Fisher prefers to get his players acclimated to wearing pads in a special teams workout before throwing them into the mix of a real practice. It has been common practice in the previous two seasons as well.
  • Believe it or not, special teams practices are pretty entertaining, at least near the end. In what has become a rite of passage for young players trying to make the roster, there are two full-contact drills that really promote competition. In a fairly basic punt cover drill, a gunner lines up on either side of the line with two players in front of him. When the ball is punted or shot out of the JUGS machine, the gunner's task is to beat the double team and get down the field as fast as possible. It is no surprise that linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates took the first rep in contact drills Monday. Special teams coach John Fassel wants that duo to take on more of a leadership role this season, and they helped set the tone by jumping into the first rep. The other notable moment from that work was defensive back Lamarcus Joyner taking on Miami natives Stedman Bailey and Brandon McGee. Joyner referred to Bailey and McGee as the Miami Heat, but acquitted himself well by battling tooth and nail. That was enough to draw Fassel's praise. Fassel has been impressed with Joyner so far and said the rookie embodies what he is looking for in a special teams player.
  • The other notable drill, the main event so to speak, is the one-on-ones that close the practice. The premise is simple: there is a blue tackling dummy set up and two players line up side by side. At the whistle, one player is responsible for getting to the bag and knocking it over while the other's job is to block the pursuer. It's the drill where Bates made his name in 2013 and opened eyes to the prospect of his making the roster. This time, Bates didn't participate, perhaps as a way of dialing him back a bit, but Armstrong was easy to find. Armstrong became tangled with linebacker Lawrence Wilson which set off a short exchange of shoves and words.
  • Michael Sam also drew praise from Fassel for his work, particularly as a blocker on kick and punt return. Fassel said Sam's weight loss has made a noticeable difference, and he is a bit faster when running down kicks. For now, Fassel envisions Sam contributing in the blocking role while he works on developing the long speed necessary to run down kicks.
  • Center Scott Wells isn't a part of the special teams, but he did do some work on the side with offensive line coaches Paul Boudreau and Andy Dickerson.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Growing up in Sanford, Fla., St. Louis Rams linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong couldn't help but admire the way then Miami safety Sean Taylor played football.

In an area where football doubles as a way of life and a way out, Armstrong patterned his game after Taylor's hard-hitting style. When doing a search for the photos of Taylor one day, Armstrong came across one bearing a nickname he immediately liked: the "Boom King."

Taylor was tragically murdered in 2007 but Armstrong wanted to find a way to honor him and embraced the nickname. For the uninitiated, Armstrong's Twitter handle is @boom_king26, which includes the nickname and Taylor's number.

[+] EnlargeRay-Ray Armstrong
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonSpecial-teams coach Jim Fassel asked Ray-Ray Armstrong to play a larger leadership role this season.
"(He) was my favorite player growing up and my favorite player of all time, really, so it was on a picture of his I googled once so I just ran with it," Armstrong said Monday. "I tried to model myself after him."

As this version of the Boom King surveyed his kingdom in Monday morning's special-teams-only practice, he couldn't help but take a moment to think of how far he'd come. It was at a practice just like Monday's where Armstrong and fellow linebacker Daren Bates first left the indelible impressions on the coaching staff that would help unseat some of the special teams' core veterans. To see him was to see just how far he's come in a year.

"It makes a big difference," special-teams coach John Fassel said. "It feels like they are veteran guys but really it's only the second year. Last year, there were some veteran guys that got beat out on a day like today by Ray-Ray and Daren and Chase [Reynolds]. That's how they made the team. The rookies and new guys this year are trying to do to them what they did last year to the guys that didn't make the team."

The journey was even deeper for Armstrong.

Armstrong was once a highly regard college prospect at Miami, playing safety and quite literally following in Taylor's footsteps. But Armstrong ran into some trouble off the field and was kicked off the team in July 2012. He attempted to play at Faulkner University, an NAIA school in Montgomery, Ala., but was eventually ruled ineligible.

Instead of building on a strong sophomore season with the Hurricanes, Armstrong was out of the game completely. The Rams signed him after he went unselected in the 2013 NFL draft and promptly moved him to linebacker. It was a new position for the former safety but his path to the roster was clearly on special teams.

Fast forward to Monday afternoon and Armstrong is back for his second training camp in a much different spot than he was in 2013.

"It means a lot," Armstrong said. "Coming from a whole year off of football and coming back into it, I felt pretty good going out and playing. I didn’t lose too much. Now this year, the second year in a row competing at this level so I feel like -- I don’t want to say I’m there yet, not at all -- but just moving forward."

After a rough start to his rookie season in which Armstrong was prone to costly penalties, he settled in and made 12 tackles and helped the punt coverage team to an NFL record in limiting return yards. Fassel has even asked Armstrong and Bates to take on more of a leadership role on special teams.

"We were kind of the leaders on the field last year on core teams, along with Rodney McLeod, so to just move forward with that, he told us to take a little more responsibility and bring the other guys along," Armstrong said.

For his part, Armstrong is also taking aim at expanding his role beyond leadership. While the Rams seem mostly set with starters at linebacker in Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Armstrong is like any young player hoping to get more opportunities to help on defense.

Now that Armstrong has a year at linebacker to his name, those chances could arise on a more consistent basis.

“That would be the case with both Daren and Ray-Ray," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Both of them were core guys for us last year, big play guys. They’re both settling in and making big plays on the defense.”

While the different ways Armstrong can be used remain to be seen, he left little doubt about who rules the roost in special-teams practices with his performance Monday morning. He and Bates took the first rep of full contact as a means to set the tone and Armstrong was involved in the first scuffle of this camp, engaging linebacker Lawrence Wilson in a war of shoves and words.

"It’s all competing," Armstrong said. "Competition is football. Some tempers flare up here and there. We’ve got pads on, it’s the first day."

And nobody knows better than Armstrong what a difference one day can make.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In some ways it was strange to see former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner throwing passes to receivers during training camp, especially Chris Givens, who now wears the No. 13 that Warner once made famous.

But as Warner threw about a dozen routes to Givens and fellow receiver Tavon Austin after Sunday's practice, the nearly 2,300 fans in attendance didn't care much that Warner wasn't in uniform. They just cared that he was home.

Part of Warner's new life, the life that began after he announced his retirement from the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, is working as a broadcaster for the NFL Network. That's what brought him back to St. Louis Sunday night. In fact, visits to Rams Park since his 2003 release have been few and far between.

“I can’t tell you when I was back here before, but it seems like I’ve been here a couple times," Warner said. “But it hasn’t been often. Obviously, my life moved to Phoenix, and with the kids and all that since retirement. Not that I don’t love this place and have strong feelings for it but sometimes we just move on and go other places."

Of course, considering the outpouring of love Warner received upon his return to St. Louis, it's clear that had the fans had their way Warner never would have departed in the first place. It's water under the bridge at this point, but there are still some who have a bitter taste in their mouth about the way Warner departed.

After leading the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, including a win in Super Bowl XXXIV against current Rams coach Jeff Fisher's Titans, Warner battled injuries and struggled to get back to the supernova levels he achieved from 1999-01. The Rams parted ways with him in 2003, he had a short stay in New York with the Giants, and then he revitalized his career in Arizona.

In the time since, Warner has remained active in the St. Louis community from a charitable standpoint but has made his home in Arizona. His visits to St. Louis have mostly been limited to quarterbacking the Cardinals or popping up at the Dome as part of his broadcast duties. Rarely have they included a stop at Rams Park.

But Warner has already been invited back to take part in the team's celebration of the 15-year anniversary of winning that Super Bowl against Tennessee. It's a memory near and dear to Warner but one that also feels distant.

“It does feel like it was a long time ago," Warner said. “I don’t know if it’s 15 years (ago). I feel too good to feel like I’m that old. But at the same time there’s a lot of great memories. To think back to then and to think that for me it really all started that year. And how magical that year was."

If Warner is able to make it back for that celebration, there are many who would like to see his name go into the team's Ring of Fame. It's a point of contention among his many fans that he hasn't already been honored when fellow Greatest Show on Turf members Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk have seen their numbers retired.

It's an honor Warner would, of course, enjoy and one he'll receive from the Cardinals when they open the season against San Diego on Sept. 8.

“What player would say, no, they wouldn’t like to see their name on a ring of honor in any facility?" Warner said. “But my career will never be defined by those things. Those aren’t things that I ever really think about. What a tremendous honor to think that an organization felt that you left a big enough impact that you should be kind of engrossed in their history.

"But those are just bonuses to everything that’s happened in my career. And like I said, I think so fondly of my time here, and this organization, and the opportunities that they gave me."

Of course, just because the Rams have yet to make such a move with Warner doesn't mean it won't happen eventually. While it hasn't been a hard and fast rule -- Bruce is an example of an exception -- the organization has generally preferred to limit such things to players with Hall of Fame distinction.

Coincidentally, that's another honor that could come Warner's way soon enough and pave the way for him to land in the Rams' version of the Ring of Honor. Warner is eligible for induction for the first time this year and while he might not make it on the first ballot, a straw poll of some voters makes it seem as if he will get in.

For now, Warner seemed content to simply reconnect with the fans who supported his rise to prominence and clearly still have love for him.

"The fans here have always been so supportive of me over the years, even since I left," Warner said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the impact that they’ve had on my life, my family, our foundation. So it’s always fun to come back and have a chance to interact with the fans."

Rams Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp.
  • On a beautiful night in St. Louis, legendary Rams quarterback Kurt Warner took in the practice as part of his role with NFL Network. Warner spoke to quarterback Sam Bradford, spoke to the media and signed plenty of autographs but really held the crowd's interest when he stayed after practice and threw some passes to receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. The crowd, one of the biggest the Rams have had at a training camp practice in St. Louis at 2,291 people, certainly had plenty to watch.
  • And it wasn't limited to what was happening with Warner. The top offense finally found some traction in Sunday's practice and Bradford appeared to settle in a little more as he went through his third consecutive practice. Bradford connected with receiver Kenny Britt a few times, including in the red zone and also found Brian Quick for some big plays. Quick's finest moment came when he ran a deep in during red zone drills and use his frame to box out cornerback Janoris Jenkins for a touchdown. Quick later connected with Bradford again for a deep ball down the left sideline as Bradford threw a good ball with the blitz bearing down. Bradford even drew some cheers from fans who might be worried about his mobility when he took off scrambling in team drills near the end zone. It wasn't all good for the offense though as there were still some leaks in the offensive line and there were a couple of false starts on linemen during red zone team drills.
  • In today's edition of as the offensive line turns, the Rams made good on their promise to continue rotating their linemen with a slightly altered look. Rodger Saffold and Greg Robinson swapped spots with Saffold moving outside to tackle and Robinson in to left guard. Tim Barnes took another turn at center with Scott Wells not practicing. The right side remained steady with Joe Barksdale at tackle and Davin Joseph at guard. Joseph, by the way, has looked pretty good in the opening days. He's a strong guy and one of the few who seems to be able to get his hands on defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
  • On the injury front, not much has changed but there were a couple new additions to the list of those sitting out practice. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington and cornerback Trumaine Johnson joined the usual group that includes safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, end Sammy Brown, Wells, offensive tackle Jake Long, end William Hayes and defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks, on the sidelines. Johnson appeared to tweak something in Saturday's practice and did not return then before sitting Sunday.
  • With Johnson out, extra reps have been available for some young corners including Darren Woodard, Brandon McGee and, on Sunday, rookie Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner got some work as the nickel with the first team defense as the Rams shuffled the secondary in Johnson's absence.
  • Rookie quarterback Garrett Gilbert is not lacking for snaps in this camp so far. He took a lot of reps Sunday, including some with the second-team offense. The results have been mixed. He dropped in a couple of nice throws early, including one to tight end Lance Kendricks for a touchdown in the modified seven on seven early in practice. Later, he airmailed a throw intended for open tight end Cory Harkey that should have been a touchdown. Clearly, the Rams are interested in getting him up to speed quickly.
  • Zac Stacy, who is still the primary running back with the first team offense, has looked sharp in the opening days and had another good day Sunday. On one run in team, Stacy hit the hole, made a defender miss and took off for what would have been a long gain to the sounds of loud cheers from the crowd. Worth noting that Isaiah Pead is getting some work with the second unit as is Benny Cunningham and a few for Tre Mason. Appears to be plenty of rotating going on behind Stacy.
  • The Rams are eligible to begin wearing the pads Monday and they will do so according to coach Jeff Fisher. But, per Fisher's custom, the plan is to have a special teams practice in the morning as a way of getting the majority of the roster acclimated to being back in pads. For those that aren't participating in the special teams practice, there will be work in the recovery room. By the time the Rams have their next open practice, scheduled for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET, the full squad can officially be back in pads.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Life in the NFL comes with a pecking order in everything teams do. Parking spaces at the team facility are no exception.

The closer to the door you are, the longer you've been around. Rookies are farthest from the entry, and if you play in St. Louis, that means more time to bake in the summer heat or freeze in the frigid winters as you make your way to work.

Seniority is a valued commodity in the NFL -- much as it is in most walks of life -- but for the St. Louis Rams, a look at the parking assignment sheet reveals that, yes, once again the Rams will be one of the youngest teams in the league. Perhaps, for the third straight year, the youngest.

"We’ve got third-year guys down there at about the fourth or fifth spot, so it is a young group," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

When Fisher and general manager Les Snead took on the massive rebuilding project in 2012, they quickly came to terms with the idea of being young. They weren't only OK with it, they were actively seeking it. The haul of picks they poached from the Washington Redskins for the No. 2 overall pick in that draft almost ensured it.

And those young teams, the youngest in the league each of the past two years, had their share of ups and downs in a pair of seven-win seasons. But youth is no longer an excuse for this team. Make no mistake, the Rams are going to be brimming with youth once again. But for right now in St. Louis, age really isn't anything but a number.

"Because of the fact that we have players now in their third year and guys last year in their second, they’re familiar faces, they’ve matured, they have the playing experience," Fisher said. "So despite the age on paper, the team doesn’t act that way. The team acts much more mature and will be much more prepared.”

Using the secondary as an example, the four projected starters have an average age of just 24, but the quartet of safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson has combined for 105 games played and seven seasons of NFL experience. They're young, but they aren't without experience.

"We’re young there still, but those (corners) have played two years," Snead said. "I’d rather have that. That’s where you start thinking you can ascend. They’re still young, but they’ve got playing time."

And because of that playing time, the Rams can really only be viewed as young in terms of age. Much of the roster, at least in some of the most valuable positions, has plenty of experience to go with the youngsters who have played right away. Quarterback Sam Bradford and guard Rodger Saffold are entering their fifth seasons. Defensive end Chris Long is going on year seven and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is about to embark on his sixth. Players like Jared Cook, Jake Long, Scott Wells and Kendall Langford have put in a combined 27 years in the league.

Sure, there are second- and third-year players dotting the roster at other positions -- even some rookies expected to contribute right away -- but for the guys who have reached veteran status, the idea of letting the kids grow up has become stale. They have their own clock to worry about and they want to win now.

Laurinaitis, for one, has made it clear since the spring that he no longer wants to hear about how young his team is.

"When you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes, it’s hard to get them shrunk," Laurinaitis said. "But now we have guys who are still young, but we have guys that this is their third year starting now. So I don’t consider that young. They say after eight games of your rookie year, you are not a rookie anymore. You have seen enough plays and the speed to adjust, and now we have a lot of guys like that."

The task of getting the Rams to move from the NFC West's least desirable parking spot to something much closer to the playoff door falls in their hands.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams remain optimistic about the impending return of left tackle Jake Long from offseason knee surgery.

Long had his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments repaired in late January, making his return this preseason something of a questionable proposition. But he surprised some when he showed better than expected mobility during organized team activities, and coach Jeff Fisher said the expectation was for him to be back in action about midway through this training camp.

Those hopes remain but in the meantime, the Rams have apparently concocted a detailed plan for how they're going to deploy the offensive line in the meantime.

“Yeah we’re going to move everybody around," Fisher said. "The two rookie sessions that we had, we had [OL] Greg (Robinson) out their getting some work. Greg actually worked out there today, we’re just going to move people around. Jake is doing well, we expect Jake barring any setbacks to be ready for the opener. That’ll give some of the younger players opportunities to line up out there and play during the preseason.”

Amongst the Rams staff, there has been unwavering faith that Long will be ready for the regular season opener on Sept. 7 against Minnesota. But it still remains to be seen whether he'll be able get back on the mid-preseason schedule the Rams were hoping for. With no definitive timetable on that and Long still doing some work on the side and participating in walk through paced things in camp, the Rams are moving some things around on the offensive line.

In the first two days, it's been the rookie Robinson handling the bulk of the snaps at left tackle, something he did earlier in the week when it was rookies only for a couple of practices. That represents a departure from his projected starting spot of left guard, the position that Rodger Saffold has been playing though he projects to start the season at right guard.

Davin Joseph, the veteran signed from Tampa Bay after the draft, has been handling right guard duties. And with presumed starting center Scott Wells not participating in the first two days, the Rams have alternated between Tim Barnes and Barrett Jones in the middle.

All told, only right tackle Joe Barksdale is currently manning the spot he's expected to start the season.

But just because that's how the line looks now, doesn't mean that's what the Rams are going to stick with throughout the preseason. In fact, Saffold said there's actually a schedule telling each lineman where he'll line up and play from practice to practice.

"I actually do," Saffold said. "I switch a couple of times during the day and then from week to week I might change. You never know what I might have. I might line up outside as a tight end standing up running a route but trust me, I’m going to catch the ball."

Jokes aside, nobody on the line knows the value of playing multiple positions more than Saffold. He can even quantify it as something in the range of $19 million guaranteed after he signed a lucrative five-year deal in March.

The Rams re-signed Saffold on the basis of that versatility but also on the belief that he could be a Pro Bowl caliber guard if he gets the opportunity to play there consistently. Still, even though Robinson is getting thrown into the fire at his projected long-term position -- and facing end Robert Quinn every day in drills is about as hot as the fire can get -- the Rams are well aware they can lean on Saffold should Long have a setback or not be ready to go when the season starts.

"I think now coach Fisher, offensive line coach [Paul] Boudreau, they trust me to do whatever," Saffold said. "If anything ever happened, they’re just like ‘Well, Saffold’s got it.’ So that’s the goal."

One way or another, the Rams are taking no chances on having backup plans for an offensive line that has its share of injury questions heading into the season.

Rams Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp.
  • For the first time since suffering the knee injury that ended his 2013 season nine games too early, quarterback Sam Bradford practiced on back-to-back days as he went through another entire workout Saturday. Bradford appears to be feeling just fine and also looked to be throwing the ball a bit better Saturday than he did Friday as he continues to knock some rust off. According to coach Jeff Fisher, the challenge for Bradford isn't knee-related as much as making sure his arm is managed. Bradford's excitement for returning to action has to be controlled a bit and the Rams have had to back him off of throwing on occasion.
  • Now that camp is here, we can finally start talking about football when it comes to rookie defensive end Michael Sam. From Saturday, there were some good things to discuss as Sam flashed some of the pass-rush ability that afforded him so much success at Missouri. The caveats that the Rams aren't yet in pads and he's working against backups such as offensive tackle Sean Hooey need to be mentioned, but Sam took a good step in the right direction Saturday and drew some praise from some of his coaches. He beat Hooey several times to get to the quarterback in team drills and followed by doing the same in one-on-one pass-rush drills. On one play in team drills, Sam beat Hooey quickly and forced backup quarterback Shaun Hill to throw the ball sooner than he'd like, resulting in an interception for cornerback Lamarcus Joyner.
  • The daily offensive line update didn't change much from Friday. Greg Robinson (left tackle), Rodger Saffold (left guard), Davin Joseph (right guard) and Joe Barksdale (right tackle) were in the same positions as Friday. But with Scott Wells still not practicing Saturday, Barrett Jones got some work with the first-team offense. Tim Barnes took the bulk of the repetitions Friday, but it's clear the Rams are set on following through with their plan to mix and match.
  • Most of the same names as Friday did not practice Saturday. That includes Wells, safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, end Sammy Brown and offensive tackle Jake Long. End William Hayes did some work on the side, but Sam took his reps with the second-team defense. A few Rams were also shaken up during practice. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson departed with an apparent leg injury and did not return, though it didn't look serious and he watched the rest of the practice standing on the sideline. Receiver Emory Blake and tight end Justice Cunningham also came up with injuries. Joyner briefly left the field but was able to return and finish practice.
  • The Rams had some interesting twists on a couple of normal drills during Saturday's practice. During one-on-one passing drills, the coaches are putting an emphasis on getting the defensive backs to cover without using their hands as much. So defensive quality control coach Dennard Wilson gave the corners a pair of tennis balls before each play. When the ball was thrown, the defensive backs were allowed to drop the balls to make a play on the football. Clearly, the Rams are hoping to cut down on defensive pass interference and illegal contact in 2014. Also, the Rams changed things up to work on leverage in some individual drills, clearing space in the crowd and having the linemen take turns driving each other up the hill on the south end of the practice field.
  • By league rule, the Rams can't put the pads on until early next week. When they do, they're almost certainly hoping that it evens things up a little bit when it comes to pairing the top offense against the top defense. Once again, the defense controlled the action for most of the team drills with Bradford having little time to throw in the face of consistent pressure. It's coming from all angles, whether it's ends Robert Quinn or Chris Long or up the middle from tackles Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers or Aaron Donald. On one play there was light contact on Bradford, but it didn't bother him much. Still, they'll have to be careful as camp progresses. For what it's worth, Fisher said the top offense won't match up with the top defense as much when the pads come on.
  • Stedman Bailey looks like the most consistent receiver on the team in terms of route-running and catching the ball. He had a good day again Saturday, creating separation with a double move for one touchdown and beating Janoris Jenkins down the sideline for another. Fellow receiver Kenny Britt made a nice grab on a contested ball against rookie cornerback Marcus Roberson.
  • The Rams are back at it Sunday with a 6:30 p.m. ET practice.

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Apparently intent on sending a message about the state of his surgically-repaired left knee as he arrived at his fifth NFL training camp, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford left little doubt about his status during mandatory conditioning tests.

“We’re just going to go and if we have to back down, we’ll back down. But at this point he finished the conditioning test," coach Jeff Fisher said. "I won’t mention the names of the people that crossed the line after him, but he did well. He’s worked really hard.”

While Fisher and a few other Rams declined to name names, it was clear that Bradford's efforts in the conditioning test placed him above some players you wouldn't expect.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Rams say that Sam Bradford, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2013, entered training camp in top physical condition.
“Guys that you would think would do a lot better," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "How does that sound?”

It sounds like the Rams have their quarterback back in the fold at full speed and with little to no restrictions aside from wearing a knee brace. That was Bradford's goal in the spring and it appears it's one he's reached this summer.

During organized team activities in June, Bradford came along slowly, participating in a little more than half of the team workouts but with those appearances kept to a minimum of a couple of segments of seven-on-seven and a little bit of work in team drills, particularly in the hurry-up offense.

In the time since, Bradford hasn't had any clearly defined moment where he was cleared so much as a continued gradual build toward returning to the field at full speed. He was essentially full go in the final week of OTAs, but the Rams didn't push him knowing that he'd be ready to go for training camp.

Bradford felt good enough to have his usual summer get-together with some of his receivers and tight ends in Norman, Oklahoma, an annual event in which Bradford picks up the tab so he can spend some quality time throwing to and hanging out with the young pass-catchers. This year, Bradford worked with receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick and tight ends Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey.

After apparently dominating the conditioning test, Bradford got an even better test Friday when he joined his teammates for the first day of training camp. It was far from Bradford's best day as he regularly faced pressure from all angles. Although the Rams aren't yet in pads and contact is not allowed, the pressure made it difficult for Bradford and the offense as a whole and it was clear there is plenty of rust to knock off.

On the bright side, Bradford moved around well and came out of the practice feeling good about his physical status.

“I feel great," Bradford said. "My knee feels really good. It feels better than when we finished OTAs. I finished those last two OTAs pretty strong. It feels even better now. In talking to Coach [Fisher] and [head athletic trainer] Reggie [Scott], they feel good about having no limits. If it starts to get a little sore and we feel like we need to pull back we can always do that. Out of the gate I’m going to try and do everything.”

As Bradford enters his fifth season, the more he can do, the better. It's no secret that the court of public opinion has yet to render a verdict on Bradford as a quarterback who should hold a starting job for the long-term future though there are certainly those who have made up their minds on both sides of the fence. But regardless of outside opinion, the Rams have committed to Bradford for at least the 2014 season and it's obvious he's going to get another chance to make a statement that he deserves to stick around for awhile.

The phrase "make or break" has been thrown around seemingly every year when it comes to Bradford but with only one more year on his contract beyond this season, it seems the Rams have no choice but to truly figure out what they have with their quarterback this time around. If nothing else, a fully healthy season would go a long way toward helping the Rams make a legitimate determination on Bradford's future.

Even Bradford, who steadfastly (and wisely) refuses to read or listen to any praise or criticism of him as a player, is aware of the seemingly annual "make or break" discussion.

“I don’t really pay attention to that -- I think that question’s probably been asked every year since I’ve been here," Bradford said. "Every year is a make it or break it year according to someone."

For now, Bradford says his focus is solely on making sure he's back to full speed and doing all he can to help a team that he believes is on the cusp of a breakthrough season. The simple act of getting back on the field is at least a baby step in the right direction though the real tests still await.

“It might be a little different the first time we step on the field for a preseason game or a regular-season game -- the bullets are live,” Bradford said. “But at this point, I haven’t noticed anything.”

Rams Camp Report: Day 1

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the highlights from St. Louis Rams training camp:

  • Quarterback Sam Bradford has been cleared to be a full participant in this camp and took the repetitions with the first-team offense Friday afternoon. Coach Jeff Fisher indicated that Bradford can do everything and actually embarrassed a few players he didn't want to name in the team's conditioning test. According to Fisher, Bradford might not do everything in camp and the preseason, but they aren't going to have any hesitation to use him, and if they back him off, it will be a decision made at the time because of soreness rather than a set schedule.
  • Fisher said the Rams still expect left tackle Jake Long to be ready to go for the season opener. What's interesting is the plan in the meantime. Fisher said the offensive line will rotate the linemen to different positions throughout camp to give everybody a look at a different spot. Rodger Saffold told me the Rams gave him a schedule that actually has what position he'll be playing and when at various times during different practices. On Friday, it was a little bit of a surprise to see rookie Greg Robinson at left tackle rather than left guard. Robinson played some left tackle in the rookies-only portion of practice earlier this week, but he's going to get a lot of opportunities to do both during this camp. For what it's worth, Saffold lined up at left guard with Robinson at left tackle and Davin Joseph at right guard. Tim Barnes took the reps with the first team at center, and Joe Barksdale handled his usual spot at right tackle.
  • Speaking of center, Scott Wells did not participate in practice, though he did light running on the side in the warm-ups and other parts of practice. With Wells not participating, Barnes handled the bulk of the reps in the middle with the first-team offense.Joining Wells on the did-not-participate list: Long, defensive end William Hayes, safety Christian Bryant, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker Johnny Millard, defensive end Sammy Brown and defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks.
  • As for the happenings on the practice field, it's more than fair to say the defense is ahead of the offense at this early stage. That should be no surprise, as that's often the case, but it was tough sledding for most of the day with a few early exceptions in seven-on-seven when Bradford connected with tight end Lance Kendricks a couple of times. Once team drills began, though, life became even more difficult with the defensive line consistently wreaking havoc on Bradford. When Bradford did get a pass off, it usually came a beat or two after he would have been sacked in normal game speed. Bradford and receiver Stedman Bailey had a clear miscommunication on one deep ball early in practice that fell easily into the waiting hands of cornerback Brandon McGee for an interception. Bradford looked a bit rusty overall and lacked zip on some of his throws (perhaps because of the pressure), but he did move well. He said after practice he believes the added challenge from the top defense should only serve to make the offense better.
  • Working mostly with the second-team defense, rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald continues to be a terror. He made life miserable for the second-team offensive line and quarterback Shaun Hill. Hard to tell what's going to be more difficult: keeping Donald off the field or trying to block him.
  • Quick roster note: The Rams signed defensive end Kourtnei Brown and released wide receiver Austin Franklin. Brown is wearing No. 93.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With training camp rapidly approaching, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead started to get the football itch. He could feel the time for football was close and he was growing so eager for it to start he actually considered cutting a family vacation short.

Upon returning to St. Louis, Snead walked back into Rams Park with full knowledge that this season must be different from the first two years of his and coach Jeff Fisher's regime. Under Fisher and Snead, the Rams have won 14 games in two seasons, far better than what they'd done in the five years before their arrival, but still well removed from something more than vague progress.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDT Aaron Donald is just one of the many young players the Rams will lean on in 2014.
The third year of any regime comes with a certain amount of inherent expectation but here in St. Louis, Snead openly acknowledges now is the time for a team that has been the league's youngest each of the past two seasons to move past mediocrity.

"The goal is to win the division," Snead said Thursday. "We have played San Fran, we’ve played Seattle and we’ve played Arizona and we’ve beat them all in the last two years with these guys. All they’re doing is getting better and more experienced."

Clearly, the Rams enter the 2014 season hoping that their willingness to allow their many young players to start and play the majority of the snaps will pay off. The potential of the league's youngest roster must at some point turn into production if the Rams are to elevate to contender status.

Fisher and Snead set about a major roster renovation in 2012 knowing that they would hit their share of speed bumps along the way. They improved to 7-8-1 in that first season after combining a boat load of draft picks acquired in trade with Washington with some big free-agent spending. They followed a similar path in the 2013 offseason, trying to find a few emerging young veterans to complement the youth movement coming via the draft. The result was last season's 7-9.

In steadfastly sticking to their plan, Fisher and Snead entered this past offseason ready to mostly roll with what they've got.

"To get experience you have got to play and to learn how not to spill milk you have got to spill some milk," Snead said. "So I have always used that analogy. You have got to hope that experience keeps you from spilling milk and now you can pull it up and drink it a lot faster."

Of course, there's also plenty of risk that goes with betting big on young, mostly unproven players even players who have played a lot of snaps in their first couple of seasons.

The secondary, for example, has no projected starters with more than two years of experience. At wide receiver, only Kenny Britt has spent more than three seasons in the league. Zac Stacy, entering his second season, is the most seasoned running back on the roster in terms of carries.

While many of the team's young players have flashed the potential to become solid or better NFL starters, they simply still have yet to prove themselves on a consistent basis. And it seems overly-optimistic to think that all of the players the Rams are banking on will take the necessary step forward to help the team reach the next level.

But Snead believes there has been enough evidence, even if the sample size is relatively small, for many of those players to do what is expected. There's even an air of quiet confidence that the belief is more than just the usual summertime hopes and dreams of a franchise in need of wins.

"I think that’s the best way for us and the way we were setup to do it," Snead said. "I always use the example, you saw what Robert Quinn did. So what happens is those guys are maturing too and not only physically but also mentally and psychologically and in their life and in their game and they really want to be good and they had two years or one and they say ‘I did that last year and I was actually kind of nervous. It was my rookie year and now I got this.’ So all those things come into play. You have got to just let them evolve."

Snead and the Rams are well aware the evolution of a young team into playoff contender is not going to be an easy task. They find themselves in the NFL's toughest division and will, for the third season in a row, play one of its toughest schedules. If the Rams are to survive the crucible of those two things and come out on the other end still playing in January, they will have plenty of bumps and bruises along the way.

In some ways, they enter this training camp ahead of where they were last year. They have a clearly defined identity on both sides of the ball, even if it's one that doesn't promote the promise of Greatest Show on Turf recollections. They have the defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams they wanted all along leading a talented group.

"I think just having an identity, that helps you rally instead of 'What are we today?'" Snead said.

As they begin camp today, the Rams are still the team hoping the promise that comes with youth turns into the production of a team much older. Where they stand at the end of the season will tell us if they were right.

Let's chat about the Rams

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The day has finally arrived. The St. Louis Rams will officially open training camp today at 4:30 p.m. ET.

But before we get into the real action, we're going to have our weekly Rams chat. At 1 p.m. ET today, I will pop into the chat room and answer your pre-training camp questions about all things Rams and anything else NFL-related you might have on your mind.

You can submit your questions now and/or join us when we go live. Hope to see you there.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- This summer, Pro Football Focus ranked the NFL rosters from one to 32 and drew the ire of St. Louis Rams fans for placing the team at No. 31 in the league.

In part, that ranking was the result of the fact that much of the team's roster is young and largely unproven. On Wednesday, the Football Outsiders offered the opposite side of the PFF coin when they revealed their rankings of the team's with the most under-25 talent in the league. You didn't have to look too far to find the Rams in Football Outsiders' rankings as they topped the list Insider on the ESPN Insider post.

The rankings of the teams with the most young talent in the league were based on a number of factors, including the number of games started by players under 25 in 2013, relative positional value of the young players playing those games and snaps, the expected number of key starters and reserves under 25 projected for the 2014 season, and the team's recent track record of developing young players.

With the Rams at the top, Football Outsiders pointed to the big trade they made with the Washington Redskins in 2012 as giving them a leg up on adding top young talent. From the Insider piece:

"The real reason behind what powered the Rams to the top here: There may not be a better front seven in the league. ... It was really (Robert) Quinn's All-Pro season with 19 sacks that edged St. Louis to the top. There are several players with great potential here, but Quinn's the one to actually have started building a track record. If more Rams can follow his lead, then this team will compete in the tough NFC West."

In some sense, it should be no surprise to see the Rams at the top of this list solely based on how they fit the criteria. They have been the youngest team in the league each of the past two years and could be again this year. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have been unafraid to not only devote resources to young players, but also give them ample opportunities to play.

The hope is that those young players will turn that youth and potential into production, something the Rams have targeted for the 2014 season since Fisher and Snead arrived.

Put simply, it's nice to have a lot of young talent so long as it develops. Some of it, especially Quinn, has taken off under the guidance of this coaching staff, but there are plenty of others who still have a lot to prove. If the bulk of the young players in prominent roles take the next step, this roster can move from topping lists based on potential and climb on lists about actual production.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Under normal circumstances, Garrett Gilbert's offseason methods for learning the St. Louis Rams' offense would have put him in hot water with parents Gale and Kim Gilbert.

With no whiteboard to use, Gilbert spent each night with some dry erase markers going through the X's and O's on the windows of his parents' Austin, Texas, home. But Gilbert didn't get grounded or have his allowance taken away for making a mess.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
Jeff Roberson/AP PhotoRams rookie QB Garrett Gilbert worked during the offseason to learn the West Coast offense.
That's because he had a partner in crime, his father Gale, who played 10 seasons in the NFL with Seattle, Buffalo and San Diego. Despite a modest protest from Kim Gilbert, she was outnumbered by her football-loving son and husband.

"My mom wasn’t too pleased," Garrett Gilbert said. "[My dad] loves going through that stuff, so it was fun to go through it and teach him a little about what we’re trying to do."

Of course, the ultimate purpose of the nightly playbook exercises was meant for the younger Gilbert to learn the Rams' offense as he embarks on his rookie season in the NFL.

A sixth-round choice out of Southern Methodist, Gilbert is the first quarterback the Rams have selected in the three drafts guided by coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. Expectations for Gilbert are minimal with Sam Bradford in place as the starter and veteran Shaun Hill set as the primary backup.

But the Rams wouldn't mind having Gilbert take hold of a potential third roster spot for a quarterback and become the type of developmental prospect worth keeping around so he can one day become a serviceable backup.

To get there, Gilbert, like all rookies, especially quarterbacks, has a lot of learning to do. And before he can do much of anything, he must learn all he can about coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense. It's a tall order for any player but especially Gilbert. After playing in seven offenses in eight seasons, Gilbert has learned enough different language and terminology that he could create and sell a quarterback version of Rosetta-Stone.

Of those many offenses, the one he ran for the Mustangs was perhaps the most different from the one he's now learning. SMU was a spread team with Gilbert spending most of his time taking snaps out of the shotgun and throwing it all over the field. It was a system he knew well and the results were impressive. He finished his senior season with 3,528 passing yards and 21 touchdowns with six more scores on the ground in 10 games.

That's a far cry from the run-heavy, West Coast-driven offense Gilbert is now tasked with understanding in St. Louis.

"It’s definitely a transition," Gilbert said. "I think any time you are playing quarterback at this level there’s going to be a transition from the collegiate level regardless of where you played college football. You get rare exceptions like Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning where they come in and they’re immediately successful, but there’s definitely a transition period and learning curve. It’s really a lot of fun for me to challenge myself."

As Gilbert is quick to point out, learning a new offense at this point isn't so much about knowing where receivers are going to go as understanding the protections and adjustments to be made at the line of scrimmage.

That's why Gilbert didn't have as much "down time" as the rest of his rookie teammates. So he and his father spent each night going through a different install with the younger Gilbert making notes on each day so when that installation comes up during camp, he can ask the appropriate questions of Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti. He also called Bradford to ask questions and get clarification when needed.

Upon arrival for Tuesday and Wednesday's rookies-only practice sessions, Gilbert said he felt much more comfortable getting in and out of the huddle and handling things at the line of scrimmage. It's a basic function for a quarterback but at least it's a start.

There's still a long way to go in this training camp and preseason and if the Rams are to keep a third quarterback, Gilbert will have to fend off Austin Davis for the job. With Bradford recovering from knee surgery, there might even be additional repetitions available for Gilbert in camp and preseason games. Without the pedigree or draft status of a first-round pick, Gilbert is well aware that nothing is promised.

"I’m out here to compete, learn and just become the best player I can every single day," Gilbert said.

Rams tweak roster before camp

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams don't officially begin training camp until Friday, but they took care of a little housekeeping before the veterans join the rookies and they get down to business.

In a flurry of moves Tuesday evening into Wednesday, the Rams released four players, signed four more and put two players on the non-football injury list. All the moves dealt with players at the bottom of the roster.

The Rams released wide receiver Diontae Spencer, linebacker Tavarius Wilson, linebacker Caleb McSurdy and offensive lineman Abasi Salimu. All four were rookie free agents signed after the draft in May. They had all spent organized team activities and the offseason program in St. Louis.

To fill the vacated roster spots, the Rams signed offensive tackles R.J. Dill and D.J. Morrell and linebackers Pat Schiller and Lawrence Wilson. That quartet also doesn't come with any noteworthy NFL experience, as none have played in a regular-season NFL game.

Schiller, who played his college football at Northern Illinois, actually comes with a bit of an interesting story. His journey to the NFL was chronicled by the New York Times in 2012.

Elsewhere, the Rams added rookie defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks and safety Christian Bryant to the non-football injury list. Bryant has continued rehab from a foot/ankle injury since the Rams drafted him. Coach Jeff Fisher said at the end of the offseason program there was a good chance Bryant would not be available to open camp. Westbrooks' injury is unknown.

Bryant and Westbrooks still count toward the 90-man roster, and the Rams can activate them at any time once they've been medically cleared by a doctor.

The non-football injury list functions similarly to the physically unable to perform list but designates players differently. The NFI list is for players who either suffered an injury away from football or, for rookies, players who suffered injuries playing football in college or a league other than the NFL.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- While the discussion of Tony Dungy's comments -- that he would not have made defensive end Michael Sam the first openly gay NFL draft pick -- continued from Monday afternoon into Tuesday, Sam was reporting to the St. Louis Rams for his first NFL training camp.

Sam was busy making sure he passed his conditioning test so he could begin practice with teammates. He was busy weighing in at 257 pounds, down 13 from what he weighed at the end of organized team activities. He was busy preparing himself to work at right defensive end for the first time since his arrival in St. Louis.

With all of that going on around him, Sam was wholly unconcerned about Dungy's words. Asked early Tuesday evening what he thought about the former coach's statements to the Tampa Tribune, Sam pointed to the obvious and promptly took the high road.

"Thank God he wasn't the St. Louis Rams' coach," Sam said, laughing. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Dungy and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions."

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Michael Sam
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images"Thank God he wasn't the St. Louis Rams coach," Michael Sam said, laughing. "I have a lot of respect for Coach [Tony] Dungy and like everyone in America, everyone is entitled to their own opinions."
In the past two days, the only opinions carrying any freight in his mind were the ones belonging to coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and the rest of their respective staffs.

In other words, while the word "distraction" has become something of a catchall buzzword as a means for avoiding details, Sam seems to have a good handle on the only focus he should have at this time of year: making the Rams' roster.

It's a focus that Sam expressed when the Rams drafted him with the 249th overall selection in the May draft. He has mostly stuck to that, with the exception of the three-day firestorm created by the news of a potential documentary series on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Sam has made it clear that he would not have made a public pronouncement about his sexuality if he didn't think he could handle some of the negative things that might be said about him afterward.

"I knew what I was coming into," Sam said the night the Rams drafted him. "Are there going to be idiots out there who say some stupid stuff? Yeah. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have got to prove myself. I have got to make sure the vets know I’m a team player and I love this game and I want to show the coaches that I’m a team player and a hardworking guy. What I do on the field will determine how great Michael Sam will be."

That time has finally, mercifully, arrived.

One practice into his first training camp with no veterans, no pads and no oppressive heat to deal with, Sam's biggest task Tuesday night was adjusting to playing on the right side. He had spent all of the spring playing on the left and was admittedly rusty when he switched sides for Tuesday's workout.

Of course, as a seventh-round pick working to make the roster on one of the league's deepest defensive lines, Sam is truly in "the more you can do" mode. For that same reason, Sam made it a point to come back for training camp lighter and faster so he can contribute on special-teams coverage units.

Although he spent his summer doing a lot of traveling from Los Angeles to New York to Kansas City, Sam arranged for a trainer to work with him in each city. In the process, he trimmed 13 pounds off his previous weight of 270.

The ability to contribute on special teams could give Sam a leg up for a potential ninth roster spot on the defensive line because there aren't many linemen who can run down kicks. The Rams have kept nine on the defensive line in each of the past two years. There are eight spots that seem all but sewn up this season, and the ninth one could come down to a battle between Sam and undrafted rookies such as Ethan Westbrooks.

"My focus is on making this team," Sam said. "I don't really care what people come up and tell me. My job is to make this team. That's my No. 1 priority."