NFC West: St. Louis Rams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's pretty common to see a rookie who has never played a game show up on the list of the NFL's best-selling jerseys before training camp even begins. Many college players simply carry the name-value and fan following that makes proving themselves in the NFL unimportant when it comes to purchasing a jersey.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMichael Sam's No. 96 Rams jersey ranks No. 6 in NFL.com jersey sales from April 1 to July 17.
You don't, however, see rookie seventh-round draft picks on the list before they've ever taken a snap. But as we already knew, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam is clearly not your run-of-the-mill seventh-round draft choice. As the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, Sam has already become one of the most well-known seventh-round picks of all time.

If you needed any further evidence, simply take a look at the list of the top 10 in jersey sales on NFL.com from April 1 to July 17. Sam's No. 96 jersey checks in at No. 6 on the list, behind established NFL stars such as Denver's Peyton Manning and Seattle's Richard Sherman and ahead of the future Hall of Fame quarterback trio of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Heady company, for sure.

Sam is also one of only two defensive players -- Sherman the other -- to make the top 10. Clearly, Sam's historic announcement and pursuit of a roster spot in St. Louis has transcended his draft position and made his jersey a hot commodity among fans.

If nothing else, Sam's jersey is already considered something of a collector's item. It will likely continue to sell well, but it's still a piece of memorabilia that could have a short shelf life. There aren't many fans who buy jerseys of a player who is far from a lock to make his team's roster.

That's much different than the situation in Cleveland, where quarterback Johnny Manziel is No. 1 on the list in no small part because of his larger-than-life personality and the profile he brings into the league as a first-round pick. Manziel is a lock to make the roster and the only question surrounding his status in that regard is whether he'll be the opening-day starter.

Sam doesn't enjoy the same luxury as he pursues a spot on the team's initial 53-man roster with the possibility that those No. 96 jerseys could be out of date only months after they were purchased.
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For the second consecutive season, St. Louis Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has made headlines for the wrong reasons near the start of training camp.

Reports from The Associated Press indicate that Dunbar was involved in a fight outside a Miami nightclub early Sunday morning. Dunbar got into an altercation with NBA free-agent forward Donte Greene outside Dream Nightclub, according to Miami Beach Police Detective Vivian Thayer, who said both men were arrested and will face charges of battery and disorderly conduct.

Dunbar
With further details unavailable at this time, this could be nothing deeper than a fight between a couple of athletes. But in Dunbar's case, it's not this incident that is alarming so much as the unsightly pattern that has begun to form when it comes to him and off-field incidents near the start of training camp.

The Rams have seemingly made it through the scariest part of the offseason without any serious issues, and while a fight doesn't really qualify, it does add another negative mark on Dunbar's record as the team opens camp this week.

Last year, Dunbar entered camp as a presumptive starter at outside linebacker, but those plans took a U-turn when the NFL suspended him four games for violation of its policy against performance-enhancing substances. A clearly irritated coach Jeff Fisher made it clear he was unhappy with Dunbar, and instead of keeping him on the roster during the suspension, the Rams released him and signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon.

Dunbar re-signed for the rest of the 2013 season after serving the suspension but came back to reduced snaps with Alec Ogletree handling three-down duty alongside James Laurinaitis. Dunbar finished with 39 tackles in 12 games and 10 starts.

Despite the underwhelming season, in March the Rams brought Dunbar back on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million with hopes that reuniting him with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who coached Dunbar in New Orleans, could get him back on track.

While more information needs to be gathered and the legal process still has to play out, Dunbar is obviously not doing himself any favors as he attempts to hold down the starting job opposite Ogletree. As it stands, Dunbar is projected to remain the starter, but second-year linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has impressed coaches enough to get more opportunities to contribute and was already poised to push for an expanded role in 2014.

Whether or not Dunbar faces any further punishment from the team or the league, it's fair to wonder if Armstrong could now get an even closer look when camp opens.

St. Louis Rams' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
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Examining the St. Louis Rams' roster:

(Note: WR Stedman Bailey is expected to make the team but is suspended for the first four games of the season and will not count on the initial 53-man roster)

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Bradford and Hill are locks. Gilbert is likely competing against the roster number more so than Austin Davis for a potential third quarterback spot. The guess here is the Rams will keep a third after keeping just two entering 2013.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

The Rams went heavy on running backs last year, keeping five, but with Pead handling more special teams duties, it could make Chase Reynolds expendable and allow them to keep an extra body elsewhere.

RECEIVERS (5)

With Bailey suspended the first four weeks, the Rams could take a longer look at another wideout for the first quarter of the season, but Bailey plus the five listed here seem to be in pretty good shape. It will be more interesting to see how this group shakes out in terms of playing time.

TIGHT ENDS (4)

The first three are probably pretty safe, but the Rams could have an intriguing competition for a potential fourth tight end if they opt to keep one. Cunningham intrigues them, but undrafted rookie Alex Bayer showed some promise in the spring and could surprise.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The Rams could easily go heavy here and keep another lineman or even two as they did in 2013. The first seven listed here should be in good shape, but beyond that, the competition is wide open. Players like Sean Hooey, Brandon Washington, Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrius Rhaney could be heard from before preseason is finished.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The first eight listed are all but locks barring injury, but the Rams have kept a ninth defensive lineman each of the past two seasons. The battle for that spot should be fierce with Sam trying to fend off the likes of Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. Sam's ability to emerge on special teams will likely determine his fate.

LINEBACKERS (6)

Don't be surprised if the final tally here looks different than the above. Beyond the first four listed, there could be plenty of room for change, including the potential for a veteran to provide depth. Bates is a strong special teams player and should stick, but Steward will face plenty of competition from an eager group of undrafted rookies.

CORNERBACKS (5)

Jenkins, Johnson and Joyner should be set, but there could be some good battles in camp for the spots behind that trio. McGee has a year under his belt and an inherent advantage that goes with it, but he will face competition from the likes of Gaines, Greg Reid and Marcus Roberson. It also wouldn't surprise if the Rams kept a sixth cornerback instead of a fifth safety.

SAFETIES (5)

There is plenty to sort out at this position with Alexander, Daniels and rookie Christian Bryant coming off injury. Bryant didn't participate in the spring, so he is difficult to project at this point. Davis should stick for his special-teams contribution, but there is little guaranteed here.

SPECIALISTS (3)

It would take a serious injury to disturb this strong trio.

Camp preview: St. Louis Rams

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation's Nick Wagoner examines the three biggest issues facing the St. Louis Rams heading into training camp.

Sam Bradford's status: It's a familiar refrain that will be repeated ad nauseam for much of the offseason and camp, but it's the most basic and simple truth about the Rams in 2014 and the future: They'll go as far as quarterback Sam Bradford can take them. On the bright side, Bradford appears to be on schedule for a return to health from his season-ending knee injury, and the Rams expect him to be close to or at full speed for the start of camp.

That means Bradford will get a third season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense and the opportunity to get the Rams into the mix in the NFC West division. It's safe to assume the Rams won't ask Bradford to carry the freight for what will likely be a run-heavy offense, but they also will need more from Bradford than what was required of backup Kellen Clemens. The Rams have clearly abandoned the spread approach they were installing this time last year, but they will almost certainly be more balanced than they were after Bradford's injury in 2013.

The Gregg Williams effect: Much was expected of the Rams' defense in 2013 after it performed well enough to keep the team in games, especially divisional games, in 2012. But the group not only didn't take a step forward but regressed slightly under coordinator Tim Walton. So when the Rams had the opportunity to land Gregg Williams this offseason, they took it.

Now, the expectations are even higher after bringing Williams aboard and spending a first-round pick on defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Williams is expected to bring an array of exotic blitz packages and an aggressive approach to a defense that should be able to create consistent pressure. How that manifests itself in this training camp will go a long way toward determining the team's 2014 success.

Stability on the offensive line: The Rams made some major moves along the offensive line in the offseason in an effort to compete with the big, physical defensive lines around the NFC West. They used the No. 2 pick on Auburn's Greg Robinson and signed guard Rodger Saffold to a lucrative contract extension. On paper, an offensive line of (from left to right) Jake Long, Robinson, Scott Wells, Saffold and Joe Barksdale could be one of the better units in the league with a good mix of experience and potential.

But for the second straight year, that group faces the pressing question of whether it can retain some semblance of stability in the face of injury. The presumptive 2013 starting five played just 295 of the offense's 968 snaps, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three lines around the league spent less time together. Wells and Long are recovering from season-ending injuries, and although the Rams expect both players to be ready for the start of the season, it's fair to wonder how many games and what type of production they'll get. Saffold also has a lengthy injury history even though he has yet to suffer any serious ailments since moving to guard.

There are some intriguing young players behind the starting five, including Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes and Brandon Washington, but if the Rams are to be the powerful, run-heavy offense they aspire to be, they'll need the starting five in place as often as possible.
Kevin DysonAP Photo/Michael Conroy
We have a winner. The voters picked Mike Jones' game-saving tackle as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV as the Rams' most memorable play.

While I can certainly understand why The Tackle emerged victorious, I would cast my vote in a different direction. To me, the most memorable play in franchise history came moments before Jones brought Tennessee receiver Kevin Dyson down at the 1-yard line. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch to give the Rams the lead in that game is my choice for the top play in Rams history, narrowly edging Jones' tackle and Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.

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Which is the most memorable play in Rams' history?

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Really, you can't go wrong with any of the three plays that were nominated here. All of them were integral in the Rams' pursuit of a Super Bowl title. To differentiate is difficult, but I would argue for Bruce's catch because it's the one play of the three where I can argue that without it, the Rams wouldn't have won the world title.

Proehl's catch, as great as it was, came with the Rams in reasonable field goal range. If Proehl doesn't make the play, the Rams can line up for a 47-yard field goal and still take the lead. That's no chip shot or guarantee, but there was still a way for the Rams to win the game. And while Jones' tackle saved the victory for the Rams, many forget that if Dyson had slipped past him, the Titans would have had to kick an extra point to tie the game (or if coach Jeff Fisher wanted to get crazy, go for two and the win). Theoretically, the Rams still could have won the game in overtime, though momentum clearly was swinging in the Titans' direction.

But ultimately, Bruce's play stands above the rest to me because it most properly defines the greatest era in team history. The "Greatest Show on Turf" was known for its quick-strike ability to score from anywhere on the field at any moment.

After blowing a 16-point lead in the second half, the Rams were on the ropes. The personality of that team came directly from its no-fear approach to offense and coordinator Mike Martz's propensity for keeping the gas pedal pressed down for 60 minutes.

With the Rams reeling, it was fitting that Kurt Warner, the supernova quarterback who came from nowhere, connected with Bruce, the mainstay superstar who had been through all the bad times, to give the Rams a lead they would not relinquish and a championship they'd forever cherish.

Rams' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
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Since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, the St. Louis Rams have been headed in an obvious direction. The goal is to build a physical, aggressive team capable of winning games with a power running attack and a stout defense.

Bradford
Bradford
While that approach can win championships in the NFL, there's no denying that predicting the long-term success of a franchise is most tied to what that team has at quarterback. For the Rams, what happens at the game's most important position beyond this season is still up in the air. Predicting what happens over the next three seasons is a task made much harder without knowing who will be playing quarterback.

The Rams have committed to Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback for 2014 and he will get his fifth chance to stake his claim to the spot.

In the team's ideal world, Bradford will take what could be a true make-or-break season and excel to the point that he earns himself a lucrative contract extension. St. Louis had interest in signing him to an extension before his 2013 knee injury, but those plans have been put on hold. Bradford has also preferred to wait on any possible extension, choosing to bet on himself as Joe Flacco once did.

If Bradford struggles or suffers another serious injury this season, the Rams will have to begin considering alternatives. They chose to pass on the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft despite having two first-round picks. Given Fisher's track record of pushing his teams to at least a mediocre record, they may not be in position to choose a replacement.

If that happens, the Rams could find themselves on the other end of a major trade like the one they made with Washington, forced to give up a big package of picks to move up for a franchise quarterback.
Isaac BruceAllen Kee/Getty Images
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This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in St. Louis Rams history. In the past two days, we have featured Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown catch to beat Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game and linebacker Mike Jones' game-saving tackle as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV. Please vote for your choice as the Rams' most memorable play.

Score: Rams 23, Titans 16
Date: Jan. 30, 2000 Site: Georgia Dome

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Which is the most memorable play in Rams' history?

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After jumping out to a 16-0 lead, the Rams seemed poised to coast to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. But those hopes were soon dashed as the resilient Titans surged from behind to tie the game at 16 with 2 minutes, 12 seconds to go. The Rams looked tired, and the high-octane offense that had taken the league by storm all season appeared to be running on fumes.

But, as that offense had done all season long, it found the one final burst at just the right moment. With the Rams taking over at their 27-yard line, offensive coordinator Mike Martz had no intention of playing for a field goal. The Rams came out with three receivers lined up to quarterback Kurt Warner's right and one to his left with running back Marshall Faulk in the backfield. The play call was "Twins Right Ace Right 999 H Balloon."

For the uninitiated, those 9's are shorthand for simple go routes, with the receivers attacking the Titans deep down the field. Each receiver to the right found himself in man coverage, with Isaac Bruce on the outside of the hashes, furthest away from safety help against cornerback Denard Walker. At the snap, the Titans rushed four and the Rams line kept the pocket safe, with the notable exception of end Jevon Kearse pushing past right tackle Fred Miller. Kearse closed in on Warner, who released the ball at the last second.

The ball floated down the right sideline. Walker clearly was unaware it had even been thrown, let alone that it was underthrown, but Bruce knew. He made the adjustment to come back for the ball as Walker tried unsuccessfully to catch up to the adjustment. By the time the ball arrived, Bruce had room to run, but other tacklers were gaining ground. Bruce cut inside and raced to the end zone while looking up at the scoreboard to see if anyone was closing in. Instead, he saw left tackle Orlando Pace celebrating and knew he was in the clear.

The 73-yard touchdown gave the Rams a 23-16 lead they would not relinquish on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

While the trio of plays that got the Rams to the Lombardi Trophy all have their special place in history, it's hard to argue against Bruce's touchdown as the most important. Proehl's catch had a higher degree of difficulty, but the Rams could have theoretically still won because they were in field goal range when he made it. And for as great as Jones' tackle was after Bruce's touchdown, if he hadn't made it, the Titans would have been able to only tie the game. Bruce's touchdown provided the definitive winning points in the biggest game in franchise history. As memorable plays go, that is about as good as it gets.
Ricky ProehlJoe Robbins/Getty Images
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This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in St. Louis Rams history. Wednesday, we'll feature Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch that provided the winning points in Super Bowl XXXIV. On Monday we looked at linebacker Mike Jones' game-saving tackle of Kevin Dyson to preserve the Rams' victory in that Super Bowl. Please vote for your choice as the Rams' most memorable play.

Score: Rams 11, Buccaneers 6
Date: Jan. 23, 2000 Site: Edward Jones Dome

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Which is the most memorable play in Rams' history?

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In need of a big play to keep their dream season alive on a third-and-4 at Tampa Bay's 30 with 4 minutes, 50 seconds to go, the 1999 Rams generally had no shortage of options. Receivers Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim and running back Marshall Faulk had done it all season, so it would have been no surprise to see one of them step forward with the game on the line.

But Holt and Hakim were battling injuries, and the Rams offense was struggling to find traction against the Bucs' ferocious defense. Already in field goal range, most teams surely would've taken a first down and a chance to run the clock and kick for the lead, but that wasn't the way of the Rams and quarterback Kurt Warner.

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz called "585 H-Choice," but before the play, Warner told receiver Ricky Proehl to keep an eye on safety Damien Robinson in the middle of the field. Warner instructed Proehl to adjust his route to a fade if Robinson blitzed; otherwise, the first option would have been Faulk. Sure enough, Robinson came charging up the middle as Proehl found himself matched up with cornerback Brian Kelly on the left side. With the blitz picked up and the pocket clean, Warner lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone.

As it fell toward the earth, a backpedaling Kelly reached in vain as Proehl leaped and pinned the ball to his left shoulder with his left arm as he came crashing down in the end zone. Proehl reached over with his right arm to secure the ball before landing to complete the 30-yard touchdown grab and give the Rams an 11-6 lead they would not relinquish on their way to Super Bowl XXXIV.

The touchdown was Proehl's only one of the entire season. To this day, many of Proehl's teammates -- Bruce included -- maintain that Proehl's catch was the most important and memorable of all the plays made by the Rams that season. It might have come from an unlikely source, but in many ways it summed up what that championship team was all about.

Rams' top plays: The Tackle

July, 7, 2014
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Kevin DysonAP Photo/Michael Conroy
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This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days, we’ll feature Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch that provided the winning points in Super Bowl XXXIV and Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown catch to beat Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Please vote for your choice as the Rams' most memorable play.

Score: Rams 23, Titans 16
Date: Jan. 30, 2000 Site: The Georgia Dome

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Which is the most memorable play in Rams' history?

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    66%
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Discuss (Total votes: 31,712)

While the Greatest Show on Turf stole most of the headlines in the Rams' storybook 1999 season, it was somewhat fitting that Super Bowl XXXIV would fall on the shoulders of an underrated defense. More specifically, the game would come down to the ability of solid, if unspectacular, linebacker Mike Jones to make a tackle as time expired and preserve a championship.

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher used his final timeout with six seconds remaining as his team desperately drove the length of the field in search of a tie or, possibly, the win. Quarterback Steve McNair marched the Titans down the field in short order and had an exhausted Rams defense on its heels at the St. Louis 10. The Titans were out of timeouts, and the ensuing play was nearly certain to be the last of the game.

Before the snap, receiver Kevin Dyson motioned left and back to the right, where he stepped in behind tight end Frank Wycheck, allowing him a free release at the snap. Wycheck ran directly at Jones with Dyson breaking for an inside slant route. The hope for the Titans was Jones would stay with Wycheck, allowing Dyson an easy catch and run for the touchdown.

Jones stayed with Wycheck for a moment but quickly realized what was happening. Upon safety help arriving on Wycheck, Jones turned his attention to Dyson, whom McNair hit in stride at the 5. Jones converged on Dyson as he moved toward the end zone and the sure-tackling Jones wrapped him up and brought him down as he stretched toward the goal line. Dyson came up a yard short, time ran out and the Rams celebrated as world champions.

There's really no debate that this is one of the most memorable plays in Rams history and for the league as a whole. It doesn't get more dramatic than sealing a victory in the Super Bowl as time expires. Plays can be memorable for many reasons, including their greatness, their place in history and what they mean in telling the story of a franchise. In this case, the play simply known as "The Tackle" represents everything a memorable play should be.
It's been a debate since he retired in 2009: Will Kurt Warner make the Hall of Fame?

There are plenty of arguments one way or the other, but the consensus is far from clear. Warner's Hall worthiness regained the spotlight on barstools around the country this week when the Arizona Cardinals announced Warner would be added to the team's Ring of Honor -- an accomplishment in the vein of which hasn't been bestowed by the St. Louis Rams, the team Warner won a Super Bowl with.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Matt Slocum/AP PhotoArizona recently announced it is adding former QB Kurt Warner to the franchise's Ring of Honor.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner discussed the merits of Warner's inclusion in -- or exclusion from -- the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The first question was obvious -- Is Warner a Hall of Famer? And if so, does he deserve to be inducted on his first ballot?

Wagoner: Yes, I have little doubt in my mind that he is a Hall of Famer. I'm not sure he'll go on the first ballot, but I certainly wouldn't disagree if he did. There seems to be a certain mystique that goes with getting in on the first try. Not that it's reserved only for the elite of the elite, but there are still a lot of good players waiting their turn, and for someone to surpass them, they need to have extensive resumes, perhaps one that exceeds Warner's. On top of that, Warner will have plenty of other strong first-time nominees who will also be trying to push their way into the mix. I definitely think he'll get in. I'm less certain it's on the first try, but either way it's just a matter of time, in my opinion.

Weinfuss: I feel very similarly. Yes, I think he's a Hall of Famer and I don't think he'll wait long to don that yellow blazer, but it may not be in 2015. I think the mystique of a first-ballot Hall of Famer is an interesting topic. In Warner's case, he took two teams to three Super Bowls. That alone is an accomplishment, but to start doing it at 28 years old with the kind of backstory Warner had makes it even more mystical. Obviously that doesn't determine whether Warner will make the Hall of Fame, but it makes his success all the more impressive and adds to his Hall of Fame-worthy resume.

What would get Kurt in the Hall? Subsequently, what would keep him out?

Wagoner: There are a few really strong arguments to get him in. First, he led two franchises to the Super Bowl. That just doesn't happen, especially so far apart. To add to that, the Cardinals and Rams were in pretty bad shape when he took over and got them to the promised land. It's important he won Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams, so he has that on the resume, too. Second, in terms of numbers, Warner led some of the most prolific and dynamic offenses in league history. The group in St. Louis was record-breaking, and he won two MVPs in that time. Third, and this isn't as tangible as the others, but I'm a big believer in how a player fits in the narrative of the game's history. In other words, can you tell the best possible story of the NFL without Warner playing a fairly prominent role? I don't think you can. And the fact that you can tell his grocery store stock-shelver to Super Bowl MVP story and then add to it that he took the Cardinals to within an eyelash of a world championship, well, that's stuff you just can't leave out in the story of the league.

As for what would keep him out, the only thing that really works against him is sample size. While his per-year numbers are on par with or better than most Hall of Fame quarterbacks, he didn't do it as long as guys such as Joe Montana, John Elway or Dan Marino did. That probably hurts him the most. I suppose you could argue he also benefited greatly from playing with a lot of superior talent, but I'd argue that Warner helped those players as much as they helped him. The only other thing that could potentially hold him back is he's going to be up for it for the first time with some of his other Greatest Show on Turf teammates. Some voters may place more value on what someone such as Orlando Pace or Isaac Bruce did, and it could steal some votes from Warner.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceKurt Warner, who led the Rams to the Super Bowl XXXIV title, was named the MVP. Warner played for the St. Louis from 1998-2003.
Weinfuss: When I think of a Hall of Fame player, I think of someone who not only is in the upper echelon of talent but of someone who plays such a vital part in his team's success. Warner is clearly talented, but was he in the upper echelon of players when he was in the NFL? That's a topic to discuss on its own, but look at what he did in the offenses he succeeded in. He showed his well of talent. But what was more telling is how the franchises fared before and after his tenures. St. Louis went through nine losing seasons dating back to its Los Angeles days before Warner was named the starter. All he did was lead the Rams to two Super Bowls in three seasons, winning the first. Since he was replaced as the starter following Super Bowl XXXVI, St. Louis had just one winning season in 12 years. He had the same impact on the Cardinals. They hadn't ever been past the divisional round of the playoffs before Warner arrived. Here's this for emphasis: Arizona had one winning season before Warner was given the keys to the Cards' offense. While he was the starter, Arizona had two winning seasons in three years. Since he retired, the Cards have had just one, this past season. Talk about someone who nearly instantly changed the trajectory of a franchise while he was there.

What will keep him out is the total body of work. When you break down Warner's career, he only played four full or nearly full seasons. Granted, he went to three Super Bowls in those years, but he had too many off seasons in which he started 10 or fewer games. Can a player get in by having only a few great seasons and almost twice as many not-so-great years? I think if he doesn't make it, that's why.

How much do you think his stint with the Cardinals helps his case?

Wagoner: Honestly, I think it sealed the deal for him getting in. Without it, he'd be viewed an awful lot like former Broncos running back Terrell Davis, who had a few really outstanding, record-breaking years, but it appears a lack of longevity is going to keep him from being inducted. But Warner's resurgence in Arizona added to a story that had already reached mythical proportions and also allowed him to elevate his numbers to something more in line with other great quarterbacks. That he then darn near took them to a world championship on top of it only is the icing on the cake.

Weinfuss: If he gets in, his final three seasons, or more specifically the final two with the Cardinals, will be looked at as the turning point. He came back after a string of off years, after thoughts of retirement, after being passed over for an inexperienced rookie to become the fourth-oldest quarterback -- at the time the third-oldest -- quarterback to start a Super Bowl. It was the storybook ending to a career that was made for Hollywood, but the fact he took a franchise that had never gotten to the Super Bowl and became the missing part could end up being the deciding factor in voters' decisions.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams wrapped up organized team activities with their ninth and final practice Thursday. For those keeping score at home, yes, that's a day earlier than expected; coach Jeff Fisher canceled Friday's previously planned practice.

As always, it should be noted that much of what happens in these OTAs should be taken with a grain of salt (especially for the linemen). The players are not in pads and contact must be extremely limited. It's best not to get too excited or too down on anything that happens.

Back to back for Bradford: Quarterback Sam Bradford spent the bulk of OTAs on a strict plan for his involvement. Usually, that meant a couple of periods of seven-on-seven drills and a period of hurry-up in team drills. But Bradford did a little more than usual Thursday and did extensive work in back-to-back practices for the first time in the offseason. Bradford had gone two in a row earlier but was more limited in one of those practices.

Bradford
Bradford
Bradford was also at his sharpest, at least relative to the other sessions open to the media. Now, for the first time since he suffered his knee injury in October, Bradford will get to spend quality time back home in Oklahoma. Bradford said he feels good and all signs point to him being ready to go when training camp opens.

"I was really happy with everything that went on during the OTAs," Bradford said. "A big part of it for me was obviously physically getting back out on to the field, seeing how my knee reacted. It's been fantastic. We were actually able to do a little more than we anticipated so that's very positive.

"Out there today, it felt probably the best its felt all OTAs and [I'm] just really looking to build on that."

Line dancing: Working without the services of left tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells, the Rams tweaked things on the offensive line a bit. Rodger Saffold kicked out to left tackle with Davin Joseph sliding in at right guard and Barrett Jones got work at center with the first team. Long did some work in individual drills.

It doesn't mean much at this point since the Rams are anticipating Long and Wells returning to the fold soon enough, but it was a departure from the previous alignments in which Sean Hooey or Mike Person had rotated at left tackle. Tim Barnes has also taken reps at center in the days where Wells has been absent.

Sitting it out: The Rams got some players back to practice but still had their share of missing pieces. Receiver Jamaine Sherman, safety Christian Bryant, safety Maurice Alexander, running back Chase Reynolds, linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong, Wells, Long, defensive tackle Michael Brockers and defensive end William Hayes did not participate.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and safety Matt Daniels returned to work after not practicing Tuesday. Daniels had missed most of the workouts but was able to finish Thursday and had a couple of pass breakups in team drills.

Receiver Kenny Britt and cornerback Darren Woodard, both of whom left Tuesday's practice early, were back and participated.

Closing competition: Per custom, Fisher put his offensive and defensive lineman through a punt-catching drill to wrap up the final OTA. The drill asks the linemen to stand about 80 yards removed from the JUGS machine and catch a punt. The side that catches more doesn't have to run a final round of wind sprints.

In an impressive showing, the defense came up with five grabs to win and force the offense to run.

Final impressions: Receiver Stedman Bailey made a strong closing argument before training camp, coming up with a few impressive grabs, including a diving catch for a touchdown from Bradford during seven-on-seven.

In what was one of the more impressive and humorous plays of the day, undrafted rookie defensive tackle Deantre Harlin broke up a pass by batting it into the air then showed concentration by snatching it for an interception. The enthusiastic cheers coming from his defensive teammates quickly turned to laughter as Harlin got turned around and began running the wrong way before course correcting.

Looking ahead: With OTAs and the offseason now complete, the Rams will disappear for a little while. The rookies must stay through Friday but after that, it will be quiet around Rams Park until rookies report July 21. The veterans will join them July 24 with the first open practice set for July 25.

Fisher has already given the team the annual talk about making good decisions in the offseason and noted Thursday that there weren't any issues last year. He hopes for a repeat of that this time around.

When the Rams do return to St. Louis, Fisher said he expects most of the players who did not participate during OTAs to be ready to go. In addition to Long, Fisher said Bryant is the only other player who might not be fully ready to go at the start of camp.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title with the Rams.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- On Wednesday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals announced that quarterback Kurt Warner's name will be added to the team's Ring of Honor at halftime of the team's Sept. 8 game against San Diego. Warner will be the 14th player to receive the honor for the Cardinals, a franchise that, of course, once made its home in St. Louis.

Though Warner retired as a Cardinal, the St. Louis Rams should follow suit and do something similar for the quarterback who made his name in the NFL as the trigger man for the most successful era in the organization's history.

Like the Cardinals, there is no better time for the Rams to make the move than this season.

This year is the 15th anniversary of the Warner-led Rams team that surged to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. By now, most of the world knows Warner's rags to riches story from former grocery bagger to league MVP. But it's not just Warner's story that makes him worthy of receiving a similar honor with the Rams, be it in their version of a Ring of Fame or even going the step further to retire his No. 13 jersey.

Warner gave St. Louis football fans a reason to love the game, a reason to believe that just about anything could happen on a football field. His story is absolutely integral in any re-telling of the team's history.

I've been told the Rams plan to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that 1999 team this year and hope to have Warner back in town to be feted as part of the group, but as of now there aren't any apparent plans for anything Warner-specific. The quarterback has made his way back to St. Louis the past two seasons for the team's "Thursday Night Football" appearances.

Asked Wednesday about where his loyalties lie between his time in Arizona and his time in St. Louis, Warner again emphasized that it's a battle that need not take place.

"People are always asking me 'well if you were going to go in the Hall of Fame would you be a Cardinal or would you be a Ram?'" Warner said. "My only answer is I wouldn’t be going in the Hall of Fame, if I get in, without both parts. Both parts to me are equally as important, equally special. And probably the thing I'm most proud of in my career was being able to help two organizations go someplace that they’d never been before. Not many people get that opportunity to do it with one.

"To have the chance to do it with two, that to me was fun. To me, I take great pride in that and being a part of that."

It's only natural for both fan bases to want to claim Warner as their own and, frankly, both can make good arguments for it. But as Warner points out, the part of his story that makes it complete is that he was able to elevate two franchises to the game's biggest stage.

More to the point, the question of whether Warner would go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal or Ram doesn't matter. The NFL isn't like Major League Baseball where a player can be inducted wearing the hat (or in this case helmet) of the team he chooses.

Warner's accomplishments in St. Louis are certainly every bit as deserving of being honored as what he did in Arizona. He led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. He won two league MVPs. He was the leader for one of the most dangerous and entertaining offenses in league history.

Like Arizona, the Rams have a Ring of Fame of their own. It includes 11 former greats such as Eric Dickerson and Deacon Jones. They even have a separate section for former St. Louis football Cardinals, a list that includes the quartet of Dan Dierdorf, Roger Wehrli, Jackie Smith and Larry Wilson. All are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is apparently a requirement to earn the honor.

But the Rams have made past exceptions to honor former greats, honoring some coaches and executives who haven't made it to Canton. Receiver Isaac Bruce had his No. 80 retired by the team and, like Warner, will be first-time eligible for induction this year. Perhaps the Rams are waiting for Warner to land in Canton before he joins the ranks, but why wait?

It can be hard to draw the line between players for honors such as these. Setting a hard and fast standard for having a jersey retired or landing in a ring of honor makes sense. I'm sure Warner will someday have his name amongst the other Rams legends. But Warner's legacy in St. Louis will always supersede any award that can be bestowed upon him elsewhere. And because of that, there is no reason to wait any longer.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Finding new St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on the practice field is only as difficult as the ability to hear. Even if you don't spot him right away, you can follow the voice.

Whether it's the guttural scream of "Come onnnnn" at the outset of every snap or the occasional not fit for print dressing down for whichever player made a costly mistake after the play, Williams isn't too hard to find.

"I love it personally because it eliminates the margin for error," rookie defensive back Lamarcus Joyner said. "You need someone that is going to help you chase perfection knowing that it will never be caught, but in the process excellence will be achieved. He says that all the time. You need people like that in the driver’s seat."

That Williams is back in the driver's seat was a surprising offseason revelation, one that didn't seem possible after his close friendship with coach Jeff Fisher seemed to cool after Fisher's first attempt to bring Williams to St. Louis didn't work out. Any remaining hope seemed further removed when Fisher fired Blake Williams, Gregg's son, after a season together in 2012.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Gregg Williams
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson"He's the main voice in the room," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of Gregg Williams. "He can coach every position."
But here they are at this week's final organized team activities, about to put the finishing touches on Williams' first offseason program in St. Louis. And in the four-plus months since Williams has arrived, he's wasted no time putting his imprint on the defense. He's worked so fast that Fisher has even asked him to pump the brakes on occasion.

"He’s the main voice in the room," Fisher said. "He can coach every single position. You can see the change. You can see the energy. I’ve had to back him down just a little bit.”

If what's been patrolling the sidelines during OTAs is Williams in toned down mode, one can only wonder what it would like without the governor on. In creating what Williams likes to call the "organized chaos" of practice, Williams likes to push the tempo and intensity as much as possible.

At a couple of recent practices, Rams defenders have participated in a number of old-school drills under Williams' watchful eye.

One such drill emphasizing ball pursuit requires five players to do up-downs -- dropping to the ground, bouncing up -- hitting a blocking sled and then asked to sprint to the sideline where three footballs are lined up about 10 yards apart.

Any player who doesn't get to the ball is punished by having to do 10 more up-downs. It's a grueling drill but one that certainly tests the mettle of those involved.

Make no mistake, when the Rams aren't doing drills, Williams is concocting ways to best deploy his new group. That's been his top priority during the OTAs considering those practices have provided his first chance to work with his new players up close.

Williams is pleased with the talent he sees on the field, but he's also working through ways to be flexible if a player does something better or worse than he initially suspected. This is the time of year when Williams can discover what his players can and can't do, and instead of shoehorning them into roles they might not be capable of handling, he can adjust those roles accordingly.

“Until I’m out there with them, I really don’t get a good feel of, ‘How do you maximize the personnel?’" Williams said. "I think the best coaches in the league -- and I’ve always been able to do some of these things -- is how do you maximize the strengths of each and every guy? Everybody’s got weaknesses -- you, me, them, all of us do -- and everybody has strengths. That’s why we play so many packages of people.

"We’re going to package to situations, package to personnel the other team is bringing on the field and then package to our strengths. It’s a young group of guys but it’s fun to see them have tremendous strengths that I didn’t know about until I got out here and had a chance to compete with them.”

While Williams and Fisher are like-minded in their approach to defense and the scheme will remain similar, there are plenty of tweaks that come with Williams' presence. Even during OTAs, the Rams defense has been using a variety of different alignments, formations and personnel in the course of an average practice.

Aggressive and attacking are the two adjectives most commonly associated with a Williams defense and there are no signs that the descriptors will change in St. Louis.

"He’s old school in a way, but he’s updated in all the ways that matter," end Chris Long said. "His schemes are just awesome and unique. He puts us in positions to make plays and confuse the offense. That’s what you want to see on defense because you can play as well as you want, but if the scheme is not exactly right it can be hard sometimes. You just have the faith that with him the calls are going to be the right calls and he’s intense and he’s going to bring it."

As for any lingering hard feelings about the initial fallout in 2012 or anything that happened in the interim, there doesn't appear to be any leftover residue. Other coaches speak glowingly of Williams, and Blake Williams even paid a visit to Rams Park for a recent practice.

A Missouri native, Williams clearly feels comfortable in St. Louis in more ways than one.

"I can't tell you guys how happy I am to be back in Missouri and how happy I am to be back in St. Louis with a good group of guys to coach and a good group of guys to coach with," Williams said. "It's a lot of fun. And being out here on the grass and getting into the actual practices and getting into the competitions makes me even happier than I can ever get."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Where names like Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt once dotted the landscape of the NFC West, the role of the wide receiver in the rough-and-tumble division has changed dramatically.

The smash-mouth offensive approach of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers has set a physical tone that has left the St. Louis Rams looking to duplicate the recipe.

As other teams around the league go in search of gun-slinging quarterbacks and big-play wide receivers, teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams are loading up on physical offensive linemen and powerful running back committees.

[+] EnlargeJared Cook
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJared Cook led the team with 671 receiving yards last season.
The Rams did their part in May's draft when they used the No. 2 overall pick on massive offensive lineman Greg Robinson and a third-round choice on talented back Tre Mason.

"When you lay your foundation for your skyscraper, it's probably the least exciting thing that you do but that's the thing that holds that skyscraper up for a lot of years," general manager Les Snead said. "It was definitely a strategy that we're going to get our foundation stronger and I think that's going to help us."

It's an approach that's understandable considering the neighborhood the Rams occupy. If you can't win the line of scrimmage or at least manage a stalemate against the likes of Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco, chances are you're going to get left behind.

But just because the days of the Greatest Show on Turf are long gone doesn't mean that a successful passing game isn't part of the blueprint.

On the surface, it's easy to look at a team like Seattle and say it won a Super Bowl by running the ball and playing good defense. In reality, that assertion is too simplistic and a disservice to what the Seahawks' passing game did in 2013.

While receiver production is easily quantified in catches, yards and touchdowns, teams like the Seahawks and Niners aren't as worried about the quantity so much as the quality of those relatively infrequent pass attempts.

For the Rams to keep pace with the NFC West front-runners, that's something they'll have to improve in 2014.

"It's very important," Rams receiver Tavon Austin said. "Like they say, football is a game of inches so when it does come your way, you have definitely got to be ready to make a play to help your team win."

Which brings up the question of what, exactly, the Rams need from their receivers to win in 2014?

Beyond the emphasis the group is putting on run blocking, there must be improvement made when it comes to taking advantage of any chances the passing game yields.

Last year, the Rams finished 29th in dropbacks but 24th in yards per attempt (6.64), yards per completion (10.38) and yards per dropback (5.79). For what it's worth, Sam Bradford ranked 36th in the league in yards per attempt among qualifying quarterbacks with Kellen Clemens checking in at No. 25.

Those numbers are due in large part to an apparent aversion to throwing deep. The Rams were 28th in the league in yards per air attempt -- which measures how far the ball travels on the pass without factoring run after catch -- at 7.56. Adding to that the fact the Rams struggled with hanging on to the ball, finishing second to last in the league with a drop rate of 5.9 percent.

"You have got to be balanced and in order to be balanced, you've got to make big plays in the run and pass game," receiver Chris Givens said. "We have to take advantage of every opportunity. We feel like last year we left too many things on the field."

That's something that didn't happen often in Seattle and San Francisco.

The Seahawks and 49ers ranked second and third, respectively, in rushing attempts in 2013. The commitment to the ground game was evident but also buoyed by the fact that both were capable of making big plays in the pass game when needed.

Seattle ranked 31st in the league in dropbacks but second in yards per attempt (8.35), third in yards per completion (12.12) and fifth in yards per dropback (7.15). San Francisco was last in the league in dropbacks but seventh in yards per attempt (7.70), second in yards per completion (12.21) and ninth in yards per dropback (6.73).

Beyond that, when the Seahawks and Niners did look to pass, they rarely looked to dink and dunk. Seattle ranked seventh and San Francisco third in air yards per attempt in 2013.

Among the receivers on all three teams only San Francisco's Anquan Boldin broke 1,000 receiving yards with 1,179. But Seattle and San Francisco each had at least two receivers with 778 or more yards.

With a young, mostly unproven receiver corps, the Rams are expected to be a run-focused offense with play action passes spinning off any success on the ground. Of course, half the onus also falls on Bradford but they don't necessarily need any of their wideouts to bust loose for a 1,200-yard season or even a 1,000-yard season.

That's probably a good thing since nobody on the team has ever exceeded new addition Kenny Britt's 775 yards in 2010. Tight end Jared Cook led last year's team with 671 receiving yards and Givens was first among receivers with 569.

The Rams are betting on improvement from that group in 2014 but if the passing game can complement the rushing attack and defense like it does in Seattle and San Francisco, it might not be as big of a gamble as it might seem.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For most of his football-playing life, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin had little use for the intricacies of playing a position.

Blessed with unteachable speed, quickness and agility, the game came easy to Austin. The hard part was getting him the ball, what he did from there was only a matter of how fast his legs could take him to his destination.

But as with most athletes, eventually simply being better than everyone on the field isn't enough. For some, everyone else catches up in high school, for others it's college, and for those really blessed with God-given ability it doesn't happen until the pros.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceTavon Austin says things are coming easier to him after a bumpy rookie season.
Almost from the first day he arrived in St. Louis, Austin realized he fell into the final category. He was inundated with a lengthy and complicated playbook. He was asked to perfect a theretofore unknown NFL route tree. Identifying NFL coverages? Forget it.

Austin might as well have been a character direct from a Robert A. Heinlein novel. He felt like the stranger in a strange land.

"I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish," Austin said. "At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I was out there just playing. I really didn’t know what was going on. You try to do anything to make a play."

Much was made of the Rams' -- namely, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's -- inability to put Austin in position to succeed. Though there was some truth to that as the Rams stubbornly stuck to lining Austin up in the slot and throwing him quick bubble screens that went nowhere, Austin also shared in the blame for his slow start.

As Austin worked on his route running and understanding of the playbook, he struggled to find separation working out of the slot and on the occasions he did, he had trouble making the catch.

After making six catches for a pedestrian 41 yards in his debut against Arizona, Austin had three drops the following week against Atlanta and another in Week 3 against Dallas. Two weeks later against Jacksonville, he tacked on two more for a total of six in four games. He hit his low point in Week 9 against Tennessee, failing to record a catch on only two targets while playing 29 snaps.

Making matters worse, Austin was making big plays on special teams that were routinely called back because of penalties and, for the first time in his career, he suffered a late-season injury that cost him the final three games. It was all part of Austin's new NFL reality.

"That was definitely a big adjustment," Austin said. "The first time I’ve missed three games ever. I’m just going to prepare mentally and physically so it doesn’t happen again. It’s just something I had to go through."

To be clear, Austin's first season wasn't a total bust. In fact, his overall production was OK for a rookie at one of the toughest positions to learn upon entering the NFL. He set NFL records in a tour de force performance against Indianapolis in Week 10 when he had two catches for 138 yards, both of which went for touchdowns, and a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.

From there, Austin appeared more comfortable and the Rams found better ways to deploy him, moving him out of the slot and putting him outside the hashes where he could use his speed to run go routes or make catches on deeper crossing routes with the opportunity to make defenders miss in the open field. He finished the season with 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, nine carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, and 678 return yards while playing in 13 games.

During the team's recent organized team activities, Austin has returned fully healed from the ankle injury and much more advanced in his understanding of the position than when he first arrived.

"I understand coverages better, I understand the plays, the depth of my routes, the splits and everything, so I’m way better off right now," Austin said. "I’m just glad to come out here and make some plays to keep on going."

Austin has been doing a little bit of everything during OTAs, and though it's unwise to judge any players based off practices with no pads and no contact, he has showed flashes of improvement. During a seven-on-seven drill in Thursday's practice, Austin lined up on the hash and ran a well-executed post route down the seam and elevated to make a contested catch between two defenders for a 17-yard touchdown.

Adding more variety and versatility to his route running should only make Austin better in Year 2. And for the Rams, that would be a welcome sight. The team is betting on its current crop of young receivers to take a step forward in 2014. None more so than the former No. 8 overall pick.

"The game is slowing down right now for me, and hopefully it will just keep on slowing down some more," Austin said. "I feel like it will if I keep in my book and (keep) listening to (receivers) coach (Ray) Sherman and I think I’ll be fine."

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