NFC West: St. Louis Rams
But that doesn't mean we can't take a quick spin around the roster and offer a look at some of the decisions the Rams might have to make when Saturday's 4 p.m. ET final cuts arrive.
For the players listed here, the opportunity to make a strong closing argument comes Thursday night against Miami in the preseason finale.
Quarterback: The question here is whether the Rams will keep two or three. Austin Davis is probably locked in as the second quarterback, at least until or if the Rams find a veteran option they prefer after the available signal-callers crystallize. Rookie Garrett Gilbert hasn't done much in preseason and would stick mostly because the Rams wouldn't want to be short in the event of an injury. But they could probably get Gilbert through to the practice squad with relative ease.
Running back: There are three locked in here, leaving two questions: will the Rams keep four or five? And if not, who wins between Chase Reynolds and Trey Watts? Reynolds is a core special teams player but Watts is working on that part of his game and is a better, more versatile contributor to the offense. Keep an eye on Watts against the Dolphins.
Tight end: The Rams will probably keep four here and it's no secret the battle likely comes down to blocking specialist Justice Cunningham vs. pass catcher Alex Bayer. This is truly a "pick your flavor" situation. Cunningham might have a slight edge because his blocking can also translate to special teams but a big performance from Bayer against Miami might make it tough to allow him to leave.
Offensive line: It's not unusual for the Rams to keep as many as 10 here, however, it doesn't look like there are that many worthy this year. The Rams have more positional versatility with guys who will make the team, which might mean they only keep eight or nine. There are probably seven spots accounted for at this point. The battle for the final spots will likely come down to picking one or two from a group that includes Brandon Washington, Travis Bond, Mike Person and Sean Hooey. They also must figure out what to do with Barrett Jones, who is out with a back injury and doesn't have a timetable for return.
Defensive end: This one is well documented. The Rams will keep nine, perhaps even 10 though nine seems more likely. It's Michael Sam vs. Ethan Westbrooks. It's hard to envision a scenario in which Westbrooks doesn't make the team, especially given his versatility. Sam has been more productive as a pass-rusher in preseason games but doesn't have the ability to move along the line. One thing to keep an eye on in Miami is whether current backups Eugene Sims and William Hayes play. Sims hasn't practiced this week and Hayes still hasn't played in a preseason game. If those injuries are a little more extensive, maybe it opens the door for both Sam and Westbrooks.
Linebacker: There are five in solid shape here but the Rams don't really have a sixth who has stood out. Phillip Steward has played a lot on special teams and that could be a sign he's well positioned, but don't be surprised if the Rams go searching for a sixth linebacker on the waiver wire. Aaron Hill, Lawrence Wilson and Etienne Sabino will get one more shot to prove they're worthy.
Cornerback: With starter Trumaine Johnson expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a sprained MCL, the Rams will likely have to keep an extra body here behind Janoris Jenkins, Lamarcus Joyner, Brandon McGee and E.J. Gaines. That leaves a fight amongst Marcus Roberson, Greg Reid and Darren Woodard for a potential sixth spot. Roberson is the best in coverage, Reid the best tackler and Woodard something of a happy medium. Keep an eye outside the hashes in the second half Thursday night.
Sam still here: It's no surprise that defensive end Michael Sam made it past the first round of cuts given his draft status and production in the team's first three preseason games. Sam and undrafted rookie lineman Ethan Westbrooks continue to wage one of the more intriguing battles for a roster spot. Both have made strong cases that they belong in the NFL. The question becomes whether the Rams have room to keep both or if they will have to make a difficult decision. At this point, it wouldn't surprise to see another team claim either of them should they be exposed to the waiver wire. The Rams could theoretically keep 10 defensive linemen but would have to sacrifice at other spots. Injuries at cornerback and quarterback could also keep the Rams from going heavy elsewhere. Certainly, Sam and Westbrooks should get plenty of opportunities to make closing arguments Thursday night in Miami.
Rams' cuts: CB Jarrid Bryant, P Bobby Cowan, OT R.J. Dill, WR Jordan Harris, LS Jorgen Hus, FB Kadeem Jones, LB Johnny Millard, WR T.J. Moe; OT D.J. Morrell, LB Pat Schiller (waived injured), S Matt Daniels, DE Sammy Brown
Quarterback Sam Bradford (knee) and center Demetrius Rhaney (knee) were placed on injured reserve. Last week, the Rams placed running back Isaiah Pead on injured reserve and did not replace him on the roster. That brings the total to 75.
As of Monday, two St. Louis Rams -- linebacker James Laurinaitis (No. 93 defense) and left tackle Jake Long (No. 63 offense) -- had cracked the list. On Tuesday morning, another Ram made the cut, this time in the form of defensive end Chris Long. Long moved up three spots from his spot at No. 40 on last year's list.
Defense, No. 37, Chris Long
Stats & Info: Long has 33 sacks in the past three seasons, the eighth-most in the NFL, after he had only 17.5 sacks during his first three seasons. Long has never missed a game in his NFL career.
My take: The former No. 2 overall pick has been surpassed by teammate Robert Quinn as this team's premiere pass-rusher, but Long remains one of the better defensive ends in the league. He had just 8.5 sacks in 2013 but he also has 39 quarterback pressures and 20 quarterback hits according to coaches' review. There were plenty of times when Long missed a sack by a split second because Quinn simply beat him to the punch. At this point in his career, it's unlikely to expect Long, 29, to transform into a 15- to 17-sack per season player, but his consistency and durability make him a valuable piece of this defense and team. With Quinn garnering more attention than ever following his breakthrough 2013 season, don't be surprised if Long's sack total gets a bit of a bump this year.
Since Sam announced publicly that he’s gay in an interview with ESPN in February, he’s heard them all. He has been called a pioneer and trailblazer. He has been compared to Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Kenny Washington.
But the St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end isn’t as interested in living up to a label as he is attaining an occupation. Every time he has been asked about helping current or future gay athletes or his legacy, his response is the same.
"I'm a football player," Sam has said again and again.
The refrain has remained the same since before Sam, who started playing football in seventh grade, and was drafted by St. Louis in May. His natural intensity, chance to develop by playing linebacker in high school and college choice all factored into his development. Sam hopes to take the next step, impressing the Rams enough to make the roster.
Sam remains on the roster after the team made the necessary moves to get to the league maximum of 75 players Tuesday afternoon. He will get his final chance to make an impression against the Dolphins on Thursday.
“Michael is making plays,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve moved people around and because of the flow of the game we played guys a little bit long so he didn’t get as many reps as we would have liked. He’ll probably get plenty of time to play this week.”
Before Sam knew he was going to play football, the head coach and defensive coordinator at Hitchcock (Texas) High were well aware. By the time Sam was in seventh grade, coach Craig Smith and defensive coordinator Morris Tuck had made plans for his arrival.
“Obviously Michael stood out,” Smith said. “He was a big kid, super friendly, kind of loud, fun-loving kind of kid and he just stuck out.”
When Sam arrived at the high school, bigger than most of his 300-plus classmates, he only had a couple of years of junior high football under his belt but there was little doubt he’d start on varsity. After some experimenting with Sam as a ball carrier, the coaching staff settled on defensive tackle, adding offensive tackle duties as a sophomore.
“A huge part of it was effort and intensity,” Tuck said. “Michael is a guy that turns on a different switch on Friday nights. The intensity was just what really made him stand out early on.”
Sam was also faster, regularly outrunning skill position players in drills. For the better part of his first two seasons, he got by on speed and effort.
During his sophomore season, Tuck experimented with using Sam as an inside linebacker during summer seven-on-seven tournaments around the state. He was athletic enough to get by at inside linebacker but coaches decided it wasn’t where he was best suited. Still, it offered the chance to see the game from a different perspective. Sam got a better understanding of gap control and other mental aspects of diagnosing plays. When he moved back to defensive tackle, Sam carried those lessons.
Any doubt about Sam’s talent was erased on Oct. 4, 2008. That was the night Class 2A Hitchcock hosted 5A Houston power Chavez High. A defensive lineman by the name of Michael Brockers, who was one of the top-rated players in the state and headed to LSU, led Chavez.
Brockers hadn’t grown to the 6-foot-5, 326-pound behemoth he is now -- as Sam’s Rams teammate. But he had 15 pounds and a couple of inches on Sam at the time.
Playing offensive tackle, Sam was charged with blocking Brockers, who played defensive end. Brockers managed a sack against Sam, but for the most part, the future teammates played to a draw.
Sam’s performance led to early interest from schools such as Houston, Colorado State and Iowa State. Soon enough, Arizona State, Baylor and Missouri began calling.
“That night left little doubt that either he could play big-time college football or Michael Brockers was way overrated, one of the two,” Smith said. “Obviously the second part of that wasn’t true.”
Though the Tigers got into the bidding late, Sam chose Missouri. And with the move from Texas to Columbia, Missouri, his maturation process began.
For all the progress Sam had made on the field, his high school coaches believed college would help him grow as a player and a man. College would provide stability and a support system to help him thrive.
“As you get him up here, you get into a little bit more of the day-to-day things going on in his life,” Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “So to help him continue to grow and mature not only physically but emotionally and mentally. That was a big process for Mike and it is for a lot of guys in terms of trusting people and doing the right things and being responsible and accountable.”
Kuligowski is known for getting the most out of underrated players with upside. Sam was rated as the nation’s No. 75 defensive end by ESPN’s recruiting nation and Rivals.com gave him two out of five stars.
The Tigers have made a habit of molding those kinds of recruits into NFL players, especially defensive linemen. Eight former Missouri defensive linemen are currently in the NFL and most haven’t been highly touted prospects like reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, a three-star recruit in 2004, became a first-round pick in 2009.
Sam was raw when he arrived in Columbia but wasted little time making an impression. The first order of business was moving Sam to defensive end, which meant a crash course on technique.
After a redshirt season spent in the weight room, Sam had seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, a safety and a blocked kick in his first season. He followed with solid sophomore and junior seasons, in which he developed a knack for coming up with big plays at opportune moments, including a last-minute interception to preserve a win against Texas Tech.
Sam burst onto the scene his senior season. He put on the weight and muscle his upper body lacked and weighed in at 255 pounds, important gains for a player transitioning to the more physical Southeastern Conference. Still, nobody predicted Sam would become an All-American and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, when he racked up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
“Would I have ever guessed after his junior year that he could play at that level? I would have questioned that,” Pinkel said. “I thought he could be a really, really good player. Could he be a great player? I thought he could be, but I think he was a pleasant surprise for everybody. But his focus that last year was at a whole different level than I had ever seen.”
Through three preseason games, Sam has five tackles, including three sacks. Two of those sacks came against Browns rookie Johnny Manziel on Saturday. Sam mimicked Manziel’s “money sign” after the first play.
"If you're going to sack Johnny, you've got to do that once," Sam said.
But unlike Manziel, Sam isn’t guaranteed to make the 53-man roster when final cuts are made on Saturday. While Sam hasn’t been overwhelmed by the players across from him and has made enough plays to at least raise some eyebrows, it’s a numbers game with the Rams.
The top eight defensive linemen for the Rams -- Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington -- are virtually locked in. Undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks is competing with Sam for a ninth spot if the Rams decide to go deeper.
“The roster may look a little bit different than years past because we may have more depth at one position,” Fisher said. “We may go a little heavier at one position versus another position. So [players] can’t waste their time trying to figure out what’s going to happen because things can change on a daily basis.”
No longer the biggest, strongest or fastest, Sam’s biggest task is refining his pass-rush moves. One NFC scout referred to Sam as a “chase player,” explaining he can get by on guile and effort but doesn’t have much in the way of pass-rush moves or counters.
Sam has worked with defensive line coach Mike Waufle to develop those moves in training camp. He is also attempting to contribute on special teams after playing a little early in college. Both transitions are challenging but it’s the mix of Sam’s ability to do both that will determine his fate with the Rams.
"Michael is a defensive end," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He plays defensive end with his hand down. It's rare to find a defensive end playing special teams in the National Football League. They don't do it.
“If Michael can find a way into the core group of special teams, and we're going to give him every opportunity to do that, then that's going to help his chances of making this team."
“I’m a football player,” Sam said. “This is football. It feels natural.”
Being a football player has come easy for Sam. Staying one is his next challenge.
Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, defensive tackles Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers and offensive lineman Rodger Saffold all left Saturday night's preseason game against the Cleveland Browns with injuries and uncertain statuses moving forward when they did not return. But Rams coach Jeff Fisher was at least able to offer a positive outlook on that quartet before confirming Bradford's injury.
"We got good news considering the mechanism of what happened to Trumaine Johnson," Fisher said. "We’ll miss Trumaine anywhere from four to six weeks with an MCL sprain."
The news was even better in the case of Saffold, Langford and Brockers. All three left with ankle injuries though Saffold's looked the worst after a player rolled up on his leg. But Fisher said the damage was minimal and the trio might even be ready to go this week.
"I can report on three of them who we got good results back," Fisher said. "Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford and Rodger Saffold could potentially play this Thursday night in the fourth preseason game at Miami."
The Rams may take a cautious approach with those three considering, but all three have missed time in camp and might need the reps before the regular season starts.
As for Johnson, the Rams have a few options to take his place, but none of them has proven much of anything in the NFL. Fisher listed rookies E.J. Gaines and Lamarcus Joyner as options as well as second-year corner Brandon McGee. Obviously, McGee has the most experience of the three though most of that is limited to special teams and one rough outing against Chicago in week 12 last season.
McGee has also been dealing with an ankle injury during the preseason and the Rams would probably prefer to keep Joyner in the slot as the primary nickelback. That could leave the door open for Gaines, who has impressed in camp and the preseason with his tenacity and physical approach.
Fisher wouldn't tip his hand Sunday but will have to offer at least a glimpse of the plans in the preseason finale Thursday night.
"E.J. has come on," Fisher said. "And Brandon McGee from last year missed this game with an ankle, he should be back. We’ll be OK there until Tru comes back. Lamarcus is making plays, he played there last night and inside. We’ve got a good, solid group there."
It was a magical season that appeared as if from nowhere led by an MVP quarterback coming from parts unknown. It was a team that had won a combined 15 games over the previous three seasons and hadn't been to the playoffs since 1989.
Suddenly, everything fell into place and Kurt Warner became one of the most beloved players in franchise history and the de facto conductor of the three-year run known as the "Greatest Show on Turf." It was perhaps one of the most entertaining teams (and certainly offenses) in league history.
Because what's happened in St. Louis since, especially at the quarterback position, might change your stance on the existence of voodoo or magic or curses.
Over the past decade, much like the decade that preceded Warner and the Greatest Show, the Rams have been among the league's most futile franchises. They haven't had a winning record since 2003 or been to the postseason since 2004. They won just 15 games over a five-year stretch beginning in 2007.
Much of that failure had been self-inflicted through poor drafts, misguided free-agent signings and a lack of a plan or leadership at the top. And now, in 2014, when the young talent the Rams have accumulated in two seasons under coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead looked poised to take a step, they lost quarterback Sam Bradford for the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time.
It was one of five injuries to starters the Rams suffered against the Browns and the biggest and most devastating of the five. Apparently, the nickname "Factory of Sadness" for FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland doesn't apply only to the home team.
"I was asked last night if I had experienced anything like we experienced in the first half and my answer was no," Fisher said. "It’s every head coach’s and general manager’s and player and assistant coach’s nightmare. We had five starters come out of the game and then not return. It’s a very, very difficult experience to go through in the preseason."
Difficult experiences have become old hat for fans of the Rams, especially during their time in St. Louis. They were teased with all of the greatness and Hall of Fame talent of the Greatest Show era, but other than that they've had nothing to cling to but hope.
Take the quarterback position as a prime example. In comparison to many teams around the league, it appears they've had quite a bit of stability at the position. Over the past 15 years, they've had just three quarterbacks as the primary starter: Warner, Marc Bulger and Bradford. On further inspection, that stability is merely a mirage.
Since 2002, the Rams have had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times. Injuries created the opening for Bulger to take over for Warner and eventually spelled the end for Bulger before the Rams drafted Bradford. It's somewhat ironic that Bradford, whom the Rams must now look to replace, is responsible for two of those seasons.
That isn't to say Warner or Bradford or Bulger was brittle so much as it's an indictment of the way the teams were built around them, including some particularly shoddy offensive lines. There's plenty of bad luck involved, too, considering how many quarterbacks take hits all the time and are able to avoid serious injury. Both of Bradford's injuries have come on fluke plays rather than bone-jarring hits.
With Shaun Hill as the starter, this season isn't lost. The Rams still have a talented defense and other young, ascending players. Hill should provide a steady hand for a run-first offense. But it was hard enough to imagine the breakthrough year the Rams hoped for in the rugged NFC West even with Bradford.
For those that have worked so hard to get the Rams back to prominence and the fans that have stuck with the team through thick and thin, Bradford's injury is devastating, but it's also nothing new for a team that once caught one of the biggest breaks of all and hasn't caught one since.
(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.)
RUNNING BACKS (4)
Isaiah Pead is officially on injured reserve, leaving these four in good shape but the intriguing name here is Trey Watts. He performed well against Cleveland and will get another chance against Miami. The Rams carried five last year and if Watts has another strong outing and proves capable on special teams, he might elbow his way into the mix.
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 there isn't one who has really emerged as worthy. Givens reminded many why he deserves to stick against the Browns but Pettis has been nearly invisible. Without Bailey, it stands to reason Pettis would stay but upon Bailey's return, that could change.
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 four. Cunningham vs. Alex Bayer continues to be one of the more interesting battles on the roster. Cunningham is the better blocker, while Bayer has shown more as a pass-catcher. It's really difficult to determine which flavor the Rams prefer but I'm going back to Cunningham because of his value as a blocker on special teams.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- Jake Long
- Joe Barksdale
- Scott Wells
- Greg Robinson
- Rodger Saffold
- Davin Joseph
- Brandon Washington
- Tim Barnes
- Mike Person
The Rams have serious questions about their depth on the offensive line. Barrett Jones' situation remains in flux and few of the backups have stood out. Washington finally got back to work against the Browns and played pretty well at left tackle. He can play inside and out so he pushes Travis Bond out for now. Some with the Rams like Bond, though, and he could still factor.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- Chris Long
- Robert Quinn
- William Hayes
- Eugene Sims
- Michael Brockers
- Kendall Langford
- Aaron Donald
- Alex Carrington
- Ethan Westbrooks
This is the toughest decision on the roster right now. Westbrooks and Michael Sam have both done enough in camp and the preseason to stake a claim to a spot. Jeff Fisher has hinted at a different look in terms of roster composition this year and it's not out of the realm of possibility they could keep both. It's hard to project where they could chop elsewhere to create space right now. Carrington hasn't done much in the preseason and I wonder how safe he is but with Brockers and Langford battling ankle issues, it seems the Rams need him right now. The other X factor here is Hayes' health. He has practiced but still not appeared in a preseason game as he returns from offseason surgeries.
Barring injury, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the first five don't make it. But the sixth spot is more of a question mark. That spot is anybody's guess. Steward stays there for now but one would think it comes down entirely to special teams.
OK, so we are taking the plunge and adding a sixth corner here which seems even more likely with Johnson battling a knee injury. But it's not easy to choose one from the group of Roberson, Greg Reid and Darren Woodard. Roberson has flashed the most in coverage, Reid is the best tackler and Woodard is sort of the happy medium between the two. We'll go with Roberson because he's gotten the most opportunities, an indication the coaching staff likes his potential.
I've teased a possible change here for a couple of weeks but hesitated because it's been hard to figure out where the other roster spot will be allocated. But it's time to make the move because none of the other safeties have really done much of anything to stand out. It's possible that a player like Matt Daniels could get another shot because of special teams but the Rams would do so at the expense of a more talented player at another position. Plus, Lamarcus Joyner can play safety in a pinch.
It would take a serious injury to disturb this strong trio.
"This team is going to rally around Shaun [Hill] and we’re going to go play ..." Fisher trailed off.
The storybook tale of Kurt Warner replacing Trent Green and leading the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV is a cute parallel to what the Rams are going through now with Bradford out and Hill in, but it's also one of the game's legendary aberrations.
The 34-year-old Hill has been a steady backup who has started a handful of games over the course of a 12-year career. In that time, Hill has thrown for 6,381 yards, 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions for a passer rating of 85.9. He compiled a 13-13 record as a starter and played 11 games with the Detroit Lions in 2010 in relief of Matthew Stafford.
Although he's in his first year with the Rams following four each in Detroit, San Francisco and Minnesota, Hill has plenty of experience playing in a variety of offenses with plenty of different coaches and players.
That's a far cry from Warner's story and that should be instructive in trying to determine what Hill brings to the table as the Rams' starter. Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have no intention of asking Hill to air it out, just as they didn't with Bradford.
"Shaun has a great feeling for the offense right now and we’re going to move forward with it," Fisher said. "We’re not going to change anything. He knows the system. Everybody knows we are going to run the football first, and we’re going to do that and we’re going to do that well and we’re going to do that to start the season and then everything else will come off of that."
With Hill under center, the Rams have a steady hand who should be a better option than Kellen Clemens was when he took over for Bradford seven games into the 2013 season. The season shouldn't be lost with Hill in charge, but it's going to make what would have been an uphill climb to a postseason berth an even more daunting task.
Given the dearth of solid quarterbacks in the NFL, the Rams are wise to stick with the steady Hill as the starter rather than mortgage valuable draft picks to acquire someone who wouldn't be a guaranteed upgrade. Anyone who might be considered an upgrade probably would be unavailable, too expensive, or both.
To that end, Fisher shot down rumors about the team's interest in an outside quarterback who could potentially push Hill.
"I’ve heard that there’s speculation we’ve been on the phone," Fisher said. "That’s not true. It doesn’t mean to say we won’t but we haven’t done it to this point. Keep in mind these guys understand our system. Shaun is ready to play."
The bigger issue is what the Rams would do should something happen to Hill. For as experienced as Hill is, the Rams are equally inexperienced behind him. The current backup, Austin Davis, enters his third season with the team having never thrown a regular-season pass. Sixth-round draft choice Garrett Gilbert is a developmental rookie with a lot of improvement to make before he could play.
So even with rumors of the Rams' interest in players such as Mark Sanchez, Ryan Mallett, Kirk Cousins and so many others, they aren't planning to make an impulse purchase just to say they've done something.
"It makes no sense to jump and react right now and try to fill the hole, whatever it costs," Fisher said. "We’re going to take our time and evaluate this. There’s going to be some quarterbacks that are getting released and there may or may not be some quarterbacks that have trade value. We just don’t know. It’s way too soon."
Waiting is fine for now, but the Rams would be wise to find a way before the season starts to add a backup with experience to back up the one who is now starting.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- What was once again thought to be a make-or-break season for St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford broke Sunday, two weeks before it even started.
With news coming from ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that Bradford will miss the 2014 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Rams will almost certainly turn to veteran Shaun Hill to replace him. In Hill, they have an in-house replacement they believe to be an upgrade over Kellen Clemens, the quarterback who replaced Bradford last year.
But Hill is 34 and what was already an uncertain picture at the game's most important position just became a lot fuzzier. Bradford is scheduled to count $17,610,000 against this year's salary cap. His number for next year is a daunting $16,580,000. And he's headed for his second left knee surgery in less than a year.
Forgetting the Rams' inability to reach the playoffs or even post a winning record under Bradford's guidance for a moment, the harsh reality is that there's no longer any debate about whether Bradford should be the team's quarterback of the future. Once this season ends, Bradford will have missed 25 consecutive games over two seasons.
Simply put, it's time for the Rams to move on. And more to the point, it's fair to wonder whether they should have already had the succession plan in place.
This isn't a second guess, this is revisiting a relevant conversation that came up repeatedly around the NFL draft. Even as rumors of the team's interest in Johnny Manziel swirled, Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead remained steadfast in their belief in Bradford.
With picks at Nos. 2 and 13 in the first round, the Rams could have drafted any quarterback they wanted with the second pick and all but Blake Bortles with the 13th selection. Although it appeared the Rams never really considered grabbing a signal-caller with either of those picks, there were those who would have liked to see them do it, especially considering the bonus pick the team had from Washington.
The Rams eventually spent a lowly sixth-round pick on developmental prospect Garrett Gilbert -- who is nowhere close to being an NFL starter -- despite multiple hints that they'd spend at least a Day 2 pick on a quarterback.
Taking it a step further, it was also fair to wonder whether the Rams should have more strongly considered a quarterback at the top of the draft because they might never draft in such lofty territory again. In Fisher's 18 full seasons as a head coach, his teams have had seven or more wins 15 times. He's had one season each with four, five and six wins.
In other words, Fisher's teams almost always find a way to a baseline of mediocrity that doesn't yield many opportunities to draft franchise quarterbacks. The average first-round draft position of Fisher's teams, not including picks gained in trade, is 17.9.
On the two occasions his Tennessee teams picked in the top three, they drafted a quarterback both times, one being the home run that was Steve McNair, the other being the whiff that was Vince Young.
Such is life when betting your franchise's future on a young quarterback. It's a bet the Rams weren't prepared to make again while waiting to see if the one they made on Bradford in 2010 would pay off.
But because they didn't, the Rams now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to place their next bet with far less valuable chips.
"We’ve got starters [who] need to play a little bit more," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Jake played more plays than we expected because he wanted to play more plays than expected."
Before Saturday night, Long hadn't played since the third offensive play of the team's penultimate game on Dec. 22, 2013 against Tampa Bay. Long tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee early in that game and had the necessary surgeries in January.
All along, the Rams maintained that Long could be back in time to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 7 against Minnesota and return to exhibition games about halfway through the preseason. That seemed a bit optimistic at the time, but Long has been practicing on a full-time basis for the better part of the past two-plus weeks.
The Rams held Long out of the second preseason game, but he got the start against the Cleveland Browns. As you'd might expect, Long's return was noticeably shaky, especially on the opening series.
"The game speed picks up so there’s definitely some rust and some bad plays I had," Long said. "It was good that I can get that out in the preseason and get some plays in before the start of the season."
On the team's first drive, Long picked up penalties for illegal hands to the face and a false start, costing the Rams 15 yards. Beyond that, Long was in the midst of what appeared to be a miscommunication that led to linebacker Barkevious Mingo blowing past him and creating the pressure that eventually resulted in linebacker Paul Kruger hitting quarterback Sam Bradford on his left knee.
Bradford bounced back up after that hit, but he didn't five plays and two penalties later when Cleveland end Armonty Bryant again beat Long to get to Bradford. Bryant landed awkwardly on Bradford's own surgically repaired knee and exited the game with an injury that is to be determined by further tests today.
"It’s horrible whenever guys go down, especially Sam, he’s been working so hard, but we’re hoping for the best and we’ll see what happens," Long said.
Long played 27 snaps on the evening, which amounted to two full series as the Rams controlled the ball and clock for most of the first half. He said he felt better as the game went along.
"I was going to play as long as they kept me in there," Long said. "I was feeling good, and I was moving around well and was really happy with it so I wanted to get out there, get the game speed and knock the rust off."
That means fewer chances for Sam to impress Fisher and his staff. It also means Sam has no choice but to make the most of the chances he's afforded.
Defensive end Chris Long even joked about the internet breaking because of it. While the jokes were funny, Sam's recent work in games is no laughing matter.
"With the plays you have, you’ve got to make sure you perform," Sam said. "I thought I came up big in the fourth quarter."
Under Fisher's guidance, starters generally get more reps as the preseason wears on, leaving less work for the backups. It also means facing lesser players later in the game. Sam offers a prime example, entering the first preseason game against New Orleans in the first quarter but having to wait until the fourth to play against the Browns.
Sam wasted little time making his presence felt when he entered. Playing his most comfortable left end spot, Sam beat second-string tackle Martin Wallace around the edge, using both arms to knock away Wallace's feeble attempt to block him.
Often labeled purely a run-and-chase player who gets most of his sacks on effort, Sam has made strides when it comes to hand usage and fundamentals according to Long.
"He’s gotten a lot better with that," Long said. "When he came in he was very raw; he’s still raw but he continues to work at it. He’s like the rest of these rookies out there competing every day and he was able to make a play tonight and that was great for him."
Sam drew a strong reaction from his teammates on the sideline when he followed the sack by doing his normal celebration capped off by an imitation of Manziel's money sign.
"If you sack Johnny, you’ve got to do it," Sam said. "At least once."
Sam actually had a second opportunity to do it, though it faded quickly because his second sack came on the game's final play. Sam appeared to wrangle Manziel down with about three other Rams, but the unofficial press-box statistics credited him for the takedown. So long as someone is willing to give it to him, Sam is happy to take it.
"That last sack belongs to me as well," Sam said. "So that’s good. Because I need ‘em. I need ‘em."
Indeed, regardless of the competition or the snap count, Sam can use every big play possible as he continues fighting for a roster spot. The Rams appear to have eight defensive line spots pretty well locked in, and though they've carried nine in their two years under coach Jeff Fisher, undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks has performed every bit as good or better than Sam throughout the preseason.
There's a chance the Rams could go even heavier on the defensive line considering some injuries and versatility at other positions, but that's no guarantee. The only way for Sam to make it is to earn it.
"I can only control what I can control," Sam said. "I thought I got better today. I’m not only interviewing for the Rams but also interviewing for the other 31 teams. As long as I keep getting better, I have got one more week to get better and we’ll go from that."
The Rams' playoff hopes, for whatever they still were at that point in the season, died that day.
After the game and some goading, Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated that the injury could be little more than a hyperextension. He added that Bradford was walking around fine and in good spirits in the locker room.
"We’ll go back and do tests tomorrow and we’re optimistic for his quick return," Fisher said.
That's a major departure from that 2013 Week 7 game against Carolina, when the Rams not only lost the game, but also their quarterback. That day, Bradford writhed in pain for about 10 minutes before the cart arrived to take him to the locker room. In that postgame news conference, Fisher didn't offer anything remotely resembling an optimistic outlook, let alone a possible diagnosis. In fact, Fisher made it a point to say he didn't want to deal in hypotheticals and mentioned Bradford was in "significant" pain on the sideline.
Upon entering that locker room after Carolina, pins could be heard dropping as the Rams slowly trudged to the bus to head to the airport.
The scene in Cleveland on Saturday was far different. By no means was the mood jubilant, but it was one that was certainly more upbeat than one would expect considering the injuries to Bradford and fellow starters Kendall Langford, Trumaine Johnson, Michael Brockers and Rodger Saffold. Johnson's injury appeared the most serious, as he was the only one to leave on a cart, but Fisher even expressed a dose of optimism on that.
Bradford was unavailable to the media after the game. But wide receiver Brian Quick, perhaps the player with the most to lose to a possible Bradford injury, did speak to his quarterback.
"I was a little nervous about it but everything is all right," Quick said. "Sam told me that he is OK."
Although backup Shaun Hill represents a solid veteran option, the Rams are like every other team in the league in that they can't afford to lose their starter. Before he was hurt Saturday, Bradford was off to another strong start in his second preseason appearance.
Despite shoddy pass protection, Bradford was 4-of-9 for 77 yards and had showed a continued willingness to press the ball down the field and into tight windows.
Also, unlike that Carolina game, without Bradford and the other four starters, the Rams went on to an impressive (at least by preseason standards) 33-14 victory.
"We'll wait until tomorrow and see what happens," end Chris Long said. "We did a lot of positive things for our third preseason game and there were a lot of bumps and bruises but we'll see tomorrow. We'll just take in the victory and look at the positives because there were a lot of positives."
But there would be no bigger positive than a clean bill of health for the starting quarterback.
CLEVELAND -- If possible, the score of the St. Louis Rams' preseason meeting with the Cleveland Browns has even less meaning than an average exhibition contest.
The Rams (1-2 in preseason) dominated in a 33-14 win, but the victory is about as hollow as possible considering what occurred in the first half. The first 30 minutes turned the team's starters into something resembling a MASH unit.
Quarterback Sam Bradford suffered a left knee injury with a little more than eight minutes to go in the first quarter and did not return. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that initial tests did not reveal any further damage to Bradford's surgically repaired ACL, but Bradford will have more tests in the next 24 hours. Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated after the game that it could be a hyperextended knee.
Had it stopped there, it would have been bad enough, but four other starters left the game with injuries and did not return. Defensive tackle Kendall Langford (ankle), cornerback Trumaine Johnson (knee), defensive tackle Michael Brockers (ankle) and guard Rodger Saffold (ankle) also departed early. Early indications on those injuries are that Saffold and Langford were taken out more as a precaution. Johnson's looked to be the worst after he took a helmet to the left knee and a cart took him to the locker room.
Some more thoughts and observations from Saturday's game:
- It was a rough go for left tackle Jake Long in his first game back. He picked up a penalty for hands to the face and struggled on two plays that led to Bradford getting hit. Obviously, he's got some rust to knock off but it was a potentially damaging sequence.
- Wideout Brian Quick has put together the best training camp of his young career and has now carried that momentum into two consecutive preseason games. He finished with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown and was clearly Bradford's favorite target. Time will tell if he can do it when the games count, but the Rams have to be encouraged by his consistency in camp and preseason.
- Hard to fathom why, after the injuries to Bradford, Saffold and Langford, the Rams still had the starting defense on the field when Johnson and Brockers were hurt.
- Receiver Chris Givens has been awfully quiet in this preseason to the point that he's not playing at all with the starters. But Givens offered a reminder of why he's a piece worth keeping around with an impressive 75-yard catch and run for a touchdown. He added a nice catch on a crossing route for a gain of 19 earlier on the drive.
- Defensive end Michael Sam came up with his second sack in as many games, dropping Johnny Manziel with a little more than 10 minutes to go. Best I can tell, Twitter is still functional. Barely.
- Rookie offensive lineman Greg Robinson did not start against the Browns after doing so in each of the first two games. Moving back and forth between left guard and left tackle has left him struggling to settle in. Rodger Saffold started at left guard with Davin Joseph at right guard, but that doesn't mean that's how it will be when the season starts. With the rest of the line healthy and in place, expect the Rams to try to get Robinson settled in at left guard moving forward.
- Linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle) did some work in practice this week but the Rams clearly didn't want to push him and he sat this one out. Fellow linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also didn't play.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns meet in Week 3 of the preseason Saturday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET. Here are three things to watch for from the Rams' end:
1. Returning starters: Last week it was quarterback Sam Bradford making his 2014 preseason debut, but five other important Rams are working their way back onto the field and could do so as early as this week. Left tackle Jake Long is expected to play for the first time since suffering a torn MCL and ACL in December 2013. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers also looks on course to bounce back from an ankle injury after doing most everything in practice this week. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins should also be back on the field after a short hiatus because of a hamstring issue. Linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle) and guard Rodger Saffold (stinger) are less certain. Saffold has done limited work in team drills during practice but is hopeful that he'll get to play. Laurinaitis is in a similar boat but may not be pushed. We won't know who will and won't play until the game starts, but all five are worth watching either way.
2. A better idea: Rams coach Jeff Fisher has indicated his team will be a bit more active in game planning and preparation this week after an extremely vanilla approach the first two weeks. That could mean more time for the starters than either of the first two games. But just because there will be more scheming doesn't mean there will be a lot. A blitz here and there might be in the offing, but coming away with any sweeping generalizations from any preseason game (or practice, for that matter) is still not recommended. Still, the more time the starters play, the more chances we'll have to see what kind of shape the top group is in.
3. Running revival: Through the first two games, there has been plenty of caterwauling about the Rams' inability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, particularly with the starting groups. While there hasn't been much game planning going on, the run game often comes down to the basics of blocking and tackling. Those two things should always be a priority and so far the Rams have struggled in those areas. Of course, plenty of teams around the league can say the same thing. On defense, the return of Laurinaitis and Brockers would go a long way toward helping stop the run. Saffold would have a similar effect on the run game. Again, there's little reason to panic about either area at this point in the preseason, but it's worth continuing to monitor as the regular season draws near.
For the St. Louis Rams, that isn't necessarily the case. But they do have bigger plans for Saturday night's game against the Cleveland Browns than in either of their first two preseason games.
Those plans include the team's starters playing the bulk of the first half, including a handful of players who are returning this week from injury.
"Really, our hope is to play the first half," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Some guys may come out just a little sooner, but that’ll be our guidelines, to try and get the starters to play at least a half.”
Long is scheduled to play in a game for the first time since suffering a torn ACL and MCL at the end of the 2013 season. He's been practicing for most of the past couple of weeks and is right on the schedule the Rams initially set for his return.
Saffold has been working his way back from a stinger injury suffered in early August. He has been getting full reps in team drills this week and is also expected to return.
Assuming Long and Saffold come back, the Rams will have their first-team offensive line together for the first time in this preseason.
The same can be said of the secondary, where Jenkins is returning from a hamstring injury.
"I’m kind of excited about getting the secondary together for the first time this year," Fisher said. "That’s going to be a good thing. [Cornerback] Lamarcus [Joyner] will line up and play in the slot for us, then of course it’s good to get Jake and Rodger back for the first time.”
That leaves linebacker James Laurinaitis as the only projected starter with an uncertain status as the team heads to Cleveland. Laurinaitis is bouncing back from an ankle injury, but has been getting more work in practice each day this week. His status is likely to be a game-time decision, but if he doesn't play against the Browns, he almost certainly will play against Miami in the preseason finale.
Beyond the work of the starters, Fisher and his staff have plenty to evaluate with the backups as they begin to make roster decisions. Rosters must be trimmed from 90 to 75 by Tuesday.
After that, don't be surprised if the Rams starters get even more work against the Dolphins as part of Fisher's preferred method of gradually building snaps throughout the preseason.
"We probably will play more in the fourth game because we like to build reps," Fisher said. "But again, if you go to the back end of the roster, we’re looking for guys that are competing for spots. We’re looking for improvement out of the younger group of players on special teams. We've got to minimalize our special-teams penalties."