This morning I want to wrap up a look at the Rams depth chart in a two more areas of concern, wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker. Later today, we'll do a preview rehash and a game thread for tomorrow.
Starters: Holt, Bennett, Hall
Depth: Dane Looker, Keenan Burton, Donnie Avery
It's still Torry Holt's show. He and long time QB Marc Bulger have been doing this for awhile now. The way they run that crossing route almost looks mechanical. That play could be a little tougher though with the kind of corners Philly has, so the receivers other than Holt will be important. This is a big week for Drew Bennett. He has to prove that he's a capable #2 because in the preseason rookie Keenan Burton looked hungry and ready to step in. He has his doubters, even the most sycophantic Rams fans are taking a "show me" approach with Bennett. I still don't buy Hall as the #3 WR, but it's a role he has played before in Al Saunders' offensive system, back in the KC days. Hall working out of the slot with Avery out will be an important change of pace for the Rams passing game.
But now the depth part of it, the future. Unlike some key positions, the Rams have two receivers in Avery and Burton to move forward with. They've obviously got a lot to prove and nobody expects record-setting seasons from either this year, and they will at times play like rookies this season. By next season, their place on the depth chart shouldn't be a question at all. (We've talked alot about both Avery and Burton, lately). Dane Looker can be a contributor on the offense, but how much that will look like what he did in preseason remains to be seen. I don't think the Rams will lean on him, just use him for the occasional change-of-pace mismatch play.
Starters: SLB Quinton Culberson, MLB Will Witherspoon, WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa
Depth:Chris Draft, Chris Chamberlain, Gary Stills, David Vobora
Witherspoon might be the most underrated, unheralded LB in the NFC, but put himself on the radar last season with 7 sacks working in Haslett's 3-4-like package that appeared some and recording more than 100 tackles to lead the team. He's speedy and if the guys in front of him do their jobs, he can control the middle of the field. Speedy Tinoisamoa needs to stay healthy for the Rams to compete, as he and 'Spoon combine to make the middle of the field a tough place for offenses to work. Culberson's the new guy, replacing Brandon Chillar. He's tough and reads plays well. This season, these guys MUST stay healthy. Chris Draft is an excellent 4th LB who can play all three spots, but behind him the Rams lack completeness, for now.
Seventh rounder Chamberlain had a great summer, flashing a real skill and instinct for coverage. How much he develops into a complete player remains to be seen. Vobora, the last player taken in the draft, looks solid, but would probably be on the practice squad in most places. Linebacker will again be a need in the upcoming draft to get this position set for the future. Stills is a special teams expert.
Starters: CB Tye Hill, CB Fakhir Brown, SS Corey Chavous, FS OJ Atogwe, Nickel Ron Bartell
Depth: CB Jonathan Wade, CB Ricky Manning, JR., S Todd Johnson, S Brannon Condren
Another much-maligned Rams unit, and for good reason. Inconsistency has been the bane of this unit in the past, but things started to change down the stretch last year. Hill played in just 8 games last season, missing time early on coinciding with Brown's suspension and lost for the season after week 13. This season, his third, needs to be his breakthrough year, the one where he can establish himself as a solid corner that makes the pass defense better. Hill has ball skills and coverage skills, but making sure he has both night in, night out remains his biggest hurdle. Brown's solid and just needs to play. He's a good cover corner and a capable of making the INT; he had 4 in just 12 games last season. If Hill emerges, the 30-year-old Brown will make a good tandem for a few more seasons for the Rams. Ron Bartell improved dramatically down the stretch last year with regular playing time filling in for Brown and Hill. There's reason to think he too could have something of a surprise/breakthrough year, the last year of his contract, after seeing him build on that consistency in camp. Wade is looking like a decent depth guy. One of the Rams' fourth round picks this year, Justin King, is out with injury after a brief appearance at camp in which he looked ready to leap up the depth chart. If his talent pans out, cornerback could become a real strength for this team in the coming years.
The Rams will need to add a safety in the draft this season. Corey Chavous should rebound this season, but the locker room leader is not what he used to be on the field. Atogwe, playing with the franchise tag this season, will be a contract priority for the Rams in the offseason. He blossomed into a star last year, leading the NFC with 8 INTs, something the Rams will be looking for this year, eventhough he missed almost all of camp and the preseason. Johnson's a good third safety and a special teams contributor. Condren is a special teams guy and something of an unknown on defense.
A few more notes about depth. In the near future, the Rams are going to have to start thinking about replacements for Orlando Pace and Marc Bulger, two key positions where both players have age and health questions, Pace more so than Bulger. I think, depending on the talent available, OT looks like the Rams round one priority for April 2009.