It's the first of July, and that means we are officially less than one month from the start of training camp. You can kind of start to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. For the Rams, this year's training camp is more important than ever, as the team starts to answer big questions as the players suit up and physical play starts. We'll get into those questions and the position battles lots more as camp plays out.
That said, it's been awhile since we considered the 2009 Rams from a wider perspective. With the draft, individual performances at OTAs and minicamp, and a look at various units here and there, it's been easy to overlook the bigger picture. And what better way to pull back the lens than with a top ten list?!
Note, I got this idea from Fooch over at Niners Nation, another team with lots of questions surrounding a transitional season. Anyway, on with our list, starting at #10, Letterman style:
10. Chris Long - Last year's first round pick, second overall, had a solid debut, collecting four sacks before hitting that dreaded rookie wall late in the season. The Spagnuolo/Flajole attack defense asks much of Long, making him one of the primary pass rushers in the system. If he can excel in his sophomore season, it will give the Rams a defense that opponents finally have to take seriously.
9. James Laurinaitis - It hardly seems fair to put a rookie all by himself on this list, but Laurinaitis was one of the top MLBs in the draft this year and fills a HUGE need for a Rams team that was constantly gashed by opposing rushers.
8. Alex Barron/Jason Smith - Both starting OTs have a lot to prove this year. Barron, in a walk year of his contract with the Rams (though he'd still be a restricted FA after this season), has to become the solid all-around OT the Rams expected him to be when they drafted him. He's never missed a game and has ability; he just hasn't always seemed to have his head in the game to the point where he can be considered something more than just a starter. This new bunch of coaches is known for lighting fires under players' asses, and that should help Barron. Smith has the talent, but he has to translate that to the NFL...making fans forget that Aaron Curry was available with that second pick. How much he can do as rookie will have much to say about how the Rams fare in 2009.
7. Keenan Burton - The Rams need the physical Burton to be their chain-moving possession receiver, a role more important than ever in new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense. A fourth round pick from last year, Burton missed OTAs and minicamp this spring with a hamstring issue, making training camp a crash course in the playbook as well as the time to prove himself.
6. Donnie Avery - All spring and summer questions have been hurled at the Rams wide receivers: can they make it happen with so little experience? Is Avery good enough to be a #1? Who'll catch passes on the other side to take the heat off? Avery had a nice rookie season on a team whose passing game, um, left a little to be desired. He has to ascend to the next level this year.
5. Ron Bartell - Bartell is the man in the backfield this season, the unquestioned number one CB. As such, he'll draw some tough assignments, Larry Fitzgerald for instance. With a big question mark at the other CB spot, he'll shoulder even more responsibility. The Rams pass rush heavy defense should help the backfield, as well as starting safeties OJ Atogwe and new addition SS James Butler.
4. Adam Carriker - The Rams 2007 first round pick went from college DE to DT in the pros. Unfortunately, his move to DT didn't go as well as the team would have liked. Much of that had to do with Carriker being asked to play some at NT and some on the inside gap between the guard and the center, i.e. not playing to his strengths. Then, he played hurt all of last year, trying to recover from a shoulder injury sustained at the end of his rookie year. Carriker has to step up his game, and Spagnuolo is giving him that chance by shifting him to the left DT position in an attacking defense, where he can play to his strength playing over the guard. He'll also have help from a more creative rotation and hopefully from a bigger body DT in this year's fourth round pick Darell Scott.
3. Steven Jackson - There's no question about Jackson's talent, but if he misses any time this season due to injury, the Rams will suffer...and probably have to look seriously into a 50/50 back situation the next season. I tend to think that a better o-line will take some of the risk off Jackson.
2. Jacob Bell - The middle of the offensive line was the weakest link in a soft chain last year, and much of that had to do with Bell. Playing underweight and dealing with lingering injury issues most of the season, the free agent addition got tagged with the bust label more than once. Now, personal chef in tow, he's back up to guard weight. Not only does he have to keep defensive tackles from breaking through the middle and terrorizing Bulger, he has to make sure Steven Jackson has plenty of room to run.
1. Marc Bulger - The Rams invested lots of money in their QB after his 2006 season, but since then, it's been nothing but second guessing that contract decision as Bulger looked more like an inept backup than a $65 million man. He's got a new offensive line in front of him and a new playbook that should cater to his accuracy and ability to make quick passes. The Rams would like to see Bulger succeed, thus giving them time to find an/or develop his eventual replacement. Bulger would like to succeed so that he might have a career as something more than a backup beyond 2009.
OK, how's that list look to you? Am I missing anyone? Quibbles with the order? I put Bulger first on this list for two reasons, 1) the offense flows through the QB, good line or not, and 2) he's got a big contract to live up to. Arguments for Jackson or the entire o-line at #1 make sense too.