KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 26: Mardy Gilyard #81 of the St. Louis Rams catches a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during a preseason game at Arrowhead Stadium on August 26, 2011 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Rams beat the Chiefs 14-10. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The St. Louis Rams started took a step, four steps really, toward shaping their final 2011 53-man roster over the last 24 hours. They released four players, including veteran linebacker Na'il Diggs, on their way toward the mandated cut to 80 players by the end of the day tomorrow. This week, Turf Show Times is going to start looking further at the Rams roster, analyzing each position and the players most likely to make the final cut.
To get the party started, I'm going to throw out my projections for the final 53-man roster, breaking it down by offense and defense and offering a few thoughts on each position. Predicting the roster is mostly an exercise in futility since we outsiders are not privy to much more than what we see in the preseason games, but why let a trifling little matter like that stop us?
Teams have to cut down to 53-man rosters by Saturday, September 3. Of course, that final roster is subject to change between then and kickoff on September 11, as teams swap out players based on cuts made elsewhere around the league.
So, without further ado, Van Ram's personnel projections for the Rams' 2011 offense.
Another quick note before I begin. We're in new territory here. Last year's roster decision were in part shaped by weaknesses at certain positions. The defensive line, for instance, featured a number of role players behind the big three of Chris Long, James Hall and Fred Robbins. A more secure unit might not feature 10 players to start the season. The Rams also have a new offensive coordinator who will have his own opinions about which players and how many to keep at each position.
In parentheses next to each position, is the number of players the Rams started the season with at that position last year.
An easy one. Sam Bradford will be the Rams starting quarterback probably for as long as he can stand up. Some wondered about parting ways with Feeley under a new OC, but a team with higher expectations needs a steady veteran to manage the offense should they be without Bradford for a game or two. Look for the backup QB to change next year, once Feeley's contract expires.
This positions speaks for itself. Only Miller's inclusion has the potential to raise a few eyebrows, if only because Josh McDaniels has never been a big full back guy in his past. Keith Toston has had a nice preseason, but running backs will be a dime a dozen once the final round of roster cuts are made. Because Toston was active for all 16 games last season, he is not eligible for the practice squad. I suspect Billy Devaney will find a running back who is eligible for the practice squad - remember they scouted a ton of backs in this year's draft class - and sign him to the practice squad.
Versatility is the theme among the backups. For me, Fraley gets the nod just because of his experience at center. Quinn Ojinnaka has been snapping the ball some too, mostly in practice, but I haven't seen enough to judge whether or not he can be a legit backup center. Drew Miller? Yeah. He's had a better preseason than Hank Fraley, including some solid play against the Chiefs last week in the third quarter. The reality is that they'll probably keep a guy who can play guard as well. I'm assuming Miller can, but he lacks the NFL experience at that position that Fraley or Ojinnaka have. For now, he makes the cut. Look for an OL to be added to the practice squad too.
Right now, the bottom part of the tight end depth chart looks better to me than the bottom part of the wide receiver depth chart. Onobun has yet to wow anyone in the preseason, but has played solidly. Hoomanawanui's tendency for injury also makes it highly likely they keep four. Also, do not be at all surprised if someone else, someone McDaniels knows, gets picked up off waivers and replaces either Bajema or Onobun. Bajema's $1 million salary could be enticing if they need cap space for a cornerback.
Before I launch into this, be sure to read Brick Top's take on the wide receiver race from yesterday. He and I differ a little on how this shakes out, which I think is fairly common. In fact, I challenge you to find two Rams fans with the same projections for wide receiver. Some explanation is due.
The first three are locks. Pettis has not impressed with his preseason play. He is, however, a third-round pick of the current administration. Jerome Murphy did not impress anyone last year, but he stuck around. Teams just don't walk away from third-round picks after a one camp and a locked out offseason. The Rams hung on to Mardy Gilyard last year, a fourth-round pick, despite his struggles. Pettis is a big man with good hands, a red zone weapon. He'll get experience as the year progresses. Don't look for a huge contribution though. Salas looks like a rookie in preseason play, but one worth hanging onto. Neither player would last on the practice squad.
My crystal ball sees special teams in Mardy Gilyard's immediate future. Like any crystal ball, you don't need it to know that; Gilyard has taken 80 percent of the kick and punt returns. Kick returns are mostly a throw away thing in today's NFL, but his work on the other side of special teams, as a gunner, has been outstanding. It reminds me a little of Dominique Curry, who wowed with his special teams play last year before going to IR after two games. Gilyard replaces Curry on this roster. I also need to point out that Gilyard is second on the team for receptions in preseason play, and has the versatility to play all three receivers spots, something the current administration values.
What about Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander? First and foremost, both predate the current offensive coordinator; Avery predates the entire administration. Pure speed is not a prized commodity in McDaniels' offense, never has been. I honestly look for Avery to be traded, though I don't expect much of a return. Given his experience in the league, Avery should have seized his opportunity this year. He has not done so, and merely solid play will not be enough to get him a roster spot.
Alexander has loads of talent to match loads of medical records on knee that has been under the knife five times. He will always be limited in what he can do, including special teams play. The Rams cannot keep a roster spot warm for a player that might see 15 percent of the team's snaps. It's possible, but I'm betting against it.
There are my predictions, laid out only so that I can be proven wrong in a week's time.