Rams Training Camp Battle: The Guards And Salary Cap Implications

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

Who will be "guarding" Sam Bradford in the upcoming season? The training camp battle at the guard position will be one closely watched. With all of the new offensive weapons the Rams have acquired, protecting Sam Bradford, and opening up running lanes for the young backs, will be important factors in creating a potent offense.

Since the hiring of Jeff Fisher in January, 2012, the Rams roster has undergone a massive overhaul. Entering this years training camp, only 14 players remain from the pre-Fisher regimes:

Player Position
Rodger Saffold RT
Harvey Dahl OG
Austin Pettis WR
Lance Kendricks TE
Sam Bradford QB
Kellen Clemens QB
Jake McQuaide LS
Chris Long DE
Robert Quinn DE
Eugene Sims DE
Jermelle Cudjo DT
James Laurinaitis MLB
Josh Hull LB
Darian Stewart S

The influx of young, talented football players on the current 90 man training camp roster is a welcome sight. There will be many hard-fought battles for positions on the final 53 man roster, and many of those young, talented players will not make the team. It is encouraging to see the Rams with so much developing talent.

One of the more hotly contested position battles this year will be at offensive guard. To add a bit of intrigue, the results of this position battle could have salary cap implications. The accompanying chart lists the players competing for positions at offensive guard. In addition, the chart includes the 2013 cap hits for each of the players, and any dead money that would result from releasing them.

Player Cap Hit Dead Money
Harvey Dahl 4,000,000 0
Chris Williams 1,376,154 451,154
Shelley Smith 630,000 0
Barrett Jones 516,300 445,200
Brandon Washington 484,484 0
Rokevious Watkins 452,825 143,475
Kevin Saia 405,000 0
Ryan Lee 405,000 0

On Tuesday, July 16, the Rams released their Training Camp Preview (please click on link). The guide includes a section naming the projected starters for the 2013 season. Harvey Dahl (RG) and Chris Williams (LG) are listed as the starters at the guard positions.

Harvey Dahl

For most of last season, Dahl was the Rams' best blocker. He missed the final two games of the season due to a torn triceps injury. He has proven to be durable, starting in 30 of the Rams' last 32 games. Dahl is one of my favorite players....... a solid, dependable, "lunch bucket" kind of pro with a mean streak. Despite being on the downside of his career, he remains an asset to the offensive line. Although his play has shown some decline, the younger linemen will have to stand out in training camp to move ahead of Dahl on the depth chart. As training camp progresses, the Rams will be assessing whether Dahl has completely recovered from the triceps injury. He remains the favorite to lock down the starting role at right guard.

Chris Williams

In a move that surprised many, the Rams re-signed Williams to a one-year contract, laden with incentives, that could be worth up to 2.75 million. The contract given to Williams is indicative of how highly he was thought of by the Rams. Williams is versatile, starting at every position on the offensive line (except center) during his career. Williams was signed by the Rams on October 22, 2012, after being released by the Chicago Bears. For the Rams in 2012, Williams was inactive for 6 games and played in 3 (the last two alternating with Shelley Smith at right guard, when Harvey Dahl went down with an injury). 59 of his 88 snaps were at guard. Williams split first team snaps with Smith in OTA's, which now has the makings of a fierce competition between the two. He has the most experience of any of the LG competitors going into training camp. The starting role at left guard appears to be his to lose.

Shelley Smith

Smith was signed by the Rams on September 12, 2012, after being waived by the Houston Texans. He appeared in 11 games for the Rams (starting in 6) and proved to be a capable replacement at left guard. Smith also rotated with Chris Williams at the right guard position for the last two games of the 2012 season. Smith and Williams have split first-team reps thus far in the off season. Smith is in the mix for a starting role at left guard and has an excellent chance to secure a place on the 53 man roster.

Rokevious Watkins

Watkins was the Rams fifth-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. His career got off to an uneven start. He reported to training camp overweight and out of shape. Watkins was limited to one game in 2012, after sustaining an ankle injury and landing on the injured reserve list. Rokevious will miss the first game of the 2013 season due to a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy (please click on link). The suspension could have an impact on his ability to earn the starting role at left guard. He will likely start the season as a backup, and has the potential to be a productive starter. Watkins has made progress this off season:

From TST's Brandon Birkhead:

"Watkins is a very big and athletic guard. He has long arms and good quickness, which should allow him to be a good pass protector. Rok's biggest issue coming into the NFL was a below average strength for a man his size.

The good news is Rok has now had a year in an NFL weight room. He has been working with the Rams strength coaches, has lost a significant amount of weight, and no doubt has increased his strength. He should be a better player now than when the Rams drafted him."

Jeff Fisher's thoughts:

"We encouraged him to take some time off," Fisher said at the Combine. "He did. He came back. His rehab's just about complete. His weight is significantly down and he made a commitment to a program early in the offseason to get himself in a position where he can really compete. So I'm pleased with his progress thus far."

Barrett Jones

Jones was a fourth-round steal for the Rams in the 2013 NFL Draft. He is still recovering from a Lisfranc foot injury, and will be brought along cautiously during training camp. Although he has played, and started, all across the line, his best position may be center in the NFL. Jones could compete for the starting left guard position if healthy; it is more likely he will be a versatile backup in his rookie year.

Report from Tevin Broner, TST (please click on link)

Profile from the Rams official website (please click on link)

Brandon Washington

Washington was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, and waived on August 31, 2012. He was signed to the Rams practice squad, where he spent most of the season. Athletic and versatile, he does have the potential to become an impact guard in the NFL. Still considered a project, Washington is a long-shot to make the roster, and will likely start the season on the practice squad.

Ryan Lee/Kevin Saia

Both Lee and Saia were brought in by the Rams as camp bodies for the 90 man roster. They are long shots to make the practice squad.

In mid-June, Nick Wagoner gave his thoughts on the guard competition, in an article for the Rams official web site (please click on link). Both Chris Williams and Shelley Smith also comment about the battle to make the team, the competition, and winning a starting role.

Rams_logo_small_medium

Salary Cap Implications

As of this writing, the Rams have 214,088 in Available Cap Space, the lowest in the NFL. In the off season, only the top 51 contracts count against the salary cap, and it will rise to 53 contracts counting against the salary cap when the season begins. Additionally, the Rams will need to start the season with cap space in "reserve". The reserve's purpose is two-fold: to sign additional player(s) during the season to replace a player put on injured reserve; and to pay the 8 players on the practice squad throughout the season (96,000 - per player). The Rams must create approximately 2.6 million in cap space between now and the season opener.

From OverTheCap:

St. Louis Rams- With just $214,088 in cap room, the Rams do not have enough cap space to function once the regular season begins. They will need to restructure contracts or make a few cuts to be able to function in the regular season.

To create the needed cap space, the Rams can restructure a contract with a substantial base salary (ex. Cortland Finnegan's), in a manner similar to Chris Long's restructure. This involved converting part of Long's base salary to a signing bonus, resulting in 4.5 million of freed up cap space. The Rams can also cut players from the roster to create salary cap space. The larger the contract (in terms of cap hit), the larger the impact on available cap space. This is especially true if there are no dead money ramifications. Aside from an outright release, a player who has been cut (and clears waivers) can be re-signed to a more cap-friendly contract.

Could Harvey Dahl become a cap casualty? Could the Rams release him and try to bring him back at a lower cost? Or does he still have enough ability and effectiveness to warrant a starting position and 4 million contract?

From Patrick Karraker, RantSports NFL:

"Though Dahl is the Rams' most aggressive lineman and by all accounts is a great locker room guy, he is scheduled to count for $4 million against the cap in 2013, all of which could be saved by releasing him. He is the team's oldest player, as he will be 32 on opening day, and is coming off a torn triceps, an injury which is very hard for an offensive lineman to return to full strength from. The Rams' roster features players such as Rokevious Watkins, Brandon Washington, Shelley Smith, Chris Williams and Barrett Jones, all of whom have the potential to be successful starting guards. If the team decides that two of these players are capable of holding down the starting spots, or that Dahl is not the same after his injury, it would be a great cap move to release Dahl, which saves the team money and opens up a spot for a younger lineman to develop. With an administration that places such emphasis on young players that they have brought in, it would not be a huge surprise to see Dahl, a holdover from the Spagnuolo days, become a cap casualty."

2013_nfl_trainingcamp_logo_medium

via images.athlonsports.com

Roster Predictions

Starters: RG - Harvey Dahl, LG - Chris Williams

Reserves: Rokevious Watkins - Shelley Smith - Barrett Jones (Center)

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