The biggest knocks against the Rams have been leveled at the team's depth, depth at key positions like the offensive line, linebacker, and wide receiver. With each of those areas, what's really hurting the Rams in the prognostication department are the unknowns, the rookies and the rebounders and the oft-injured and the questions about how well they'll play and their health.
In the two days before the season kicks off, I wanted to take a look at each of those areas, asses the unknowns and the knowns and maybe give Rams fans a little clearer picture as to where things stand.
Starters: LT Orlando Pace, LG Jacob Bell, C Nick Leckey, RG Richie Incognito, RT Alex Barron
Depth: Adam Goldberg, Brett Romberg, Roy Schuening, John Greco
Pace, Pace, Pace...it's hard to overstate the importance of Orlando Pace to the Rams o-line. The guy has already become one of the best left tackles in the game and he's not even finished, but two injury-marred seasons in row for a guy on the wrong wide of 30 raises legitimate questions about whether or not he can be depended on for a full season. Fact is, Pace turns 33 in November, but he's hardly the first starting LT over 30 a team has leaned on. Since turning 30 four seasons ago, Seattle's Walter Jones has missed just two games. The Eagles LT William Thomas is a year older than Pace. The big man protecting Bulger's left side isn't ready to be put out to pasture yet, and the missed time from the last two years saved wear and tear on Pace's legs and likely adding a few more games to an illustrious career.
So that's Pace, but what about the rest of these guys? The hiring of Steve Loney as the o-line coach was by far the most important offseason addition. There's evidence that it already has when you look at the more aggressive, much improved play from guys like Alex Barron, Goldberg, and the surprising Nick Leckey. Loney's role will be even more important because for several guys starting on the line, this year is something of a coming out party.
There's a tendency out there to snub the non-Pace parts of the Rams o-line; however, there is some promising young talent there that we know very little about. Incognito missed his 2005 rookie season due to injury, but started all 16 games in 2006. He had an impact in his debut season, enough for the Rams to name him among the starters heading into the last two years, but playing all five positions on the line that year made it difficult to establish himself and excel in any one. Then, he played four games last season before succumbing to injury. For Alex Barron, some of the negative influences have been removed, and the Rams expect nothing but a 100% committed, professional attitude from him this season. A new coach has seemingly made him more of a physical presence at RT, but we're waiting to see how he does with the penalties. Barron can be an asset just by cutting down on those. And, how much did playing 15 games at the tougher left tackle position help with Barron's personal growth? Nick Leckey's no stranger to starting at center, and he's shown his chops with an opportunity here. Training camp's biggest surprise held his own quite well against defensive tackles from three tough defenses in the preseason, and the guards playing next to him elevate Leckey's game. Running up the middle will be key against the Eagles, so these guys will get to prove their mettle right away.
Concerns really start to grow with guys backing up the starters on the o-line, especially with Stterstrom done for the season along with veteran Brandon Gorin. Backin up Orlando Pace, Adam Goldberg has impressed us all through camp and the preseason, holding his own with big names like the Titans' Vanden Bosch. He looks solid, and capable of keeping the Rams competitive should Pace miss time, as he proved against the Ravens. Remember, the Rams played competitive down the stretch in '06 without Pace. Romberg can and has started in this offense, and would probably have been starting had he not injured his hand in camp.
Greco and Schuening are rookies and get the natural concerns associated with relying on rookies as your main backups. Greco played well at guard, showing a real knack for in-the-trenches blocking. But that's not quite the same as taking on those imposing DTs in the regular season. Unknowns always come with more concerns than they do promise, but before and after the draft there were plenty of experts thinking that Greco could start right away at G or RT in the NFL. The Rams third round pick did nothing to make us think otherwise in camp. Roy Schuening was kind of hte opposite. Many thought he could give it a go at guard in the NFL right away, but a "so-so camp" hurt his case. Still, he came with a nasty reputation and a no-quit work ethic, so if forced to play, he could come into his own. I'm watching him more next season than this one though.
Bottom line: The Rams o-line could surprise a lot of people with healthy seasons from Pace and emergent seasons from Incognito, Barron and Leckey.