Tomorrow night the world gets a first look at the St. Louis Rams version 2010 when the team takes the field at the Ed Jones Dome to face the Minnesota Vikings in their preseason opener.
All eyes will be firmly fixed on rookie QB Sam Bradford, he of the first overall pick in the draft and the custom made shoulder pads designed to carry a franchise into the future. Of course, Bradford won't be the only show on the field. Lots of players will be auditioning for spots on the final roster, and the offense, defense and special teams units will get the chance to show whether or not all that work in the oppressive summer heat has been productive. One of the more interesting subplots in tomorrow's game will be the performance of the offensive line.
Gone are penalty magnets Alex Barron and Richie Incognito. Their combined penchant for flags burned the Rams on more than one drive last season...and in season before. Expectations says that the new unit, featuring a rookie and a second year player at offensive tackle, will reach new heights. That might not be an instantaneous improvement, however.
In last week's scrimmage, pre-snap penalties were a bit of an issue. In order to get a handle on those, players implemented a measure of self-discipline made even harsher by the oppressive heat that's surrounded training camp practices thus far.
Complicating that, is the fact that the projected starters on the offensive line haven't had many reps together in practice. Jason Smith got back in the groove this week, and will play tomorrow night at RT. Starting LG Jacob Bell has missed time since spring practices and will be out this week with a stomach muscle injury. At the other guard spot, John Greco, who many figured to be the lead horse in the race for the starting RG job, is also out this week.
There's no official word yet on which players will comprise the starting five tomorrow, other than Saffold and Smith who will know will be the starting LT and RT. I suspect the starting OL will include, Jason Brown at C (no stretch there since he's healthy and has a stranglehold on that job), Adam Goldberg at LG and Hank Fraley at RG.
That's not a bad unit at all. In fact, since the RG has yet to be determined, Fraley could very well be the starter. And the silver lining of Bell's absence is more reps for the players who'll be providing depth. Speaking of Bell, the other players vying for a roster spots on the interior line will get plenty of reps to prove that they deserve Bell's starting job. As evidenced by Saffold's play on the left side, Spagnuolo and crew don't seem determined to let the size of a player's contract dictate their starting role. If Bell doesn't have a solid season, he will not be back in St. Louis next year; he's signed through 2013.
We've talked about the stakes for Saffold and Smith. Saffold, who Jim Thomas says is probably the Rams starting LT for 2010 already, has to make his practice work stand against real opposition; Smith has to live up to his potential. Jason Brown is as nails as it gets for an OL, and the guard jobs are essentially wide open.
After that, a player to watch is Phil Trautwein, who saw some limited action late last season. He's fourth on the depth chart at offensive tackle, and depending on where Adam Goldberg plays, Trautwein could be in the de facto third spot.
Even if this group gets a few flags thrown on them, they'll hopefully get it ironed out before the season starts...there will be plenty of time left to do so.