Over the last three seasons, the St. Louis Rams draft class has usually been the team's only spot. As a result of those thin rosters, the team and fans looked to the rookies for key contributions on the field, needed reinforcements here to stave off the Teutonic Knights from running over the golden horns every week. Things are, thankfully, different this year, and the Rams' rookies have a new luxury: room to develop. That said, the greenest of players will still be expected to contribute this year, solidifying the Rams depth chart and making their case for increased roles down the road.
Two weeks into the preseason is hardly time to slap a grade on a draft class, but enough time has passed to give observers a better idea about what role this crop of rookies might play and what kind of impact they might have on the Rams' 2011 season.
Robert Quinn, DE
For a guy who hasn't played football in year, Quinn looked pretty good in preseason action. He beat fellow first-round pick Colts OT Anthony Castonzo in his NFL debut. Quinn's performance against the Titans didn't exactly jump off the page, but he managed to get pressure and hold his own working mostly against the Titans' second team offensive line. I noticed a couple plays where he disrupted the running lane as well.
What to watch for: Expect the Rams to dial up the blitzes in their third preseason game, the closest thing to a preview of the regular season we'll get. He's bound to get some snaps on third downs or other obvious pressure situations. How does he mix with the other defensive linemen?
Impact for 2011: Quinn has a fortunate set of circumstances in that he's just one of several pass rushing weapons the Rams will use this year, rather than counting on him to do it all as a rookie. Though not expected to start, Quinn is expected to make the pass rush more fearsome as the Rams play a much tougher schedule this year.
Lance Kendricks, TE
Probably the most talked about of all the rookies, he didn't see as much action against the Titans as he did against the Colts. He figures to be the most prominent rookie on the field for the Rams this year because of his role in McDaniels' offense. It can be argued that Kendricks was the best all-around playmaker available in the second round.
What to watch for: Versatility is the key to Kendricks' game. He was targeted just once against Tennessee, but got a lot of work as a blocker. With more of the playbook being revealed this week, just how much will we see Kendricks and in what roles? Michael Hoomanawanui is also back on the field, so pay particular attention to how those two work when they're both on the field. How much does Bradford move him around at the line based on pre-snap reads?
Impact for 2011: Huge, or at least he's being counted on for a huge contribution. His versatility can be used to create a variety of mismatches against individual defenses.
Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, WRs
These two are forever linked, because of both their draft status and pole position in the race to winnow down the wide receiver position. Salas shook off a drop to make three catches in his debut last week. Pettis, after starting the first week with the ones, was with the second and third team offenses, as well as working on special teams. Against the Colts, Pettis missed some sure things, his first time under the bright lights of pro football.
What to watch for: Hands. Both of these guys were touted for their hands. Salas showed that, Pettis has struggled. They'll need to play like the sure-handed route runners they were drafted to be through the rest of the preseason. For Pettis, also watch to see if he gets some looks in the red zone. Salas can line up at any receiver spot, so keep an eye on where they use him.
Impact for 2011: Rookie receivers usually don't make headlines for their contributions. Both of these players could be useful in bit parts and as depth in a system that will often use multiple receivers.
Jermale Hines, S
I kind of forgot about Hines in the hoopla of free agency and the start of the preseason. The Rams coaches did not forget about Hines, and the Ohio State product is taking tons of reps in preseason play. Last week he worked with in the nickel package right off the bat, and he played right through the end of the game. You can tell he sees the play well and know his role. He missed a couple tackles and got a little too aggressive at times, but has been mostly solid in preseason play.
What to watch for: Hines moves fast on the field. Keep an eye out to see is his tackling is better this week. Also, watch to see where he plays, how he does when he's covering. The Rams assign their safeties zones to protect, but also allow for some freelance work. Hines needs to make sure he's not missing plays within his responsibility.
Impact for 2011: With Hines and Darian Stewart, the Rams have a good group of safeties. If he can at least grasp the basics, and not make mistakes by getting too far ahead of himself, Hines could be a contributor this year in certain packages and give the Rams depth should they lose a starter.
Mikail Baker, CB
It's a long shot for Baker at this point. He'll have competition among the undrafted rookies for a practice squad spot.
What to watch for: Whether or not he gets on the field is the biggest thing at this point.
Impact for 2011: None
Jonathan Nelson, DB
Nelson has had some moments of inspired play, including stuffing the run for a six-yard loss last week, while playing safety. He can play both corner and safety, though profiles better as a safety.
What to watch for: Can he continue his preseason success? He'll get more playing time in the fourth preseason game as the Rams make decisions about the depth chart.
Impact for 2011: Nelson has earned a spot on the practice squad with his play so far.
Jabarra Williams, LB
A pleasant surprise among the linebackers this year, Williams showed great range and a nose of the ball in preseason play.
What to watch for: It's a battle royal at linebacker, and Williams is buried behind some veterans. He's going to have to really shine in order to earn a spot on the final roster.
Impact for 2011: Good depth, though he's probably destined for the practice squad.
Undrafted free agents of note
It's a really tough year to be an undrafted rookie. Teams don't have a big stake tied up in these players and missed the spring work which usually helps them make a case to stick. A few players have stood out, despite fighting for snaps. Like I said about with the seventh round picks, the fourth preseason game will be the essential one for these players, as the top of the depth chart will have mostly been decided.
Dionte Dinkins, CB - Dinkins has been the biggest surprise among the UDFAs, and right now looks to have earned a place on the practice squad. Can he assure the Rams enough to keep them from adding a veteran CB? Probably not. He suffered a hyperextended knee last week, so monitor his status. It's probably the kind of thing that means he'll have to wait until next year. If it's bad enough, he'd be worth putting on IR.
Schuylar Oordt, TE - This year's Fendi Onobun. However, he's just not getting many looks in preseason play at a crowded position.
Tim Atchison, CB - Not as notable as Dinkins, but a guy who could push someone like Marquis Johnson for a practice squad role.