As the St. Louis Rams prepare to play their first preseason game on Thursday evening against the Cleveland Browns, expectations from fans will be higher than they’ve been anytime since the Mike Martz era of the mid-2000s. With the additions of offensive weapons such as Jared Cook, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and the continued development of second-year players Chris Givens and Brian Quick, the Rams’ passing attack should be able to compete with those of their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. While the starters will likely be used very sparingly in the preseason opener, it will be our first look at what this group can do in a game situation.
With all the young yet unproven talent that the Rams have this year, they have more position battles than usual which will be significantly influenced by the competitors’ preseason showings. In addition, plenty of undrafted free agents will be watched closely in their battles for roster spots. Head coach Jeff Fisher used eight rookie free agents during the 2012 season, showing that he is not afraid to give a shot to an untested player. Look for several more undrafted players to make the Rams’ roster this season.
Finally, we will get to see how much the Rams implement new looks in both their offense and defense during the preseason. On offense, the revitalized receiving corps and the loss of running back Steven Jackson likely is going to lead offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to move towards more of a pass-first attack. On defense, Tim Walton will fill a defensive coordinator spot that was left vacant last season. Not much is expected to change as far as the schemes or play-calling process, but it will be interesting to see how Walton puts his own spin on the game management.
This should be the most indicative look we’ve had so far at the Rams’ running back battle. Daryl Richardson is pretty much locked into the starting job, and Isaiah Pead will supplement him mostly on passing downs and outside running situations, but the Rams plan on using a third running back on a consistent basis. Fifth-rounder Zac Stacy is the favorite to earn that job, but undrafted rookie Benjamin Cunningham, second-year player Terrance Ganaway and Chase Reynolds, who has been a member of the team’s practice squad for several years, all have a shot to claim a spot. Their preseason performance will be critical to determining which of them survive into the regular season.
It will be interesting to see how the team divides kick and punt return duties. Stacy, Pead, Austin and Givens could all be part of the return game, and several players on the cusp of the 53-man roster will be vying for those roles as well.
Although whoever wins the job likely will be inactive for most of the Rams’ games this year, it will be fun to see who steps up and claims the sixth wide receiver spot. Nick Johnson, an undrafted free agent from Henderson State who spent last year on the practice squad, seems to have the early edge for the spot, but anyone could claim the role. Street free agent Raymond Radway and undrafted rookies Emory Blake, Andrew Helmick and Justin Veltung have shown talent during practices, and all of them have a shot to make the team with a strong preseason.
The Rams have several injuries as the preseason schedule starts which will give some younger players chances to prove themselves. Lance Kendricks, who is projected to be the second-string tight end, is still recovering from knee surgery, so players such as Cory Harkey, Zach Potter and Mike McNeill will have the opportunity to battle it out for one or two additional backup spots. Jermelle Cudjo, who is expected to rotate in at both defensive tackle spots, is dealing with a foot injury. Look for Mason Brodine, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound swingman, and Matt Conrath, a 6-foot-7, 290-pound tackle entering his second year, to step up and make a play to steal some of Cudjo’s regular season reps.