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Rams camp report: Long way to go but finally reasons for optimism

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Jeff Fisher gives the youthful Rams some needed swagger. (US Presswire)  
Jeff Fisher gives the youthful Rams some needed swagger. (US Presswire)  

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The Rams know adversity. For the last five years or so, they've done it about as well as anyone in the NFL, reaching a position in which there is no place to go but up. And they seem to be pointed firmly in that direction.

They have the youngest roster in the NFL, they are loaded with top draft choices for years to come after squeezing the Redskins in the Robert Griffin III trade, they have an experienced staff after years of first-time head coaches, and they have Sam Bradford, whom they firmly believe is a franchise quarterback. They also have the luxury of playing in the NFC West, perhaps the most quarterback starved division in football, which gives them the chance to make gains quickly.

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After all of the losses and all the sacks and all of the injuries and the fired coaches and concerns about whether the team is going to end up in Los Angeles, it's going to take a lot to rattle these kids. They're already somewhat hardened.

"Sometimes it's better to go through all those things than to have a walk in the park," Bradford said.

This team has a new swagger under head coach Jeff Fisher, as cool a cat as they come, someone who doesn't fluster, and who has instilled belief in them. Yes, they still have some significant roster issues to overcome and yes it will take time to mold into a true contender, but I expect this year's rookie class to provide instant returns, and the rookie wage scale will make all of those first-round picks plucked from the Redskins even more valuable.

Look for the Rams to continue trading back and acquiring future picks, as general manager Les Snead sagely executed at the 2012 draft, and the bounty for dropping down six spots last year will continue to pay dividends in the form of players and trade chips for years to come.

In the short term, after a 2-14 season that opened with six straight losses, any signs of life on either side of the ball would be a welcome sight for Rams fans. The gains will be incremental, I figure, but Bradford will be better protected by the dedication to the run game, this young defensive line has the ability to add bite to the defense and the pass coverage will certainly improve.

Team Objectives

 Incubate Jenkins: The Rams knew they were taking an off-field gamble when they took corner Janoris Jenkins, who was off some team's boards due to his off field problems. They knew he had child-support payments to make and had to grow up and change some things in his life. They also knew he had shutdown corner skills. Those have manifested quickly. He sits in the front row in meetings, he loves to practice. But Fisher knows veteran Cortland Finnegan, who he coached in Tennessee, is a good mentor and everyone from coaches, to executives, to equipment guys are charged with keeping an eye on Jenkins. The Rams aren't shirking from the responsibility, and, as Snead puts it, they are dedicated to doing what they can to getting their Simbas to be full-fledged lions.

Jenkins has been excellent thus far, and he and Finnegan, combined with a young defensive line with some potential, is a recipe Fisher can live with. The Rams are trying to ensure this kid is running with the right crowd, taking care of his money, doing the right thing. The talent is immense and the returns could be immediate.

 Exploit The Waiver Wire. The Rams have the youngest roster in the league and the most newcomers in the NFL, in terms of players who were not there a year ago. That will continue as Snead mines the bottom end of the roster with waiver claims as other teams release players. This isn't the finished product in St. Louis and picking high in the waiver order serves them well. They knew other teams will cut experienced players who could crack their 53-man roster now, and they aren't done wheeling and dealing. A ton of players will be hitting the street when cuts are made around the league, and the Rams will be there to pick some up.

 Protect Bradford. The offensive line is a major, major concern, (more on that to come) and with Bradford already dealing with an ankle injury, they must keep him as healthy as can be. That will entail a heavy dose of the running game, trying to get Bradford in third-and-short, going with more quick drops and also utilizing more formations with multiple slot receivers to help Bradford find hots under pressure.

He will play quite a bit in the remaining two preseason games -- even the fourth game, with Fisher telling me starters could play beyond the first quarter in the finale -- which means a lot of reps for the first-string offensive line as well. And trust me, they need the work.

 Coach Up The Specialists. I can't recall too many staffs that have the, um, cajones, to go with a rookie kicker, rookie punter and second-year long snapper, but that's the plan here. And I love it. Save some money now as you rebuild and get some of the lumps out now. Kicker Greg Zuerlein is already pretty popular in these parts, having flashed a 70-yard (yes, 70-yard) leg. That's more than worth the sixth-round pick used on him. "I've never seen the ball explode off of someone's foot like this before," Fisher said, hinting that he's already plotting for the right time and situation to attempt a record field goal. Punter Johnny Hekker was a prized undrafted free agent, with Snead targeting him straight away, and he is earning high marks now too.

The Rams are committed to sticking with them, and the time spent on special teams at practice is vital and focused.

Camp Battles

Left guard: Quinn Ojinnaka is working with the starters now, and Bryan Mattison was brought in for depth, but in the end from what I heard, neither may be the man. The Rams are high on Rokevious Watkins, a fifth-round pick out of South Carolina. He showed up 17 pounds overweight, and that set him back, but by September I bet he's getting reps with the ones. For a team this young, it will make sense to play Watkins, especially in the interior.

Right tackle: Jason Smith was drafted to be a potential franchise left tackle, but right now he has a tenuous grip on the back-up right tackle spot. Yes, back-up. He wasn't with the starters this week and coaches have concerns about his ability to grasp their schemes and compete. He came from a rudimentary system at Baylor and has not developed. They aren't going to risk him having a complete shutdown and allowing Bradford to get clobbered. So Barry Richardson, a fifth-year pro signed as a free agent, is going to win this job barring injury (Rodger Saffold, who was drafted with right tackle in mind, is taking a swing at left tackle, but the Rams are going to have to continue to address this area in the draft).

Wide receiver: I'd like to limit this designation a bit more, but, like offensive line, things are kind of wide open here. The Rams have two rookies, Brian Quick and Chris Givens, but both are raw and will take time. Danny Amendola will be back in the slot, but the outside is something of a toss-up. Bradford has the best chemistry with third-year pro Brandon Gibson, but he's out injured right now. The rookies will play, and given Givens' stellar straight ahead speed, I could see him getting a top spot ahead of Quick, who is learning to use his size and dropped some balls. And if Gibson can get back from his hamstring injury in good time, I'd give him the nod on one side. But there will be a lot of personnel rotation at receiver as the offense molds.

Somebody to Watch

Steve Smith: Yeah, the Giants old Steve Smith, not the Carolina one. The one who is still just 27 years old and now fully back from microfracture surgery after a lost 2011. He has been the buzz of camp, he is catching everything thrown his way, and he could be a big weapon this season. "We haven't had to back him off at all," Fisher said. "The knee has been great." Snead can see his athleticism and natural balance back with the knee issues behind him, and, on a team of young kids at receiver, Bradford can see a reliable option emerging.

"He's a great route runner, he runs everything very clean," Bradford said. "I'm excited by the possibility of him and Danny [Amendola] both in the slot at the same time. I think that could cause some problems for some people." It certain did for the Rams defense in the red zone at the practice I watched.

Injury Roundup

 C Scott Wells had his knee scoped in the offseason, but Fisher expects him back for practice next week.

 Gibson's hamstring injury has been the only real setback thus far; hopes were getting high for him given his time spent with Bradford and his performance early in camp.

 S Darian Stewart is pretty much over the hamstring problem that limited him early in camp.

The Last Word

There isn't a quick fix here for all that ails the Rams. Rome wasn't built in a day, and St. Louis won't be rebuilt in one year. But the future is bright. Bradford could be a breakout star this season and jump into that class with guys like Matthew Stafford and Joe Flacco. James Laurinaitis will get a big new deal before the season starts, and help anchor what I believe will be an improved defense.

The pass rush will be better with Robert Quinn and William Hayes providing help for Chris Long, and Kendall Langford could end up being a nice free-agent signing for the interior of that defense. Michael Brockers, their top pick, is already showing an ability to make an impact right away ...

So Rams fans can breathe a little easier. It may not manifest in more than five wins this season, but, much like the Colts in the AFC South, who held the first overall pick to the Rams' second, I believe in another few years this could be a team to be reckoned with.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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