Training camp begins this week for the Rams, with plenty of questions face Jeff Fisher’s squad. Here are five that stand out above the others.
1. How much progress will Todd Gurley show in his rehab?
I’m not interested as much in where running back Todd Gurley is at the start of camp as I am in where he is at the conclusion of it.
The expectation is that he’ll begin on the non-football injury list and once activated, he’ll ease into participating in individual drills.
But when will he be allowed to cut, full speed, on his surgically repaired knee? That will be an indication that he’s close to participating in team drills.
Once that happens, we’ll have a better idea of when the Rams believe he’s getting close to game action. Like most, I’m curious just to watch Gurley don a helmet and participate. But, his level of participation holds the answers to when he’ll be ready for regular season games.
(And until Gurley is healthy enough to compete, I’ll also enjoy watching Tre Mason in an underdog role as he fights to prove he shouldn’t be forgotten.)
2. How much will Nick Foles air it out?
Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions during his breakout season with the Eagles in 2013. That’s impressive. It’s also not going to happen again, certainly not in St. Louis as Foles adopts Fisher’s run-first philosophy.
Foles also isn’t going to throw for 9.12 yards per attempt, but if he can get that number around 7.70, the Rams will be in business. Having a high YPA signifies that a quarterback is willing to take shots downfield and consistently complete passes vertically. (Those things are combined, of course, with a receiver’s ability to rack up yards after catch).
Why does that matter?
Efficiency is important for an offense, but explosiveness sets teams apart. Tom Brady’s YPA last year was 7.06. His team won the Super Bowl, but he was also the anomaly when it came to YPA. Of the quarterbacks that attempted at least 450 passes last season, those that finished with a 7.60 YPA or higher all made the playoffs.
Tony Romo? Orchestrated a run-first offense but led the league in YPA at 8.52 and helped lead the Cowboys to the playoffs. Russell Wilson? Run-first offense…7.69 YPA…one Marshawn Lynch dive away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
How does all of this relate to Foles and training camp? The Rams will lean on their running game but it’s imperative that Foles takes shots downfield or else defenses will simply stack the box to take away the run.
Foles needs to throw vertically in the regular season but if he’s not willing to do it at practice in a controlled setting, what makes anyone believe he’ll do it when the games start to count?
3. How quickly will Fisher name a starting center?
The maturation of all five starting offensive linemen will be a storyline to follow throughout camp. But as of right now, the Rams haven’t officially named a starting center.
I’m all for competition, which naturally weeds out those that don’t have the will to succeed. (Sorry for going Tony Robbins there.) But once the Rams have allowed Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes and Demetrius Rhaney to compete in training camp, the team would benefit from Fisher naming a starter heading into preseason.
Offensive lines need to develop cohesion and chemistry, which builds when a unit plays together. Rodger Saffold is the only projected O-lineman to have started more than 12 games in the NFL. This line has a steep learning curve to overcome given how young it is collectively.
Allowing the starting five to obtain as many reps together as possible before the season starts will be crucial.
4. How will the team use Tavon Austin in the new offense?
I won’t be surprised if Tavon Austin is the fastest, quickest, and most athletic player on the field during training camp. That’s because Austin is the fastest, quickest, most athletic player on the Rams’ roster.
The problem is that Austin’s natural talent hasn’t translated to success during games.
Some blame his lack of production on Brian Schottenheimer, who left St. Louis to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Georgia this offseason. I happen to believe it’s been a combination of usage and Austin’s inability to use open space.
Regardless, it’s a new year and a new offense for the Rams, as Frank Cignetti Jr. replaces Schottenheimer as the team’s play-caller. How will Cignetti utilize Austin? Where will he line up? Which route combinations will Cignetti use with the third-year wideout? How often will screens and sweeps come into play in Cignetti’s offense?
Austin has plenty to prove heading into his third season and nothing that he does in training camp will quell doubts about his ability to make a legitimate impact during the regular season. He needs to show that he can produce in pads in September, not shirts and shorts in August.
Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to get a sneak peak of Cignetti’s plans for Austin over the next month.
5. How will the cornerback position shake out?
Here’s what we know about the Rams’ secondary: Janoris Jenkins is locked into one of the starting cornerback spots, while T.J. McDonald will return to his role as the strong safety and Rodney McLeod will once again serve as Gregg Williams’ free safety.
What we don’t know is if E.J. Gaines or Trumaine Johnson will start opposite Jenkins on the outside, and whether Gaines, Johnson, or second-year player Lamarcus Joyner will play the nickel. Jenkins and Johnson are free agents at the end of the year. If Gaines proves that last season wasn’t a fluke (and there’s no reason to believe it was), then Johnson could be the odd-man out seeing as if the Rams are likely to invest in Jenkins long-term.
Joyner struggled last year with penalties and mental mistakes before suffering a groin injury that cost him his job, but the team also invested a second-round pick in him a year ago.
Joyner has the talent and versatility to be the Rams’ version of Tyrann Mathieu. If he bounces back this season, he could leave Johnson on the outside looking in.
The cornerback position will be one of the most intriguing camp battles this year.
Bonus Question: How quickly will Brian Quick return?
Brian Quick’s recovery might be just as important of a question as when Gurley gets up to speed with his injury.
Quick finally emerged as a legit weapon last year before suffering a nasty shoulder/arm injury at Kansas City in Week Eight. While most eyes will be on Austin, it’ll be nice to see Quick participating in team drills sooner rather than later.
Kenny Britt and Stedman Bailey would make fine starters, but Quick started to show a knack for getting open at the second and third level of defenses last year. His return would certainly be a boost for Foles and the passing game.
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