1. What will be the offensive personnel groupings and pairings?
In his eight years as a NFL offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer has never had as many weapons at his disposal as he does now. Jared Cook is a potential mismatch against safeties and linebackers, as is Tavon Austin. Chris Givens proved last season that he’s a legitimate outside-the-numbers deep threat, and while we don’t know what Brian Quick is at this point, his skill set nevertheless remains intriguing.
So, what will Schottenheimer’s personnel groupings be throughout camp? In seven-on-seven drills, how often will he come out in an “11” personal (one back and one tight end), and who will line up as the single back? Will Schottenheimer showcase a “00” personnel (no backs or tight ends), and how often will Sam Bradford be in the shotgun? How much pre-snap movement will there be, and how often will Austin be the man in motion? How will Schottenheimer utilize rookie Stedman Bailey, who, like Givens last year, is an excellent route runner? It’ll take a few preseason games to have an understanding of Schottenheimer’s vision for this offense. But we’ll at least get a peek starting this week.
2. How comfortable will the safeties look?
The safety position makes me nervous. First and foremost, the team is thin when it comes to depth, and it’s largely inexperienced as a whole. Darian Stewart and rookie T.J. McDonald are penciled in as the starters, which means the Rams will have a grand total of 13 starts between both safety positions at the start of the season. It was frustrating to watch Fisher play as much off coverage as he did last year, but that might be something we’ll have to get used to. The Rams didn’t have to blitz much last season because their front four did an excellent job creating pressure on its own. Thus, Fisher was fine with giving up the underneath routes, as long as his defensive backs made tackles.
Stewart is a hard hitter with range, but inconsistency and injuries have plagued him the last two seasons. McDonald has excellent length and size, but he admittedly had a down year as a senior at USC. It’s hard to grade a secondary in practice because the defense often runs against the offense’s twos and threes, but it’ll still be interesting to watch how instinctive McDonald looks early on. And when he does have an opportunity to contest passes, will he look stiff? Will he take proper angles? Will he eventually be the type of defender that needs the scheme to hide his flaws? For a defense that is already knocking on the door of being a top-10 unit, there are a ton of unanswered questions on the back end.
3. Will Quick look more comfortable?
It wasn’t difficult to see why Brian Quick finished with just 187 snaps last year as a rookie. And it’s not difficult to understand why the Rams haven’t given up on the talented second-year receiver. Quick often mixed in highlight-reel catches with mind-boggling drops last year in training camp. You could tell that he was thinking the game instead of relying on his instincts, which isn’t shocking considering he never had a playbook at Appalachian State. For as badly as they needed offensive weapons last season, Chris Givens was significantly further along in his development and Brandon Gibson was the safer choice as a starter. Fisher wasn’t going to get his quarterback or another veteran killed because the bright lights of the big stage were too much for Quick to handle. It wouldn’t have been fair to anyone, most of all Quick.
But now that he’s had a full year and two offseasons under his belt, where is Quick now in his development? I couldn’t care less that he’s listed fourth on the depth chart. Given his hard work and demonstrated leadership this offseason, it was nice to see the Rams reward Austin Pettis with a starting spot atop their depth chart. But that doesn’t mean Quick is out of the running to start, and there will be no excuse for him to look lost as the team gets deeper into training camp. That’s not to suggest that this will be his breakout year, because plenty of Pro Bowl receivers have struggled until their third or fourth seasons (Roddy White and Vincent Jackson are two such wideouts). But I don’t think it’s asking much to see some marked improvement from the former second-round pick.
4. Who will stand out at left guard?
The competition at left guard just got thinner with the release of 2012 fifth-round pick Rok Watkins. (As an aside, I was wrong about him eventually taking hold of the starting job once he returned from his one-game suspension.) That leaves Shelley Smith, Chris Williams and rookie Barrett Jones as the leading candidates to start between Jake Long and Scott Wells this season. As of right now, my money is on Williams to be the Week 1 starter, although Jones is the more intriguing talent despite Williams being a former first-round bust with the Bears. (Why they selected Williams ahead of Branden Albert that year is still beyond me.) If Jones is the eventual successor for Wells at center, it would be nice to see him earn a starting job as a rookie, although he’s already behind due to his recovery from the Lisfranc injury he suffered during the SEC championship game last year against Georgia. Either way, left guard is one of the few unsettled positions heading into camp, and thus, it’ll be interesting to watch the situation unfold.
5. Who will put a stranglehold on the running back position?
The most intriguing competition this year is at running back, where Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway, Benny Cunningham, Chase Reynolds, Tavon Austin, Cleveland Gary, Robert Holcombe, Trung Candidate and the ghost of Steven Jackson will all be vying for opportunities. This has been an unpopular prediction, but I believe Pead will wind up with the most carries and the best overall production out of the 72 running backs the Rams currently list on their depth chart. Richardson made the bigger impact as a rookie, but his production fell off a cliff in the second half last year after the Rams turned the offense back over to Jackson, and I envision the team using him mostly as an edge player. Pead suits the direction that Fisher and Schottenheimer have taken this offense in the past two offseasons. He’s a space player and an underrated inside-the-tackles runner. He’s the perfect fit for single-back formations, which the Rams should feature plenty of this season. Was his lack of production concerning as a rookie? Yes. Was his one-game suspension unnerving? Absolutely. But even if the Rams use a running back-by-committee approach, you’re still going to see a leader emerge from the pack. I expect that player to be Pead, but we’ll see how he fares in camp these next two weeks.