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Rams entering transition season

9/3/2004 - St. Louis Rams

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

ST. LOUIS -- Despite returning 20-of-22 starters, the Rams are a team in
transition.

It's a team that is counting heavily on its young players, many of them
former first-day draft choices, stepping up to take the pressure off its
aging stars.

It's a team that has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its offensive line:
Pro Bowl OLT Orlando Pace, the Rams' franchise player, missed training camp
for the second straight year due to a contract dispute, and ORT Kyle Turley
will miss the season with back problems.

It's a team that also must deal with the possibility that RB Marshall Faulk
is no longer the most dangerous weapon in the NFL.

And, most of all, it's a team whose success rests on the throwing arm of Marc
Bulger, the undisputed starting quarterback now that two-time NFL MVP Kurt
Warner is a member of the Giants.

"Coming in as No. 1 obviously motivates me," Bulger said. "I know the team
is counting on me, and that definitely gives me more motivation."

Rams head coach Mike Martz went with Bulger, who has an 18-4 record as a
starter in regular-season games, over Warner because he believes Bulger is
an ascending player.

"I do know that he is markedly improved from a year ago, no question about
it," Martz said. "He's been consistently crisp. Just the speed of seeing
things and getting the ball to the right guy, there is no hesitation or
anything.:

Quarterbacks: The Rams rewarded Bulger with a four-year contract extension
that included a $9 million signing bonus, but now he must live up to that
$19 million contract. Bulger threw for 3,845 yards -- third-most in the NFL --
last year. However, he also threw just as many interceptions as touchdown
passes (22). Bulger must stop forcing passes into coverage if he wants to
cut down his interception total. He also needs to work on his deep ball, as
evidenced by the fact that the Rams completed only one pass longer than 45
yards last season. The Rams brought in the well-traveled Chris Chandler to
serve as Bulger's backup. Chandler has the kind of accuracy that Martz
craves from his quarterbacks, but it would be hard to imagine Chandler
holding up physically if he was called upon to be the team's starter for an
extended period of time. The third-string job belongs to rookie Jeff Smoker,
a sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan State. Grade: B.

Running backs: Faulk's odometer has a lot of miles on it. He has carried the
ball 2,576 times over his 10-year career, and he's coming off several knee
surgeries over the last three years, including a scope in the offseason.
With that in mind, the Rams traded up in the first round of the 2004 draft
to select Oregon State RB Steven Jackson. Jackson can run with both power
and speed, which could allow the Rams the flexibility to line up Faulk as a
wide receiver more often. Injuries have kept Lamar Gordon from living up to
the high expectations that the Rams' scouting department had for him. Arlen
Harris rushed for 166 yards in two games as rookie last year, when both
Faulk and Gordon were injured. Harris bulked up to 220 pounds this year,
expecting to see time at fullback, but the Rams decided to keep him at
running back after seeing how well he carried the weight. The Rams feel like
they have finally found a replacement for FB James "The Hammer'' Hodgins,
who left for Arizona in free agency last season, in Joey Goodspeed. The
247-pound Goodspeed isn't nearly as devastating a blocker as Hodgins, but he
offers more as a receiver. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: No WR combo was more productive than Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce
last season. The Rams' duo combined for 186 receptions for 2,677 yards and
17 touchdowns. Dane Looker established himself as the team's No. 3 receiver
last season with 47 receptions for 495 yards and three touchdowns. However,
Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald, two players who had their rookie seasons
scuttled by injuries, and Mike Furrey are pushing for playing time. Holt,
Bruce and the rest of the Rams' receivers should be helped by the NFL's
promise to more strictly enforce illegal-contact penalties against receivers
more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. TE Brandon Manumaleuna is
a threat as a receiver in the red zone, but he needs to block better and cut
down on his mental mistakes if he's ever going to develop into a quality
starter. Grade: A.

Offensive linemen: The O-line has been the biggest cause for concern during
the preseason. Among the expected starters, C Dave Wohlabaugh was released
due to a career-threatening hip injury; Turley has been sidelined by a
herniated disc in his back, the same disc that required surgery during the
offseason; and Pace missed all of training camp for the second straight year
as the Rams again wait for him to sign the one-year tender as the team's
franchise player. Andy McCollum, the team's starting center from the 2000
through '02 seasons before moving to the ORG spot last year with the arrival
of Wohlabaugh, moves back to his old position. That leaves Andy King, Chris
Dishman, Scott Tercero and Tom Nütten, who was talked out of retirement, to
compete for the starting OLG spot, while Grant Williams takes over for
Turley at right tackle. Solid veteran Adam Timmerman remains at right guard.
The Rams allowed 43 sacks, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL last season.
It would behoove them to cut down on that number, since we all saw in the
Pro Bowl how Bulger can pick apart a defense when he has plenty of time to
throw. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: The Rams will use a committee approach to replace DRE
Grant Wistrom, who signed a megadeal with the Seahawks. Bryce Fisher will
probably start with Erik Flowers and Sean Moran rotating into the game in
passing situations. DLE Leonard Little is one of the top pass rushers in the
NFL. He had 121z2 sacks last season despite missing four games with a torn
pectoral muscle. Little could be facing a suspension from the NFL if he's
convicted on felony drunk-driving charges, but his legal battle probably
won't be fought until after the '04 season. The Rams have two former
first-round picks at defensive tackle in Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis.
Pickett is a solid run stuffer, while Lewis' development has been slowed by
injuries. DT Jimmy Kennedy, the Rams' first-round pick in 2003, will miss
the 2004 season due to a broken foot. Versatile Tyoka Jackson, ex-Redskin
Bernard Holsey and rookie Tony Hargrove provide depth Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: Starters Pisa Tinoisamoa, Robert Thomas and Tommy Polley along
with backups Tony Newson, Brandon Chillar and Trev Faulk give the Rams more
depth at linebacker than they've had during any of their previous nine
seasons in St. Louis. Thomas showed marked improvement in his second season
in the league, while Tinoisamoa was the team's leading tackler from the
"Sam" position as a rookie. Look for the Rams to utilize the push-rush
ability of Tinoisamoa and SS Adam Archuleta with more blitzes under new
defensive coordinator Larry Marmie. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: The secondary suffered a blow when feisty CB Travis Fisher
broke his right forearm in the preseason game vs. the Chiefs. Fisher,
expected to miss three to four months, will be replaced by the combination
of second-year players Kevin Garrett and DeJuan Groce. Aeneas Williams
continues to cheat Father Time as he earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first
season after moving to free safety from cornerback. Playing safety has
enabled Williams to showcase his nose for the ball. Archuleta is on the
verge of becoming a Pro Bowl player, though there is still room for
improvement in pass coverage. Jerametrius Butler, who like Fisher held up
well in his first full season as a starter, mans the other corner. Grade: B.

Special Teams: This unit would have been a total disaster last season if
not for PK Jeff Wilkins, who connected on 39-of-42 field-goal attempts,
successfully executed several onside kicks and made six solo tackles on
kickoff coverage. P Sean Landeta doesn't have the strongest leg around, but
he's still more than adequate entering his 20th NFL season. The Rams gave up
four returns (two kickoffs and two punts) for touchdowns last season,
costing special-teams coach Bobby April his job. New special-teams coach
Mike Stock is responsible for shoring up the team's coverage units. Grade:
C
.

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