Given O-line woes, Rams wise to bring along Bradford slowly

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  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- You don't question Sam Bradford's quarterbacking presence. At 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds, he's built like a classic pocket passer.

You don't question the strength of his arm, either. Or his ability to find an open receiver. Or the laser-like precision with which he throws the ball. You don't question his intelligence or his toughness.

What you do question is how well Bradford is going to hold up in his first year with the St. Louis Rams.

You think about that shoulder surgery that shortened his final season at Oklahoma. You think about the shoddy pass protection he's getting from the Rams' offensive line. And you think about the fact he's a rookie who still has a long way to go when it comes to knowing how to protect himself from the dangers that complex NFL defenses can pose to even the most experienced of quarterbacks.

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"I was extremely comfortable with the offense we ran at Oklahoma, just because I had been there for four years," Bradford said. "Coming here, it's like you're starting all over again. You have to learn a new offense, you have to learn to play against new defenses. So just the mental aspects of the game, trying to comprehend everything that they're throwing at me right now, that's probably been one of the toughest things for me."

That's one of the harsh realities of football. The game doesn't distinguish between someone whose teammates have nicknamed "Fifty," as in the $50 million of guaranteed money that Bradford is due to receive for being the top overall pick of the draft, from an undrafted free agent who is merely thankful to be in an NFL training camp. When you go against one of the best defensive fronts in the league -- as Bradford faced in last Saturday night's preseason-opener against the Minnesota Vikings -- you get the full wrath it can unleash (or as least as much as it will show in a preseason game).

As a result, Bradford, who replaced starter A.J. Feeley in the second quarter, was sacked four times on the way to completing six of 13 passes for 57 yards. The Rams called only 17 pass plays when he was in the game. On three of the 17, he didn't go down with the ball, but still took hard hits. Clearly, that was what coach Steve Spagnuolo and the rest of the Rams' decision-makers considered when they decided that, all of those millions notwithstanding, it made sense to bring Bradford along a little slowly.

There seems no doubt, however, that he is going to have the No. 1 job when the season begins. In fact, Bradford took a huge step toward assuring that would be the case by his handling of the punishment he took in the Rams' 28-7 loss to Minnesota. After every violent encounter with the guys in the purple helmets, Bradford got up, dusted himself off, and was ready for the next play. That was the good news.

The bad news, as Spagnuolo pointed out, is that the Rams have "got some work to do on the offensive line," which had a miscommunication on two of the sacks and a player who was flat-out beaten on a third. Bradford has some work ahead as well. He held the ball too long on one of the sacks and later acknowledged that "the speed definitely picked up, even more so than it does in practice."

But as Spagnuolo explained: "It's not really a bad thing that Sam got a feel for the speed of what can happen in this league and you're going to get bumped around and knocked on the ground. He's a tough guy; he bounced right back up. I think, for his confidence, it was probably pretty good."

The last time Bradford was exposed to contact was October, when he suffered an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder for the second time in his senior season and later underwent reconstructive surgery.

"I did get hit a couple of times the other night, but to be honest, it felt good," Bradford said. "It's great to be out there, knowing that I'm able to take those hits and get back up and make plays again. It felt good, but obviously you would like to limit the number of hits that you take. I think there are several things that we saw on the film that I can do and our offense can do to limit those hits."

Bradford also has done his part to improve his chances of withstanding the blows. He worked hard in the offseason to improve his upper-body strength, adding some much-needed bulk and muscle.

Bradford also can rely on surprisingly good mobility for his lanky frame.

"I feel like I move around well," he said. "I think a lot of people think of me as just a pure pocket passer, but I feel like I throw very well on the run, and it's something I think that I can help bring to this offense."

OBSERVATION DECK

» The Rams have a whole lot to repair from last year's 1-15 disaster. Even if Bradford is everything they hoped he would be at quarterback, they still need help in many other areas. Perhaps the biggest is their pass rush. "You need pass rushers in this league," Spagnuolo said, making it clear that the Rams still appear to be lacking in that department. "If you can't put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, usually it's tough on the defense."

» The Rams are looking to add an experienced wide receiver at some point. Keep an eye on Patrick Crayton, who still appears to be the odd man out in Dallas.

» After an injury shortened rookie season in 2009 and limited work in camp due to a broken toe on his right foot, the Rams essentially view offensive tackle Jason Smith as a rookie. "You've just got to make sure that you're focused in on being as patient as you can be with yourself and then staying in tune with what's going on with the team, and making sure that everything you're doing is geared toward helping the team, whether you can be on the field or not," Smith said.

The addition of second-round draft pick Rodger Saffold has prompted Smith to move from left to right tackle. Smith says he's happy there, simply because it gives him "an opportunity to be on the field."

» At the end of last year's camp, his first as a head coach, Spagnuolo asked his players and assistant coaches to offer suggestions on how to make it better. He received plenty, and has implemented some this summer. "Some of it came back that we were a little leg tired coming out of training camp," Spagnuolo said. Consequently, he adjusted the practice format from a stretch of two-a-day practices to "2-1-2," meaning a day of double sessions, followed by a single-session day, followed by another day of double sessions, and so forth. Also, on the double-session day he moved the second session to later in the day so the players had more time to recover.

» Cornerback Ron Bartell on Spagnuolo entering his second season as a head coach: "I think coach has a better sense of when to push and when to pull back. Last year was a lot of push, push, push. It was a new staff, new guys. He really didn't know the pulse of the team like he does now. He's been right on time (this summer). He knows when to get under our skin, be a little tough on us, but he also knows how to take care of us. He's cut practices sometimes, given us a lot of rest, and even took us to a movie. I think we'll be a lot fresher."

» Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis seems as if he should be entering his 10th NFL season, not his second.

He carries himself with far greater maturity and focus than one would expect from a 23-year-old. Laurinaitis quickly established himself as one of the primary leaders of the defense as a rookie.

"We talk all the time, and we talked at length during the offseason about how he should be the leader of the defense," said Bartell, who is entering his sixth season. "He's such a smart, knowledgeable guy. He's the quintessential middle linebacker. He's tough as nails. He gets everybody lined up. He's a natural leader, and he's a good football player. He's still young; he has a long way to go. But right now, I think he's ahead of the learning curve."

Although he was bitterly disappointed about being drafted in the second round rather than the first, the former Ohio State star has not allowed that to be a distraction ... another obvious sign of maturity.

"You can't control who's going here and there and everything," he said. "You can only control, when you get to a team, how do you respond? It's the first time that I've had a defensive coach as a head coach, so I was excited to work under this defense that I'd heard a lot about and watched when (Spagnuolo) was in New York (as the Giants' defensive coordinator). To be a part of a first draft class of a head coach, that's really his building block. I looked at it as more of a blessing and an opportunity to come in and really turn a team and an organization around."

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

» Besides Saffold, the other rookie getting a great deal of attention this summer is tight end Fendi Onobun, a sixth-round draft pick from Houston. He played basketball for four seasons at Arizona before switching to football at Houston last fall while working on his master's degree.

Rams general manager Billy Devaney said the 6-6, 249-pound Onobun has exceeded the Rams' expectations.

"We thought, 'This is going to be a real project,'" Devaney said. "He's a lot closer to being a player than we expected. He's got really good hands and it's freaky how a guy that size can run. And he's been a tough guy. He's been sensational. Believe me, he's still raw in a lot of areas, but he's much further along than we anticipated."

ROOKIE REPORT

» Saffold is being counted on to make a major impact on an offensive line that needs it. "What I'm trying to do is bring athleticism to the line, and hopefully being able to play that left tackle position and be able to hold it down for a few years," Saffold said. "It definitely is a slow process. The season is very, very long, but I'm hoping that I can really put in a good amount of things for this offensive line throughout the season and continue to learn more, just being more comfortable within the line."

» Defensive end George Selvie, a seventh-round pick from South Florida, has been a pleasant surprise. He suffered a lower-leg injury in practice Tuesday, but seems as if he'll be fine. Selvie has made an impact with his pass-rush skills, and is also a force in kick coverage.

» Safety Darian Stewart, an undrafted free agent from South Carolina, has turned some heads with his performance.

» Running back Keith Toston, another undrafted free agent, shows some good burst. The Rams hope to give him some action in Saturday night's preseason game against Cleveland.

LASTING IMAGE

It's far from the Tebow Mania going on at the Denver Broncos' camp, but a large portion of fans here do clamor for Bradford's autograph. And he seems willing to oblige them, while fulfilling many other requests for his time from the media.

Like Tim Tebow, Bradford gets high marks from his teammates for the way he is handling all of the attention and fitting in with the rest of the squad.

One example comes from when he was invited to throw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game. He said he would only do so if the rest of the Rams' rookie class could join him.

"He's far from that guy that you might think, stereotypically, comes in and is a No. 1 pick and thinks he's big time and all that stuff," third-year defensive end Chris Long said. "That's not him. You can just tell, he's not faking that. He just is a humble guy and he's a guy that's a good teammate and a guy that will come in and work hard and keep his mouth shut and do his job.

"That's what you've got to do as a rookie: Just show people that you're going to work hard and that they can depend on you as a teammate."

SAY WHAT?

"He's one of those guys -- we all know 'em -- that we probably didn't like when we were growing up because no matter what he does, he's good at. You put a golf club in his hands, you put a tennis racket in his hands, ping-pong paddle, whatever. But that's a good thing. You surround yourself with winners, you've got a good chance of winning."
-- Spagnuolo on Bradford

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