NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Jeff Darlington details his visit with the St. Louis Rams. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
In just about every NFL city where a newly hired head coach is attempting to make a vivid first impression on his locker room, practices start to look a little more like boot camp than training camp. Then, there's Earth City, Mo., where Jeff Fisher roams the field in a baggy shirt and shorts, looking like he just walked off a cruise ship. The vibe, though, isn't overly relaxed -- only relaxed enough to send a message to this team and this fan base that everything is under control. After just 15 wins in the last five seasons, the peaceful atmosphere is a welcome one. You know what else will be welcomed? A turnaround. And Fisher just might be the guy to do it.
1. Sam Bradford is on the verge of a big year -- but does he have enough weapons? General manager Les Snead, speaking with NFL.com, said he isn't at all concerned about the wide receiver position, citing competition and depth as two reasons why the end of training camp should reveal a few true playmakers. Let's hope Snead is right because Bradford looks absolutely primed for a big year. The ankle that hindered him for six weeks last season looks to be fully healed, easily visible during Tuesday's practice as he threw one dart after another while moving fluidly around the pocket. Still, which wide receiver will offer him a primary target? Rookie Brian Quick has potential, but he's very raw. Steve Smith has the résumé, but he'll need to stay healthy to get his career going again. Danny Amendola will be solid, but he's not an alpha receiver. Yes, plenty of questions at the position remain -- so we'll wait to see how it shakes out.
2. Patience will pay off for running back Steven Jackson. With just 37 wins in his eight NFL seasons, Jackson might be the best player in the league with the least team success. Surely, it must be a frustrating, unsettling feeling for a 29-year-old running back. But Jackson is being a good soldier as he prepares to play for his fourth coaching staff since entering the league in 2004. The good news? This coaching staff is full of men committed to a potent running game, and Jackson should benefit hugely. Jackson reported to training camp in ridiculous shape, and it showed during practice. He said he currently weighs 234 pounds -- with just five percent body fat. How absurd is that? Without question, you can expect another highly productive year for the elite running back.
3. A reconstructed defensive line will soon be one of the NFL's premier units. Although the Rams are a little shaky at outside linebacker -- which could impact the pass rush -- the team's defensive line might be enough to make up for it. Defensive end Chris Long's four-year contract extension last weekend shows you what the organization thinks of him, and the addition of Michael Brockers with the 14th overall pick should add a long-term anchor at tackle. But don't overlook Brockers' neighbor on the line, Kendall Langford. In Miami, Langford was an underrated force with elite strength and Pro Bowl talent. If he can find his niche in the right system -- and become more consistent getting to the quarterback -- he could prove to be a major free-agent addition.
THE NEW GUYS
Cortland Finnegan: When it became clear Fisher would become the boss in St. Louis, it also became an immediate expectation that Finnegan would use free agency to follow his old coach to this new city. After six seasons together in Tennessee, Fisher and Finnegan know they are a fine combination -- and so the timing for their reunion couldn't have been much more ideal. Finnegan should provide an anchor in a secondary that's trying to establish an identity. He should also be able to help rookie Janoris Jenkins get comfortable back there. It still isn't exactly known whether Jenkins or Bradley Fletcher will be the starter opposite Finnegan, but it stands to reason both will benefit from the veteran's intimate knowledge of Fisher's system.
Steve Smith: It really wasn't long ago -- 2009 -- when Smith made the first Pro Bowl of his career. He'd won a Super Bowl ring, and he proved to be one of Eli Manning's favorite targets as a trustworthy possession receiver. So how did we so quickly reach a point of wonder about whether Smith, at only 27, has left his best years behind him? Well, really, it's simple: injuries. A torn pectoral and a knee injury that required microfracture surgery ruined his 2010 season, and he wasn't fully recovered in 2011 as he tried to get comfortable in Philadelphia. Smith is healthy now, and two Rams sources say they've seen all good signs that lead them to believe a rebirth is in store for him. Smith's confidence seems to be rising, which could be hugely valuable to a team very much needing some weapons in the passing game.
Greg Zuerlein: Early in camp, it has already become one of the most entertaining parts of the day for many Rams employees when Zuerlein starts lining up for long kicks. On Tuesday, he hit a 60-yard field goal -- and probably had about 10 yards to spare. He also easily had the distance on a 64-yard attempt, but it barely missed wide right. The point is this: The Rams are still completely sold on spending a sixth-round pick on a kicker, particularly one who might have a legitimate shot at eventually breaking an NFL record. No need to get ahead of ourselves with such talk, but Zuerlein has already shown his new bosses that he's the real deal. And for a kicker to entertain a staff as Zuerlein already has, it probably says something about a pretty promising future.
"I'm really excited about the group of wide receivers we're working with this year. I think the guys that have been here have definitely matured over the years. I'm really happy with the way they came out and played today -- the young guys, too. They've really learned a lot very quickly during the offseason, so really happy with where they're at, and hopefully we can continue to progress and continue to build our chemistry and get better every day out here."
1. Jenkins opened camp with the first-team defense ahead of Fletcher, which suggests the team will really push the second-round pick to make an immediate impact. Snead says he's excited about that competition.
2. It's good to see the Rams signing players, like Long, to contract extensions after years of letting them walk as free agents. The team is currently also hoping to extend middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who will otherwise become a free agent after this season.
3. Pretty sweet fan giveaway planned by the Rams, which NFL.com managed to acquire Tuesday: A Jeff Fisher-stache -- a stick-on mustache that can be worn above the lip to resemble St. Louis' new coach. Hey, Halloween is just around the corner.
Maybe more than any other team, the Rams are clinging to new hope as they enter the 2012 season. New hope because of a new head coach and new general manager. New hope because of additions like Finnegan and Brockers. New hope because of a boatload of rookies and an extension for Long. New hope because Bradford appears to be fully healthy and Jackson looks primed for another big year.
But where will all of this lead them? Is there enough firepower on offense? Will the offensive line prove durable? And what about the pass rush at outside linebacker? It's hard to imagine a playoff run is just around the corner -- but there's every reason to believe, as a few of these questions get answered, this new hope is real. Now, it's just a matter of when it turns into tangible success.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington