The Rams' Road to 53 has come close to an end. Of course, there is a high likelihood of some a few more moves to be made as we sift through the wreckage of other teams' cuts (like Philadelphia CB Joselio Hanson), but the decisions that the Rams' front office had to make in the final hours of cuts led to a number of surprises.
Here's a quick rundown of the state of the roster on Day 0 of the regular season, with the biggest decisions and surprises at each position group.
Quarterbacks (2): Sam Bradford, AJ Feeley
Of course, the biggest surprise here was that the Rams did not make room for Thaddeus Lewis, who has as strong a job audition as you can have while facing other teams' second- and third-teamers. We made a case for naming Thad the primary backup, but the comfort level between Bradford and Feeley, particularly in breaking down plays on the field, may have swayed the decision. Still, the Rams will be lucky to sneak Lewis through waivers to the practice squad.
Wide Receivers (7+): Danny Amendola, Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas, Austin Pettis, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Mark Clayton (PUP)
Mardy Gilyard flashed a lot of talent, and was given every opportunity to make the team, but just couldn't. His was one of the first releases announced, perhaps in hopes that he would land quickly with another team. (He isn't eligible for the Practice Squad.)
Donnie Avery, on the other hand, was a surprising cut to me. It seemed he had done enough to impress, even though he didn't get that much critical time working with the first team offense. It appears as though Billy Devaney tried to open up a trade market for Avery, but couldn't find a willing partner.
The biggest and happiest surprise, almost qualifying as a shocker, is that Spagnuolo and special teams coach Tom McMahon were able to carve out a role for hard-playing special teams gunner Dom Curry, who suffered (and played through) a broken hand early in camp. Curry is a great story of perseverence after losing all of last year to a knee injury. However, he will likely have the crosshairs squarely on him when Mark Clayton returns from the PUP.
Tight Ends (4): Lance Kendricks, Mike Hoomanawaui, Billy Bajema, Ben Guidugli
The undrafted Guidugli (whose name I love to say, but have just learned to spell correctly) is a nice surprise to make the team as a block-first tight end with decent hands and the flexibility to move around formations as an H-back. The decision to keep him over Fendi Onobun - who had a nice camp but is still learning the ropes - underscores a philosophical current that Bernie Miklasz tapped into: "In close calls guys who can fill a role - special teams, or LBs that can cover -- given edge over athletes."
Running Backs (4): Steven Jackson, Cadillac Williams, Jerious Norwood, Brit Miller
Brit Miller emerged as a viable option at fullback, cutting against the grain of the typical McDaniels offensive philosophy, by simply plowing through anyone that got in his (and Steven Jackson's) path. The former Illinois linebacker turned fullback simply likes to hit people, and his legs and drive were much more impressive than what former fullback Mike Karney was able to give the team. Keith Toston did everything he could to make the squad with gritty play in practice and on the playing field, but just fell victim to a numbers crunch.
Offensive Line (8): Jason Smith, Harvey Dahl, Jason Brown, Jacob Bell, Rodger Saffold, Adam Goldberg, Hank Fraley, Drew Miller
The undrafted Miller must have impressed mightily in his early preseason action, as he made the team despite not playing against Jacksonville in the preseason finale. I can't say I watched him much, but I do know the good folks at Rams On Demand are fans of his work.
Meanwhile, "veteran savvy" is clearly a premium over actual ability to play, in the decisions to keep Adam Goldberg and one-armed Hank Fraley over younger and stronger options in Quinn Ojinnaka and Renardo Foster. Hopefully, this is a preference without consequence, as only an injury up front will bring one of these men into the fray.
Defensive Line (9): Chris Long, Fred Robbins, Justin Bannan, James Hall, Robert Quinn, Gary Gibson, CJ Ah You, Eugene Sims, Darell Scott
The big shocker here is not only that Eugene Sims recovered from a year of semi-obscurity to outplay George Selvie for playing time, but that Selvie - a talented speed man with sideline-to-sideline pursuit ability - was let go entirely. The USF defensive end will quite likely find work elsewhere, quickly.
Meanwhile, the Rams' coaches must have felt there wasn't much to be done with Dan Muir that the Colts hadn't already tried. Nabbing a "run-stuffing DT" from a team that notoriously struggled to stop the run was at best a hopeful enterprise, but the incumbent (and cheaper) options Darell Scott and Gary Gibson earned spots in Spagnuolo's rotation ahead of Muir.
Linebacker (7): James Laurinaitis, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, Josh Hull, Bryan Kehl, Chris Chamberlain, Jabara Williams
Jabara Williams is a player that started earning a lot of fans from Rams Camp attendees. The seventh-round pick flashed raw tools and speed on the practice field, and enough savvy to put them to good use in actual playing environments. In the end, his play and upside carried him past the hard-hitting but somewhat undisciplined Zac Diles. (This move also frees up a nice chunk of camp space, as Diles, like Muir, came in on a non-guaranteed free agent contract.)
Safeties (5): Quintin Mikell, Darian Stewart, Craig Dahl, Jermale Hines, James Butler
By far the biggest surprise to me is that James Butler is still on this roster. No doubt Spagnuolo loves him, as he was the first player imported from the Giants when Spags arrived in St Louis. He made quite a few plays in that first season wearing the horns, but has tailed off since. His playing time simply fell off a cliff last season, collecting only 362 snaps - only 19 total after week 8. Clearly a generational shift was at hand, with Craig Dahl and Darian Stewart taking over Butler's role, and doing it better than Butler did.
Reportedly, Butler was willing to renegotiate his $3.7 million salary to stay on board... maybe he's paying the Rams instead? Otherwise, I'm really puzzled about the value of a fifth player here with such limited upside and playing time.
Cornerbacks (4): Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Justin King, Al Harris
This will most likely be the area that the Rams try hardest to improve their depth at, as Harris appears severely limited in his playing time despite still possessing obvious ability. This means the wildly inconsistent Justin King stands as the Rams' primary nickel back, and de facto backup in case of injury to oue of the starting pair. This is not an optimal situation.
There may be help on the way in time, though, as undrafted rookie Dionte Dinkins cleared injury waivers and will be placed on the Rams' practice squad to heal up. The physical press corner seemed to really "get" Spagnuolo's desired style of play, and was making a name for himself before suffering consecutive minor injuries to his knee and ankle in preseason action.