We all love a good position battle - it brings drama to camp with real-life implications for the regular season. But in few places is that camp competition more vital to the turnaround of this team than in the offensive line, a must-makeover for the new Rams regime.
In fact, when you start laying the blame for the Rams' sickening spiral to 2-14, and the firing of everyone not named Demoff from the front office, it all starts with the inability to build an offensive line. It wasn't for lack of spending - $161 million in guaranteed contracts in the Devaney era, including Harvey Dahl's $16M deal. But the results... it's enough to make a grown man ball up his fists and cry.
Football Outsiders rated them generously at 28th best in the league as a pass-blocking unit, and 30th best at run-blocking. Evan Silva of Rotoworld puts a finer point on it, heading into 2012, rating the Rams dead last.
Well, when throwing money out the window isn't working, I suppose it's all right for the Rams to practice a little austerity. Demoff opened up the pocketbook to replace departed center Jason Brown with elder Packer Scott Wells, but that was to be the only free agent signing of note. Which means most of the Rams' hopes for improved O-line play come down to that elusive quantity: "improvement from within."
Battle: Paul Boudreau vs the wreckage left behind by Steve Loney
I spent considerable chunks of time watching Steve Loney's unit practice, but I'm not sophisticated enough to pinpoint what was going wrong. Clearly, just about everything was. Loney's OL played soft and tentatively, and players flatlined under his watch. When you're starting project picks at both tackle spots, strong and relentless coaching is essential, and Loney didn't give it to them.
Boudreau steps in, having built a dominant run-blocking force out of a collection of relative no-names in Atlanta, and should lean heavily on old comrade Harvey Dahl to help transplant some backbone into this group. As David Heeb points out, Boudreau's OL made life much easier for Matt Ryan than Sam Bradford has ever known. But with Saffold, Smith and whoever plays left guard all needing intensive attention, Boudreau will be spread thin.
Battle: Jason Smith vs himself
In his camp preview, Rams correspondent Nick Waggoner pronounces Jason Smith "ready to plug in" at right tackle. But then he opens the door for speculation by saying that "the Rams were without Wells, Saffold and Smith for various injury issues during that time and never really had a chance for any type of group to coalesce."
While it's smart to be cautious with injuries early in camp, Smith has an apparent issue with his level of desire. Does he have it in his blood to bring his full physical frame into play, to get low and stick his blocks consistently? With his concussion history, is he afraid to bring his pads down and put his head in there? (I would be.) And can the converted tight end finally figure out his footwork, and settle into his pass-blocking stance with a minimum of fuss?
This figures to be Smith's last chance in St Louis. If it doesn't pan out, the Rams will be leaning on career backup Quinn "Moose" Ojinnaka here. Or, they may consider sliding Dahl over, as the Rams did with success last season.
Battle: Bryan Mattison vs Rokevious Watkins
In one corner, you have a raw-as-dirt rookie, a towering brute weighing in at 6'4" and 330 lbs. In the other corner, you have the incumbent (by virtue of being the last man standing), a beneficiary of two camps and four games of playing time, standing at 6'3 and 310 lbs. Roke vs Matt. New vs not-so-new. Power vs not-so-much-power. Raw vs lightly toasted.
It shouldn't be a secret which way I'm leaning in this matchup. I am Team Rokevious all the way, rooting for the hulking fifth-round pick from South Carolina to bull his way to a starting job. He seems like the pure embodiment of a Jeff Fisher team - power and punch and more than a bit of nasty, fueled by the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of the low-drafted. But this could be a wide-open battle that lasts into the regular season before it's settled.