In a normal year, Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and defensive coordinator Brandon Staley would have spent Saturday evaluating players’ performances in the team’s first exhibition game the night before.
As it is, they were still gearing up for the Rams’ first full-bore, padded practice sessions, which don’t begin until Tuesday.
A year of virtual coaching is about to get real for the Rams staff that must pare down the roster and choose the starters for the season-opening game against the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium on Sept. 13.
“You guys can probably hear that I sound like a real coach now,” Staley said from training camp in Thousand Oaks in a Zoom chat with reporters.
Staley’s voice was raspy from yelling on the practice field on the third day of the “ramp up” phase of the pandemic-season training-camp schedule agreed to by the NFL and NFL Players Association.
When the phase featuring offense vs. defense contact drills begins this week, coaches finally will have their best chance to audition players fighting for starting jobs and other roster spots.
Conventional wisdom is that the cancelation of preseason games and inter-team scrimmages will make evaluations more difficult and make it harder for rookies to win jobs.
The two young coordinators, hired during the offseason, say the upcoming 16 days of high-speed practice will focus more than usual on competition between players. But maybe not a lot more than Rams practices in any other year under coach Sean McVay.
“I’m 100% confident that we’re going to get the competitive side we need to see, not only to get the guys we’re counting on ready but to really be able to evaluate the younger guys we have fighting to make the roster or the practice squad,” O’Connell said Saturday via Zoom.
The offseason of video-stream meetings and slower start to training camp have allowed more mental training, O’Connell said.
“And now the competition phase comes into play. We’ll lay that out so that, every day, there’s that competitive fire, and guys feeling challenged,” O’Connell said.
Staley said challenging his defensive players won’t be difficult. He looks at who they’ll be practicing against.
“We’re going to have to get as many live looks at these guys against top competition (as we can),” Staley said. “We’re fortunate. If we need to evaluate a player at a secondary position, well, guess what, they have to defend (Rams wide receivers) Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, (Josh) Reynolds, Van (Jefferson), all these guys.”
Draft choices have a chance to win big roles immediately at running back (Cam Akers), wide receiver (Jefferson), linebacker (Terrell Lewis), defensive back (Terrell Burgess, Jordan Fuller) and kicker (Sam Sloman). Staley said the shorter evaluation period forced by the coronavirus pandemic shouldn’t give rookies any excuses.
“We will have plenty of time to evaluate these players,” Staley said. “This process is exactly how it happens in college football; you don’t have preseason games to evaluate players. If they (rookies) are good enough, they’ll express themselves.”
One break for the nine draft picks and 17 undrafted rookies on the roster is that NFL practice squads have been expanded from 10 to 16 this year, creating more jobs.
Three three weeks before the Sept. 5 deadline to trim active lists to 53, the Rams have 80 players on their roster. One of those is defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, is on the non-football injury list and likely to miss at least part of the season with what is reported to be a cardiovascular condition. Offensive tackle Chandler Brewer opted out of playing this season because he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2018 and is at elevated risk of COVID-19.
Staley can relate to Brewer’s decision. The 37-year-old coordinator had Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was a graduate assistant coach at Northern Illinois. He said Saturday he didn’t consider sitting out this season as a further precaution against the virus.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve been past it for going on 12 years now. I feel confident where I’m at, (with) a clean bill of health and still a relatively young man,” Staley said.
Getting back to normal football practice, he said, “makes you feel alive.”