Quick thoughts: Mardy Gilyard and the changing role of special teams

Some quick thoughts as I prepare to brave the heat and/or rain for the Rams’ last open practice of the season, at 12:30 today. 

Mardy Gilyard has been getting every chance to prove he belongs on this team, but his primary showcase is the now-outmoded kickoff return.

Nearly 75% of kickoffs have landed in the end zone since the NFL moved kickers back up to the 35 yard line. Rob Bironas drove Gilyard back eight or nine yards deep on each of five first-half kickoffs. That extra distance made only one of Gilyard’s returns a “winner,” as he was routinely stopped at the 16 or 17 yard line. A year ago, those are serviceable 21- or 22-yard returns. Now they put the offense at a slight disadvantage.

But what can Gilyard do? He has to showcase himself to make the team, and he isn’t going to do that by taking touchbacks. Indeed, he nearly broke one and took it to the house, but for a shoelace tackle at the 25 by the Titans’ Jordan Babineaux.

How important is the role of kickoff returner in this new-look NFL, though? If 75% of the time the smart play is to take the touchback, anyone with a decent pair of hands could do that. And Ravens coach John Harbaugh suggests that teams may flout Roger Goodell’s safety-conscious rule and game the new system to produce “coffin corner” kickoffs.

“When you’re coming from the 35-yard line, it’s scary how fast you can be on top of that returner. Teams will definitely try to pop it up to see if they can go smash the returner inside the 15 or 10.”

This makes the 53rd man on the roster little more than a designated tackling dummy. Good luck, Mardy.

I don’t understand the decision to release Chris Massey

I confess to not having scouted the “competition” among long-snappers in any of my Rams practice or scrimmage attendances. In fact, I had no idea there was one. But in my mind, you don’t release a proven guy in this role for any reason other than he sucks at his job.

When you’re on the field for only a handful of plays per game, age isn’t an issue. When every play you’re a part of has a direct impact on the scoreboard or in the chess game of field position, salary isn’t an issue either if you can do that job.

The role of the long snapper is to be invisible, a silently functioning cog in the machine. I’m a little concerned that by switching away from a proven horse, this new guy might be all too visible in the role.

Rookie Jabara Williams is getting lots of love … what does that say about our veteran outside linebackers?

Rewatched Rams vs Titans. Jabara Williams could move into the starting lineup mid-season, IMO.

Coach Spagnuolo’s system famously does not call for star players at the outside linebacker position, just guys who know the fundamentals of the game and are disciplined enough to stay in their lanes and not miss tackles.

You know, as if that was easy in the NFL.

VanRam at TurfShowTimes has a nice breakdown of a breakdown in Bryan Kehl’s game on the weakside, one of a startling number of 20+ yard running plays and screen passes that the Rams gave up against Tennessee. Ben Leber was signed to challenge for this job, and reportedly is finally getting snaps on the first team, though whether that’s a promotion of the veteran or a demotion of Kehl is arguable.

Meanwhile, no one in the LB corps is flashing physical tools and upside like 7th round pick Jabara Williams, who is making his case to be the second coming of London Fletcher. The Rams’ veterans at the position — Diggs, Diles and Leber — have not made many “look at me” plays so far this summer. None of these guys is going to become a defensive star. Will Williams? It’s far too early to say, but I’m intrigued to see what he could do playing next to Laurinaitis against top-flight competition.

The Rams will find out early in Week one against the dangerous Michael Vick whether or not Spags’ system and his system players are enough to match up on the outside. But as Matt Hasselbeck and a series of third-string running backs showed, you don’t have to be a superman to run through a hole a mile wide.