Rams Camp 2012: The Bubble Players

Rams scrimmage

Anthropological research suggests that we can make strong, comfortable associations with small numbers. 

(“What? Is that really how you want to start an article?” Yes, stay with me now. It’ll get better, I promise.)

“One” and “two” have very specific identities in our minds – the single and the pair. Likewise, “three” is the triangle or the trilogy. But anything beyond that, the identity of numbers becomes fuzzier. Four, five, fifty, a thousand, a gajillion — without a specific identifier, they all become different forms of “many”. A fog of data. It’s why we make lists. 

Think back to last year – how many people started at cornerback for the Rams? Hell, who knows, right? Anything more than “two” — Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher — immediately signals that something is going wrong.

So when August rosters swell to 90 players and more, it isn’t just difficult to keep track of everyone, it’s nearly impossible. You’re fighting against your own brain’s biology.

So you pick favorites. Like I’m doing. I’ll casually pay attention to as many names in various competitions as I can, comparing notes and following the Twitters. But the spirit of camp competition is embodied by its players on the bubble. And as camp-goers, you pick your favorites among the bubble players and examine them most closely. Here is a list, no more than three per position group, of the bubble players on my watch list. 

Bubble DBs: Jerome Murphy (#23), Josh Gordy (#25)

Granted, everyone is going to be watching the top three at the position. The brash rookie Janoris Jenkins (#21), his new mentor / partner in crime Cortland Finnegan (#31), and the almost forgotten rising talent Bradley Fletcher (#32) form an ideal triangle of competition. With Jenkins and Finnegan acting as the official carriers of Jeff Fisher’s bad-boy philosophy, it will be particularly interesting to see how Fletcher — a physical technician who loves to get inside opposing receivers’ comfort zones — fits in. And how he holds up. 

Trumaine Johnson, a top-100 pick, will also get a lot of reps, leaving precious few for Devaney draftee Jerome Murphy and midseason replacement Josh Gordy. Gordy, a former Packer, is an instinctual playmaker that made quite a few positive plays in a broken defensive backfield lsat season. Murphy has never seemed like a natural cornerback to me, but if the new coaching regime makes the conversion to safety, the team could create a Louis Delmas-like player — making up for coverage liabilities with ferocious hitting ability.  

Bubble LB: Aaron Brown (#50)

The Rams have jump-started the competition at outside linebacker with a couple of greybeards in Jo-Lonn Dunbar (#58) and Rocky McIntosh (#52), as well as underused young free agent Mario Haggan (#51).

Of the three, Dunbar is the only one with playing experience in a Fisher/Williams defensive scheme, and would seem to have the inside track on a starting job. This, frankly, is not a good thing, as Pro Football Focus rated Dunbar among the least-effective LBs in the league in 2011. Dunbar made only 33 tackles and missed 9 more, a worse ratio than Brady Poppinga. Moreover, despite being used extensively as a pass-rusher, he generated only 6 pressures on 78 pass-rushing snaps. 

Enter Aaron Brown, a productive tackler despite his size (6-0″ 237 lbs). He was not expected to be drafted, but the Rams made sure he didn’t hit rookie free agency by snapping him up in the seventh round. Clearly they saw something they liked. Hopefully we’ll get to see it too in camp. 

Bubble DLs: William Hayes (#95), Trevor Laws (#99), Eugene Sims (#92)

The starting four – Chris Long (#91), Robert Quinn (#94), Michael Brockers (#90 – a nod to Ndamukong Suh?) and Kendall Langford (#98) will be one of this team’s strongest units, so competition should be especially heated for their backup jobs. 

William Hayes is a newcomer to keep an eye on, having been drafted by Jeff Fisher in 2008 and who played a very effective role as a spot pass-rusher as recently as 2010. Hayes could be Long’s primary backup, or even spell him on obvious rushing downs, as Long’s weakness is in run defense. Trevor Laws is a bit more invisible, an interior linemen who is not a disruptive force, but he could become an effective glue guy in the middle.  

Bubble OLs: Joe Long (#77), Robert Turner (#59) 

The offensive line remains the biggest worry area on the team, with only one-and-a-half of five spots locked down in any meaningful way – Harvey Dahl at right guard, and (if healthy) Scott Wells at center. However, Wells has been slowed and will give way to a number of substitutes in the early going. Most notably, Robert Turner has shown himself capable with the Jets of playing any role on the offensive line from center to guard to jumbo-tackle (a sixth blocker on short-yardage packages). 

On the outside, the starting jobs will be Rodger Saffold’s and Jason Smith’s to lose. But given their injury history, the team would be very wise to stockpile backups. One of the most intriguing is Jake Long’s younger brother Joe, who was a four-year starter in Division II at left tackle. If the 6’5″ 304-lb Long is finally ready for the bright lights, he could be a find.

Bubble WRs: Brandon Gibson (#11), Danario Alexander (#84), Steve Smith (#12)

With the Rams apparently ready to depend in great extent on Brian Quick (#83) and Danny Amendola (#16) to man the X and Z positions, and Greg Salas (#87) primed to re-establish chemistry with Bradford, competition at the Y and backup spots will be fierce. 

Given that Brandon Gibson stood as the “established veteran” on this roster, it made sense for the Rams to bring in someone — even someone as far removed from their glory as Steve Smith — to compete for the job. But it’s fair to question what Smith has left in the tank, or in his knees, after bombing out with the Philadelphia Eagles last year. 

The X factor (pun intended) may be Danario Alexander, who could be called upon to tag-team with Quick to provide a constant deep-threat presence on the field. Alexander has excelled with limited snaps at the top of the route tree, and a platoon situation could be the best way to maximize his health and effectiveness. Despite being a “west coast offense,” the Jets found frequent targets for Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress in the red zone. DX likes that job just fine.  

Bubble TEs: All of them. 

This is a large and undistinguished group, of which former Jet Mathhew Mulligan (#82) as a block-first player might be the one most worth keeping an eye on. The Rams desperately need an improved run-blocking presence, with Kendricks unable to take on most edge rushers and Hoomanawanui rarely healthy enough to put his skills to work.

Bubble RBs/FBs: Brit Miller (#49), Daryl Richardson (#26), Ben Guidugli (#41) 

Brit Miller beat out a past-his-prime Mike Karney for the stating job last year, and then promptly disappeared from the Rams’ gameplan. Miller got a vanishingly small number of snaps in the Rams’ running offense under Josh McDaniels, so his lock on the job would not appear to be built on much more than his body of work in practices. The fact the Rams brought in former Falcon Pro-Bowler Ovie Mughelli (#34) this week would appear to make a statement to that fact.   

Another RamsHerd favorite is throwing his hat in the ring at H-back, former tight end Ben Guidugli. His roster prospects may be very slim, but he’s a worker and is fun to watch. Likewise, 7th-round running back Daryl Richardson reportedly flashed some “slippery” in minicamp, in the words of The Pigskin Arch’s Patty Hseih.