Since the players returned to St. Louis for the offseason conditioning program back in March, the Rams have been attacking the spring months with the sole purpose of making improvements.
And, in the mind of coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have made great strides over the past few months. Or at least as much as the NFL guidelines will allow.
“I think the team is really where we should be without putting pads on,” Spagnuolo said. “I don’t use that as a crutch, but we have so much further to go when we get to doing the ‘real football.’ I’m anxious to get to that point.”
Before the Rams can get to that point, though, they’ve had to go through a rigorous offseason program. The conditioning program kicked off on March 15 and continued into April.
After the NFL Draft from April 22-24, the rookies reported for the rookie minicamp April 30-May 2. About three weeks later, the Rams kicked off Organized Team Activities which started on May 18, included last weekend’s veteran minicamp, and finally wrapped up on Thursday after 18 practices.
In this year’s OTAs, Spagnuolo wanted to make it a point to introduce his team to a variety of things. That meant finding time to work on the details of the game with situational drills like fourth and short, doing a little work preparing for divisional opponents and a variety of other drills and practices.
In addition, Spagnuolo made a point of finding some time for the community with the team playground build at Monroe eMINTS Academy in St. Louis and for fun with a cancelled minicamp practice turned bowling outing.
If nothing else, the Rams spent plenty of time this offseason building the team concept that is a hallmark of Spagnuolo’s philosophy.
That’s something Spagnuolo already feels in the chemistry his team has in this the second year of his tenure as opposed to the first.
“(It’s) huge,” Spagnuolo said. “I think any player will tell you that, and I think the coaches feel the same way about the players because you know the players, they know you. There’s a comfort level there. It’s huge.”
While there are still plenty of rookies and a few free agents that have had to acclimate to the Rams, it seems as though the ability of all new additions to fit in has been a relatively easy transition.
Offensively, coordinator Pat Shurmur has been pleased with how new quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Sam Bradford have taken command of the huddle and is happy with how all of his players have adjusted and grasped his offense.
With no pads on, it’s been difficult to judge the linemen but Shurmur and Spagnuolo both expressed optimism about the progress of the skill position guys.
Indeed, Shurmur and the offense might now be in a position to open things up a bit more heading into the second season as the players have adjusted to the system and adapted to what the Rams want.
“Well I think they’ve absorbed what we’ve tried to give them real well,” Shurmur said. “We’re obviously working in some new and young players and I’m really pleased with the progress we’re going to make. We’re preparing a big workload for them in the training camp and I think that’s the next focus. What we tried to do in the spring is give them pretty much everything they’re going to get in training camp and then really it’s a review and you re-install it and get it going and put it specific to the teams we play in the preseason.”
On the other side of the ball, it’s been a bit harder to make judgments without the benefit of padded practices. But defensive coordinator Ken Flajole has already seen the value of having players entering their second season in the system, even if only on the practice field.
“That’s a fair statement and I think there’s some truth to that,” Flajole said. “But I think a lot of times you can throw out a coaching term in a coverage or a front or a blitz and maybe you know what it means and you think they know what it means, but in reality until you spend some time together and you learn each other, they may not be able to define your terms. I think what’s happening right now is they have a better understanding of what your expectations are and then in particular calls, how you’re trying to get it done.” According to Spagnuolo and Flajole, it’s made a difference having some leaders emerge on each side of the ball. In the case of the defense, both point to middle linebacker James Laurinaitis for his embracing the leadership role and his much improved knowledge of the defense.
On both sides of the ball, the pace and tempo of practice appears much crisper and detailed from a year ago. “I think we’re playing faster, I think we have a better understanding of the scheme that we put in a year ago,” Flajole said. “Now whether we’ve gotten a little bit better physically that could be part of it. But, I think, part of it is, is we’re playing faster because we have a better understanding of where we need to be and how we need to fit things up.”
With training camp right around the corner, the Rams will have to make some roster adjustments before getting back to work.
After releasing five players on Tuesday, the roster sits at 87 players. Teams have to be down to 80 before camp and the Rams will have to sign their rookie class at some point in that mix, as well.
“We’ve got to get to 80 before training camp, but for the sake of the players who won’t be here, we need to do it as soon as we feel like we’re comfortable,” Spagnuolo said. “But I feel like we’re able to get a lot done. Certainly the skill positions and you get the mental part and you see some physical things. I think we’re getting good evaluation of the guys.”
That evaluation will ultimately decide where those final roster cuts come from to get down to the necessary 80.
Following Thursday’s practice, the veteran players were free to depart while the rookies will stick around for another week of conditioning and getting the full rundown on what will be expected of them in the next month.
A big part of that is staying in shape physically but also staying sharp mentally so that all of the work just completed doesn’t go for naught.
The Rams will return to St. Louis for training camp at the end of July with rookies reporting on the 28th and the veterans on the 30th. The first full squad practice of camp, pads included, will come on the afternoon of July 31.
“I really think that’s when it molds together the toughness part of it, and that part of the game we need to get rolling on,” Spagnuolo said.