ROOKIE TACKLEJason Smith has miles to go before he becomes a dominant pro, fulfilling thepromise of a No. 2 draft pick. But he might already lead the league incivility. When veteran defensive end Leonard Little beat him around the edge inpractice this summer, Smith said to him, "Talk to me about what I can dobetter, Mr. Little." He didn't limit the formality to his vanquishers.Trainer Jim Anderson was "Mr. Anderson," quarterback Marc Bulger"Mr. Bulger," and—get this—ball boy Kyle Shurmur, the 12-year-old sonof offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, was "Mr. Kyle."
The ball boy?"Well," said Smith after the practice, "he helps me out there likethe other players do, so he deserves my respect the same way. The way I wasraised, if you give respect, you will earn respect."
Earn respect—thatshould be the Rams' mantra this season. Last year's 2--14 record was thefranchise's worst since 1962, when it was based in Los Angeles and went 1-12-1.Never in team history have the Rams had a drearier two-year run than the 5--27skid of 2007 and '08. So they set about finding personnel this year around whomthey could build for '10 and beyond.
The new coach isSteve Spagnuolo, a smart, by-the-book disciplinarian who brings the cachet ofhaving designed the Giants' defense that toppled the undefeated Patriots in theSuper Bowl 19 months ago. In remaking the roster, St. Louis went after meat andpotatoes. They made free agent Jason Brown, a former Raven, the highest-paidcenter in league history (five years, $37.5 million). On draft day G.M. BillyDevaney, fully realizing he might be risking his neck by draftinginfrastructure instead of potential star power, went for Baylor's 6'5",310-pound Smith at No. 2 over USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and then pluckedOhio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in the second round. (Afterthree practices Laurinaitis had a starting job and is expected to be the Rams'defensive signal-caller for years.)
Smith, who wasstill battling to be the starter at right tackle as the preseason ended, is theproject that has top priority because he will likely shift to the moreimportant left tackle—his college position the last two years—beginning in2010. (The Rams considered installing Smith at left tackle immediately, butthey have a passable left tackle, former first-rounder Alex Barron.) At Baylor,which ran the spread offense, the tackles merely had to backpedal and help forma pocket around a quarterback in the shotgun. Now Smith is becoming moreaggressive on running plays, and he's sliding out and getting his hands on passrushers before they get around the corner.
"The things Ithought I was good at, I'm not good at," Smith said midway through camp."I've learned I have to have patience with things like hand placement,technique, the right foot movement, how not to lean."
Little, 34, thelongest-tenured Ram, worked with Smith on his hand placement. "You've gotto punch your hands, jar the guy," Little recalled telling Smith. "Incollege he didn't have to use his hands that much, because he was quicker andstronger than everyone he played against. But he's got the important things.One, he works. You'd think he was an [undrafted] college free agent with theattitude he has. Two, he's just talented. With that body, it's amazing howquick he is."
If this offenseis clicking, running back Steven Jackson, not Bulger, will be the star. AndJackson has huge confidence in Smith. "He's going to be great," Jacksonsays. "I lobbied for him for two months before the draft. Out of all thelinemen, I thought he was the most athletic and the best run-blocker, with thepotential to be really good for a long time." Having Smith's potentialdevelop into greatness is one element that will help the Rams turn the cornerand get back on the road to the playoffs.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
0--0 in NFL, first season with Rams
If Bulger ishampered by a broken pinkie on his throwing hand suffered in training camp,former Raven Kyle Boller (out all of 2008 with a shoulder injury) is thebackup.
OLB David Vobora(seven tackles) was Mr. Irrelevant as the last player drafted in '08, but hewill see regular action as a backup in '09.
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 2--14
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 25 > 26 > 27
DEFENSE 29 > 19 > 28
13 at Seattle
20 at Washington
27 GREEN BAY
4 at San Francisco
18 at Jacksonville
1 at Detroit
15 NEW ORLEANS
6 at Chicago
13 at Tennessee
27 at Arizona
3 SAN FRANCISCO
NFL Rank: 22T
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 5
While a revamped defense should help the Rams avoid some of last season'sembarrassing blowouts, they have a grueling first-half travel schedule and facesome big-time offenses outside the division—Indy, New Orleans, Houston. Still,this could be a big year for running back Steven Jackson, as St. Louis goes upagainst several of the league's weaker run defenses.
James Laurinaitis, Linebacker
GROWING UP, he didn't want to be just a linebacker. Hehad to be a middle linebacker—a three-down middle linebacker. When he was atPlymouth Wayzata (Minn.) High, Laurinaitis liked to watch two pros especially:Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He even monitored their weight, figuring that ifthey were at 253, that was the number he should aim for. "That was thetough part," says the 6'2" Laurinaitis, who was the third pick in thesecond round of the 2009 draft. "I was 235 in high school, but it was aprotein-shake 235. Lifting the right way helped. I'm 250 now. I might need toget bigger. This is such a unique position because you're taking on a 315-poundguy one play and maybe a 245-pound fullback on the next. To be a great middlelinebacker, you've got to be great on all three downs."
Laurinaitis made a smart move when he went to summerschool in 2008 and earned enough credits to get his degree from Ohio State inMarch '09. Had he waited to graduate with his class in early June, Laurinaitiswould have delayed his immersion into the NFL because a player can't report tohis team until he or his class has graduated. Instead, Laurinaitis was able toattend all the Rams' off-season minicamps and the conditioning program. That'show you make a good first impression in your new job.
JAMMED UP Battling for a starting job, "Mr. Smith" is getting a crash course in blocking like a pro.