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Rams still searching for Jackson's backup

 
 

He has been the fulcrum of the Rams' rushing attack for several years. He has been a warrior and a workhorse, fighting through injuries and being a team leader.

While running back Steven Jackson wants the ball as much as possible, that hasn't stopped the Rams from looking for a complement to Jackson that can fill several roles.

A true power back, the Rams would like someone that can be a true threat on the edges as well as being a proficient receiver. Also, that back would be a player proficient enough to be able to handle multiple carries if Jackson isn't available.

Last season, coming back from offseason back surgery, Jackson, who turns 28 in July, started all 16 games despite being bothered in several by a groin injury. Had there been a more accomplished back, Jackson might have sat out a game or two rather than continuing to play.

He ended up rushing for 1,241 yards with 330 attempts (more than 20 per game), and added 46 receptions. However, Jackson also averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt.

His backups in 2010 were Kenneth Darby, who had just 34 rushing attempts for 107 yards, and undrafted free agent Keith Toston (19 carries, 54 yards).

The Rams know that finding better talent behind Jackson is needed. The question is how high a priority it will be, considering numerous other needs on the roster.

Some have advocated selecting Alabama's Mark Ingram with the 14th pick in the first round if he's available. There are also a group of running backs that could be selected from the second round that the Rams will likely think about.

Mikel Leshoure from Illinois is intriguing, but it seems unlikely he will be available when the Rams pick in the second round. Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams and Kansas State's Daniel Thomas could be target, but much will depend on how the draft unfolds and how the team fills its other needs.

Free agency is, of course, in limbo currently, but once it is business as usual, the Rams would also evaluate available veterans, especially if the need for a running back isn't filled in the draft.

--The Rams thought they would be set at safety for several years after signing James Butler as a free agent in 2009 and having Oshiomogho Atogwe on the other side.

However, Butler has experienced persistent ankle and knee injuries in his two seasons with the team, and Atogwe was released in February and signed with the Washington Redskins just before the lockout began.

While it is understood why the Rams struggled to achieve a long-term contract with Atogwe for three offseasons, his departure leaves a hole in the secondary and in the locker room where he was voted defensive captain by his teammates last season.

Aside from Butler, the only other safeties on the roster are Craig Dahl and Darian Stewart. Butler wasn't able to get back his starting job from Dahl after getting healthy last season, and Stewart showed improvement in 2010 after making the team as an undrafted free agent.

Coach Steve Spagnuolo said he had a talk with Butler at the end of the season.

Said Spagnuolo, "Here he is a starter in the NFL. We brought him here for a reason, and he really helped us that way. (Not starting) was more of a product of Craig Dahl playing really good football, and we just didn't want to disrupt how it was going at the time. And I will say this about James, because (special teams coordinator) Tom McMahon said it loudly at the end of the year. He was very, very appreciative and impressed with the way James handled going from a starter to kind of a swing guy and playing special teams."

"He really helped our kickoff team get better, our punt team, our punt return team. James is a pro. He's a quality guy. He's a team guy. I told him, 'James, I expect you to come back with thoughts of being the starter again.' I want him to see it that way, and he should. So we'll see what happens."

Spagnuolo also expects Stewart to "grow," but added, "We'll add somebody. We'll see what happens in the draft and free agency."

This is not considered a strong draft for safeties, but with the Rams having other needs early, they hope a solid safety with potential will be available from the fourth round on.

--The Rams' improvement in 2010 has them believing they're not that far away from being a consistent competitor for a playoff spot. The quick development of quarterback Sam Bradford and an improved defense were a large part of the Rams' 7-9 record.

That Bradford was able to have some success without a top-flight receiving corps leads to the obvious conclusion that a priority has to be placed on putting better players around him.

It makes no sense, but it might be difficult to do.

Generally considered the top two receivers in the draft are Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones. However, most analysts believe both will be gone before the Rams select with the 14th pick in the first round.

No other receiver is worthy of that high a pick, and the question then comes whether a player picked in the second or third round has value and would likely be potentially better than what the Rams already have.

Further complicating matters are the receivers returning from injuries. Mark Clayton quickly became one of Bradford's favorite targets after being acquired in a trade from Baltimore less than a week before the season opener. But he consistently made big plays before suffering a season-ending knee injury early in a Week 5 loss to Detroit.

Donnie Avery, the fastest pass-catcher on the roster, blew out his knee against New England in the third preseason game. Danario Alexander is the wild card in the equation. He has had multiple surgeries on his left knee and the one he had after the Scouting Combine in 2010 resulted in him not being drafted.

He made big plays in three Rams' wins, and has the ability to be a game-breaker. But his knee will always be a question.

There is also some depth with Danny Amendola, who led the team with 85 receptions, Brandon Gibson, who was second with 53, and Laurent Robinson. Another wild card is Mardy Gilyard, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who struggled in his rookie season, but has the talent to make plays.

If Jones surprisingly last to 14, the Rams likely won't hesitate. But other needs could result I them going in other directions on the second day, even though the need is there for a receiver.

They could even hold out hope there will be some sort of free-agent period that will enable them to sign an attractive veteran.

 

 

 


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Jan 30 2012 3:57PM GMT

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