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Rams rookies take spotlight vs. Saints

2014-08-08T10:00:00Z 2015-03-10T17:50:19Z Rams rookies take spotlight vs. SaintsBy Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

There was a time when there appeared to be storylines aplenty for the Rams’ exhibition opener tonight against New Orleans.

1. • The first look at quarterback Sam Bradford and his surgically repaired left knee.

Wait till next week. This one’s a non-starter — literally. Barring an 11th-hour change of heart by coach Jeff Fisher, Bradford isn’t playing tonight.

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2. • Gregg Williams vs. the Saints. Bountygate revisited?

This one’s been a yawner here in St. Louis. If it were a regular-season game, sure. But it’s preseason.

“We’re not out there to outsmart anybody,” Fisher said. “We’re not game-planning. We’re just going to do what we’ve done here (on the practice field).”

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3. • Michael Sam’s game debut. Will the entire football world be watching as the first openly gay player takes part in an NFL contest, albeit bit one that doesn’t count?

Not exactly. The contest has attracted more national media than usual for an exhibition opener in St. Louis, but nothing that would qualify for the coveted “media circus” moniker.

USA Today, ESPN, Yahoo, Outsports and NFL Network will have correspondents on hand for the contest, which is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

So what we’re getting to a large degree will be a lot of young players trying to get noticed by the coaching staff and earn roster spots, Sam included.

Two-a-days are a thing of the past in training camps since the collective bargaining agreement of 2011. Camp rosters, meanwhile, have expanded to 90 players. So there isn’t a ton of time to evaluate fringe players based on what happens on the practice field. They simply don’t get many reps.

That makes it harder for, say, the next London Fletcher (out of John Carroll University in 1998) to get noticed.

“Well, that’s where the game comes into play,” Fisher said. “A lot of the college free agents on the roster that aren’t getting a lot of reps in practice are going to get game reps (in the preseason).

“As we all know, we build reps with the starters and the back-ups and you’re not playing three quarters worth of ball each week. So these (young) guys are going to get game reps, probably going to get more game reps than they did in practice, so we’ll find out if they’re paying attention.”

That’s especially true tonight because many starters are going to sit out for the Rams.

On offense, that includes Bradford, left tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells and probably right guard Rodger Saffold.

Speaking on Bradford, Fisher said earlier in the week, “He’s done everything we needed to see right now in practice. So he’s going to play in the preseason, but it’s unlikely that he’s going to play this week. ... It’s not because he can’t (play), it’s because it’s our choice.”

On the defensive side, several starters also are expected to sit out because of various bumps and bruises — none of which are thought to be serious.

That list includes defensive tackles Michael Brockers (ankle) and Kendall Langford; linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle)and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. In addition, third defensive end William Hayes might not play as he works his way back from three offseason surgeries.

Those expected absences will mean more playing time for the backups and the fringe players.

As for Williams, the Rams’ new defensive coordinator, there were several stories in the New Orleans media this week speculating that Williams might do heavy blitzing against the Saints.

One column suggested that the Saints should rest their offensive starters so as not to risk injury.

In a reader poll on the New Orleans Times-Picayune website Nola.com, nearly 86 percent of respondents said star quarterback Drew Brees shouldn’t be exposed to the blitz-happy Williams defense.

The point appears moot because Brees has been slowed by an oblique muscle injury during training camp and isn’t expected to play anyway.

That means it almost certainly will be career backup Shaun Hill (Rams) vs. career backup Luke McCown (Saints) opening at quarterback.

The Saints spent time at their training camp site in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., looking at game film of their 2011 exhibition opener against San Francisco. Williams was in his last season as Saints defensive coordinator and called four all-out blitzes on the first nine plays against the 49ers.

“That’s who he is, and he brings it, so we have to be ready for that,” Saints Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham told the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Granted, you never know with Williams.

He just might try to slip in a blitz or two when Fisher’s not looking. But a blitz-heavy night for the Rams doesn’t seem to be in the offing.

“Typically, what we do is we keep things somewhat basic the first couple (exhibition games) and just let ’em play,” Fisher said. “You don’t try to out-scheme people. You understand that, hey we’re going to run and tackle and block and cover and do those kind of things.”

The safest bet of the night is that there will be no pre- or postgame hugs involving Williams and Saints coach Sean Payton, not after the “Bountygate” pay-for-punishment scandal that resulted in year-long suspensions for both Payton and Williams in 2012.

But this game still figures to be more about the 45 or 50 guys fighting for a half dozen or so roster spots up for grabs on the Rams. Or backups trying to solidify their spots. Or roster locks simply trying to hone their game in preparation for the regular season.

“I think it’s the same thing year after year in the first preseason game,” Fisher said. “You want to play as many people as you can that are able to play. ... And everybody that’s capable of playing for the most part will play.”

Not the sexiest storyline. But that’s August football for you.

Follow Jim Thomas on twitter @jthom1

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