ROOKIE TACKLE Jason Smith has miles to go before he becomes a dominant pro, fulfilling the promise of a No. 2 draft pick. But he might already lead the league in civility. When veteran defensive end Leonard Little beat him around the edge in practice this summer, Smith said to him, "Talk to me about what I can do better, 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 son of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, was "Mr. Kyle."
The ball boy? "Well," said Smith after the practice, "he helps me out there like the other players do, so he deserves my respect the same way. The way I was raised, if you give respect, you will earn respect."
Earn respect—that should be the Rams' mantra this season. Last year's 2--14 record was the franchise'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--27 skid of 2007 and '08. So they set about finding personnel this year around whom they could build for '10 and beyond.
The new coach is Steve Spagnuolo, a smart, by-the-book disciplinarian who brings the cachet of having designed the Giants' defense that toppled the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl 19 months ago. In remaking the roster, St. Louis went after meat and potatoes. They made free agent Jason Brown, a former Raven, the highest-paid center in league history (five years, $37.5 million). On draft day G.M. Billy Devaney, fully realizing he might be risking his neck by drafting infrastructure instead of potential star power, went for Baylor's 6'5", 310-pound Smith at No. 2 over USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and then plucked Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in the second round. (After three practices Laurinaitis had a starting job and is expected to be the Rams' defensive signal-caller for years.)
Smith, who was still battling to be the starter at right tackle as the preseason ended, is the project that has top priority because he will likely shift to the more important left tackle—his college position the last two years—beginning in 2010. (The Rams considered installing Smith at left tackle immediately, but they 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 form a pocket around a quarterback in the shotgun. Now Smith is becoming more aggressive on running plays, and he's sliding out and getting his hands on pass rushers before they get around the corner.
"The things I thought 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, the longest-tenured Ram, worked with Smith on his hand placement. "You've got to punch your hands, jar the guy," Little recalled telling Smith. "In college he didn't have to use his hands that much, because he was quicker and stronger 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 the attitude he has. Two, he's just talented. With that body, it's amazing how quick he is."
If this offense is clicking, running back Steven Jackson, not Bulger, will be the star. And Jackson has huge confidence in Smith. "He's going to be great," Jackson says. "I lobbied for him for two months before the draft. Out of all the linemen, I thought he was the most athletic and the best run-blocker, with the potential to be really good for a long time." Having Smith's potential develop into greatness is one element that will help the Rams turn the corner and get back on the road to the playoffs.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: STEVE SPAGNUOLO
0--0 in NFL, first season with Rams