The names have changed but the job opening remains the same.
For the second year in a row, the Rams figure to call it an offseason program with a vacancy at left guard ready to turn into one of training camp’s most heated position battles come late July.
But, much like last year, the Rams believe they have plenty of in-house candidates capable of stepping up and winning the job. Of course, the cast of characters aren’t the same as in 2012.
“Chris (Williams) and Shelley (Smith) are rotating,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Obviously Rokevious (Watkins) is a guy that we’re going to swing around a little as well. Again, we’ve got two guys that played for us last year.”
Last year, the battle turned into a competition amongst Robert Turner, Quinn Ojinnaka and Watkins. While Watkins remains in the mix, the other two faces are new to the training camp stage of the battle but not the team in general.
Smith came to the Rams on Sept. 2 after they claimed him off waivers from Houston. He was inactive his first three weeks but ended up playing in 11 games with six starts.
Williams signed with the Rams on Oct. 22 after Chicago released him six days earlier. He was inactive for six games but played in three.
“We went by series if you guys remember the last two games and didn’t give up a sack against two pretty good front fours,” Schottenheimer said. “It’s been fun to watch them compete. They’re both (in their) second year in the system, but both of them actually missed training camp last year because we got them both late. Again, you see they’re leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year, so that’s making the competition even more fun to watch.”
It’s a competition that doesn’t figure to come to a conclusion anytime soon. With Watkins looking to work his way into the mix and an X-factor in fourth-round rookie
As the contestant with the most experience in the Rams’ system, Smith entered his first full offseason program with the team with plenty of confidence that he has what it takes to eventually win the job.
That Smith had not started or played in a game before 2012 made that experience invaluable.
“I think it’s really big getting a feel for game speed and playing next to all these different guys in all these different situations definitely was a good experience,” Smith said. “It helps you know what to expect when you get in there.”
Coming from the Texans more pure zone-based blocking attack, Smith spent his first few weeks with the Rams learning the ropes of their hybrid blocking schemes. He did not play the first four weeks and made his first appearance against Arizona in week 5.
Against Green Bay on Oct. 21, Smith made his first NFL start, jumping in at left guard. He followed with starts in each of the next three weeks on the left side before sliding over to right guard as the starter in weeks 16 and 17.
“I felt like I was definitely getting more comfortable as the weeks went on,” Smith said. “I felt like I was growing as a player. I have got a lot more room to improve so I am going to work hard to do that and get ready for next season.”
Listed at 6’4, 297 pounds, Smith is known more for his athleticism and ability to get to the next level as a blocker. For his part, he said the playing time helped most in terms of his understanding of the offense, what to look for from defensive fronts and the mental side of the game in general.
Smith hopes that being sharp mentally will allow him to state a strong case to earn the job.
“We definitely have a battle going on, a lot of competition,” Smith said. “I feel like it’s only making everybody better. We are definitely competing again for that role at the left guard spot.”
While Smith came to the Rams as more of an unknown commodity, Williams arrived in St. Louis with 50 games and 38 starts under his belt.
The former 14th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft came to the Rams not only with experience but also with the versatility that goes with playing both tackle spots as well as left guard.
But when he signed almost halfway through the season before the team departed for London, Williams had plenty of catching up to do.
Having a chance to participate in the offseason program and go through OTAs has allowed Williams to exhale a bit instead of swimming upstream.
“It wasn’t too bad but this time of year you can cover everything,” Williams said. “When you are in season, things would just kind of pop up that were covered in training camp and you just kind of get a little lost so it’s harder.”
Williams finished the season rotating with Smith in those two aforementioned games and was pleased with the impression he was able to leave on the coaching staff as a pending unrestricted free agent.
With an uncertain future, Williams maintained that he enjoyed his half-season plus in St. Louis and expressed a desire to stay a Ram. All he asked in return was an opportunity to win a starting job.
“I wanted to come back if I could,” Williams said. “I just wanted the opportunity to start and they had what I was looking for and they gave me one.”
In his career, the 6’6, 320-pound Williams has started 20 games at left guard, 11 at right tackle and seven at left tackle. Clearly, the bulk of his experience is on the left side.
That experience plus the chance to settle into one position could help Williams in his pursuit of the job going into training camp.
“It’s always better to be able to kind of lock in but when you are not starting you kind of have to be a jack of all trades,” Williams said. “Once you can lock down a spot, you can really focus on it but if you are going to be a backup kind of guy then you have got to do whatever they ask and just kind of get in where you fit in.”
Like Smith, Williams knows that nothing will be handed to him and that he’ll have to perform and be consistent in order to win the job.
“I have every intention of starting,” Williams said. “I am just doing my best every day and just keep working. It’s all about that, work, work, work.
“Offensive line is always about consistency. Anytime the coach calls a certain play, they just want to know on this play and this call, I’m getting this every time no matter what the defense does. That’s what you are working for, being able to do the same thing over and over and getting really good at that.”