Last year at this time, Rams roster cutdown weekend drew national attention because of Michael Sam’s bid to become the first openly-gay player to make an NFL roster. Sam, the former University of Missouri star, was beaten out by Ethan Westbrooks as things turned out.
Things weren’t nearly as dramatic this time at Rams Park, but as always there were a couple of surprises as the team reached the regular season roster limit of 53 players.
First and foremost in terms of surprises was the release of veteran linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a good run defender and emotional presence on defense. Another surprise was the release of center Barrett Jones, a heralded college player at Alabama who went from competing for a starting job to out of a job.
It was no surprise, however, that quarterback Austin Davis was released despite the fact that he started eight games a year ago, winning three, and posting back-to-back 300-plus yard passing games against Dallas and Philadelphia.
The Rams kept three undrafted rookies: offensive tackle Darrell Williams, wide receiver Bradley Marquez, and linebacker Cameron Lynch. Only one member of the 2015 draft class was cut, seventh-round defensive end Martin Ifedi of Memphis.
After using a 2016 fifth-round pick on Isaiah Battle in the NFL’s supplemental draft in July, the Rams cut the offensive tackle from Clemson.
The defense is filled with familiar faces. Nineteen of the team’s 23 defensive players were on the 2014 season-ending roster, including seven of eight defensive linemen, and all nine members of the secondary.
The only newcomers on defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ unit are tackle Nick Fairley, and linebackers Akeem Ayers, Bryce Hager, and Lynch. Fairley and Ayers were free-agent pickups; Hager is a seventh-round pick from Baylor.
On offense, four of the five running backs, five of the six wide receivers, and all three tight ends to make the 2015 roster were on the team in 2014. The only newcomers to crack those groups were running back Todd Gurley and Marquez at wide receiver.
But none of the three quarterbacks on the 2015 squad were with the team on the season-ending roster in 2014. Starter Nick Foles was acquired in the Sam Bradford trade with Philadelphia and No. 3 Sean Mannion was drafted in the third round.
(Second-stringer Case Keenum spent part of last season on the Rams’ practice squad and active roster, but finished the season with the Houston Texans.)
The biggest makeover came on the offensive line, where six of the 10 players on the 53-man roster are new. And five of those six are rookies: Rob Havenstein, Jamon Brown, Andrew Donnal, Cody Wichmann, and Williams. The other newcomer is free-agent pickup Garrett Reynolds.
While commonly referred to as the “final 53,” what has taken place over the weekend at Rams Park and all around the NFL is really the “first 53.” Coach Jeff Fisher indicated that there could be some additional roster tweaking before the Sept. 13 regular-season opener against Seattle.
Tight end and cornerback could be areas where the Rams are looking for help. The Rams kept only three tight ends — Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks and Corey Harkey — and Harkey lines up more in the backfield at fullback than he does at tight end.
Two tight ends were cut over the weekend, Alex Bayer and Justice Cunningham. A year ago, Bayer made the opening-day roster after leading the Rams in preseason catches (10) and finishing second in reception yards (135).
But he was slowed by a foot injury and subsequent surgery just before the start of the OTA practice sessions in June and wasn’t as productive this preseason.
As for cornerback, the Rams only have four on the roster at the moment in Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, and Marcus Roberson. Most teams carry at least five corners.
Surprisingly, Fisher held a press conference at 4 p.m., or one hour after the NFL deadline to reach the 53-man roster limit. But he declined to announce the team’s roster cuts or comment about any roster cuts already reported upon by the media.
The Rams didn’t announce their roster cuts until nearly 7 p.m. Saturday, or nearly four hours after the league deadline to turn in those moves.
So the small group of reporters who gathered for the press conference were unable to ask about the release of 21 players over the weekend, including Davis, Jones, and Dunbar.
Three years ago, Dunbar finished second on the squad with a career-high 157 tackles, and also established career highs in sacks (4 ½) and interceptions (two).
But he was released prior to the 2013 season after being suspended four games by the NFL for violating league policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He was re-signed Oct. 1, and played in the final 12 games of the season, starting 10 times. He played in 15 games last year, once again starting 10 games.
Dunbar lost his starting job to Ayers this year, nonetheless his release was puzzling considering the team’s lack of depth and experience behind the starters. In addition, Dunbar had a modest cap number of $1.345 million this year, and the Rams already were about $4.5 million under the cap.
At quarterback, Davis became expendable in the Rams’ eyes once they traded a seventh-round pick for Keenum in March. He was given very little opportunity to show anything in the preseason, appearing in only one series in each of the four games. Thursday against Kansas City, all he did was hand off the football to running backs - eight times.
Meanwhile at center, Jones came to the Rams as a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 but was slowed by injury in each of his first two NFL seasons, appearing in only 10 games total. In the three-way battle for center this year, he was beaten out by Tim Barnes and Demetrius Rhaney.
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