Since the beginning of this year’s training camp, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made no secret about the fact that he wants to foster an atmosphere of competition, regardless of position or presumption.
Some spots have been more obvious than others in terms of how they’re being contested. Outside linebacker, left guard and wide receiver are among the glaring spots in which competition has been fierce and deep.
But Fisher’s ideals for creating a competitive camp became more evident last week when a new battle for a starting job popped up on the radar. This time, it was at right tackle where, after about a week and a half of all Jason Smith all the time, suddenly Barry Richardson popped up with the first group without warning.
Richardson stepped in for Smith mid-way through last week. The next day, Richardson stepped in again. And again the following day. By Sunday, when the Rams and Colts opened the preseason at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Richardson actually worked with the starting group in that spot.
Fisher knows exactly what he wants out of the battle at right tackle.
“I want to get the level of play up; increase it,” Fisher said. “The understanding, the awareness, the playing physical in the run game and knowing exactly what you’re doing in pass protection in the passing game.”
The sudden switch to Richardson isn’t some sort of message the staff is trying to send. Instead, Fisher and Co. view it as a legitimate competition that has been a direct result of Richardson’s performance in the opening two weeks of camp.
Smith got the bulk of the reps with the first team in the opening days of camp and had his hands full with defensive end Chris Long, which isn’t unusual for anybody playing in that spot, really.
Richardson worked with the second unit and apparently did enough to earn a look with the top unit.
“The more familiar he becomes with our system, the better he is,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of competition all over the roster and Barry’s created some competition at that right tackle.”
Richardson signed with the Rams on May 15 after he had previously paid a visit to St. Louis in March. He came to St. Louis from Kansas City, where he spent his first four seasons after the Chiefs made him a sixth-round selection (No. 170 overall) out of Clemson in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Despite being a late-round pick, Richardson did enough to earn a starting role in Kansas City, becoming a mainstay at right tackle in 2010 after bouncing from the active roster to the practice squad in his first two seasons.
Upon taking over the starting right tackle job, Richardson held it down for every game in the past two seasons, totaling 32 consecutive games with one of those coming on the left side.
“It gives you confidence,” Richardson said. “You don’t get nervous or anything going against these big marquee guys like (Indianapolis ends Dwight) Freeney and (Robert) Mathis last week. It’s not new to you; you’ve played it week in and week out so it’s easy.”
But when Richardson became a free agent at the end of the 2011 season, Kansas City was only interested in retaining him as a swing tackle. Richardson went in search of a better opportunity that would at least afford him the chance to compete for a starting job.
Amongst interest from other clubs, Richardson opted for the Rams because it did indeed afford him the chance to battle for a spot at the top of the depth chart.
“It’s a new beginning, I mean it’s a new situation, new offense, new head coach, new whole management team,” Richardson said. “That was really appetizing when I thought about it.”
That’s not to say Richardson expected to be embroiled in a competition for the job and running with the first team so soon.
“There’s always a chance to be a starter,” Richardson said. “In this league, the percentage of injuries is 100 percent. It’s going to happen; it’s bound to happen so you never know when it’s your turn.”
With that in mind, Richardson made it a point to return to camp in better shape than ever. He’s a massive man at a listed 6’6, 319 pounds and is a big fan of run blocking.
“Camp is probably where you have got to make your name,” Richardson said. “That’s when you become a starter. Offseason workouts, they are still just trying to build a team and figure out who they want to take to camp. When you get to camp that’s when you have got to put on your best show. You have got to be in the best shape of your life. A lot of injuries happen when you are not in shape.”
Smith, on the other hand, returned to the Rams in the offseason with a clean slate and a fresh start, both of which he wasn’t certain he’d have when the Rams brought in Fisher and general manager Les Snead in the winter.
After agreeing to a pay cut and getting back healthy, Smith worked hard to come back ready to go and intent on proving himself in his fourth NFL season. His first three seasons have been a disappointing series of stops and starts mostly because of recurring injury issues though he hasn’t performed as expected of a No. 2 overall pick when healthy, either.
At the outset of this camp, Smith was given the first opportunity to win the starting job but hasn’t quite been able to get a firm grasp on the gig in the opening parts of camp. He has spent the past four practices plus the first preseason game working with the second team.
So far, Smith is taking the move to the second unit in stride while still aiming to reclaim the job once and for all in time for the opener against Detroit.
“Everything that’s happened to me as far as, I think the word is being demoted, is demoted the word I’m looking for?” Smith said. “Demoted to the twos, or not working with the starters. I mean, that’s great. I need to earn the job. I need to be accountable when I’m on the field, in the huddle.”
Each practice and preseason game remains important for Smith as he continues to work to salvage his career. He’s almost certain to become a free agent after this season.
New offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has worked with Smith on many of the basics and techniques that Smith said he hadn’t been able to perfect his first three seasons. He’s not a finished product by any means but does believe he’s getting the hang of Boudreau’s guidance.
“There’s been flashes where I’ve done what he’s asked me to do, or shown me,” Smith said. “And there’s flashes where I just look like somebody who’s not even capable of playing football. So I’m honest with myself. And at the end of the day I want to prove my own self and prove my own work. So that’s what I see. I can see it, he can see it, the whole team can see it.”
As the preseason continues, it’s expected the Rams will continue to look at both Smith and Richardson on the right side.
On Tuesday, it was Richardson again taking the majority of the reps on the right side. In the opener against the Colts, Richardson and Smith both fared just fine according to Fisher though there were some hiccups along the way for each, including a sack allowed that really wasn’t the fault of Smith and a false start on Richardson.
There’s no timetable on making a decision for the spot but expect to see plenty of both Smith and Richardson in the next few weeks.
“We’re trying to keep it pretty much even out of fairness,” Fisher said. “Any time you create a competitive situation, you want to be able to evaluate it fairly. We’re splitting the reps here on the practice field and we haven’t decided how we’re going to go in the game, per se. Jason got plenty of reps in the game. He actually got a little more reps than Barry did. So, we’ll just continue with it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make a decision before too long.”
Written by Nick Wagoner