Rams : Training Camp Roster Proves You Can't Have Too Many Linebackers

Times Staff Writer

There's an old saying in football that you can never have enough linebackers. Or is that an old baseball saying about pitchers?

Whichever, the Rams have enough linebackers to start a dance troupe. They opened training camp with 17 on the roster, about a dozen more than you might use on a given day.

If they needed anything on draft day it was inside help, what with the loss of veterans Carl Ekern (retirement), Jim Collins (free agency) and possibly Mark Jerue (knee surgery).

But the Rams passed on inside linebacker Keith DeLong in the first round and drafted two more outside rushers in the second, Notre Dame's Frank Stams and Brian Smith of Auburn. Sticking to their theme, they took another outside linebacker, George Bethune, in the seventh round.

It all sounds a bit crazy, though Rams claim to know what they're doing. Last year they unveiled the Eagle defense, a five-linebacker scheme that featured only two down linemen. They gave up bulk for quickness and rushed the opposing quarterback in waves, leading the league with 56 sacks.

The addition of Smith and Stams, when he eventually signs, will give the defense even more versatility. The plan is to attack an opponent with even more multiple shifts of youthful faces.

Coach John Robinson says the team might keep 10 linebackers on the 47-man roster, which should provide a pretty good fight for playing time.

"I'm not worried about that now," Robinson said. "I'm worried about getting the best guys playing."

Here's an early handicap in order of job security:

--Kevin Greene. The Eagle defense made him a star last season. He finished with 16 1/2 sacks, second in the National Football League only to Reggie White. Here's the difference: White is demanding in excess of $7 million to play in Philadelphia the next five seasons. Greene will earn $250,000 this year, subject to renegotiation.

--Mel Owens. The nine-year veteran was off to his best start last year before suffering an ankle sprain that forced him out of the last nine games. Owens has been asked to play some inside linebacker this year because of the lack of depth at the position.

"He hasn't switched positions, it's just additional responsibilities," Robinson said.

--Mike Wilcher. The Rams would love a return to form of 1985, when he had 12 1/2 sacks. He fell to 7 1/2 sacks last season, but remains a load of talent.

--Larry Kelm. He takes over for Carl Ekern at inside linebacker and calls the signals on defense. He's been groomed three years for this job. It's time to throw away the comb.

--Fred Strickland. The second-year man from Purdue takes over the other inside spot for Jim Collins/Mark Jerue. Robinson thinks Strickland soon could be one of the great players in the league. Strickland capped his rookie season with 13 tackles and four quarterback sacks in his final two games.

--Frank Stams/Brian Smith. These rookies are safe because teams don't cut second-round draft choices. Smith is 6-foot-6 and already swatting down passes in practice. Stams remains a holdout. When he arrives, he'll be amazed at the competition.

--Brett Faryniarz. He made the team as a free agent last season, but the line at outside linebacker forms at the rear. He'll need another great training camp.

--Mark Jerue. With two good knees, Jerue would be near the top of the list. But he's fighting off another arthroscopic surgery and is trying to make one last charge in August.

--Byron Darby. He signed as an unprotected free agent in the off-season after spending the past two years with Indianapolis. He's a versatile veteran who can also play nose tackle. That helps his chances. The sprained ankle that will keep him out a week or so does not.

--Wayne Davis. He also signed as an unprotected free agent and can play Mel Owens' spot over the tight end in the Eagle defense.

--George Bethune. The seventh-round choice from Alabama is impressing coaches in camp. His problem? He's an outside linebacker.

--Mark Messner. An interesting project who's being looked at in Jerue's roving linebacker/nose tackle position. Messner lacks the size of a down lineman and speed for a linebacker, but finished with 71 tackles at Michigan last season. He doesn't do anything real well except play football.

Ram Notes

With veterans due Monday and still a lot of paper work to be done, the Rams have scheduled a 3 p.m. meeting today with Steve Feldman, who represents four of the team's eight unsigned veterans. The name of the group is tailback Greg Bell, but it also includes offensive linemen Duval Love, Tony Slaton and Robert Cox. Feldman was making no predictions on Thursday. "Jay (Zygmunt, general counsel) called me, so that's a good sign," he said. . . . Left tackle Irv Pankey apparently is headed for another long holdout and his agent says he won't make the upcoming trip to Tokyo. In 1986, Pankey missed the Rams' trip to London because of a holdout.

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