Rams have some questions to answer as veterans report to training camp
Dramatic trades. A blockbuster free-agent signing. Two record-setting contract extensions within a week of the start of training camp.
The Rams answered many questions in the months and days leading up to Thursday’s opening workout at UC Irvine.
A team that finished 11-5 and won the NFC West under first-year coach Sean McVay is seemingly stronger than it was in January when the Atlanta Falcons dealt the Rams a wild-card playoff defeat.
The trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the signing of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and the extensions signed by receiver Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley positioned the Rams for short- and long-term success.
But the Rams, despite Super Bowl buzz, still have issues that must be addressed before the Sept. 10 opener against the Oakland Raiders on “Monday Night Football.”
Here are a few questions the Rams will try to answer during training camp:
Will Aaron Donald show up?
It’s becoming an annual rite of late July.
For the second year in a row, the star defensive tackle did not report for training camp and is officially a holdout.
Donald, a Pro Bowl pick in each of his four NFL seasons, is due to earn $6.9 million in the fifth year of his rookie contract. He is believed to be seeking a new deal that not only makes him the highest-paid defensive player but also one that puts him among the NFL’s most highly compensated players.
Donald demonstrated last season that he does not need training camp to dominate. He arrived on the eve of the season opener — avoiding the loss of a game check — and went on to win the NFL’s defensive-player-of-the-year award.
The Rams have said they are motivated to get a deal done. The reality is that they could control him with the franchise tag for as many as three years.
If Donald does not report at least 30 days before the season opener, he will lose the ability to accrue a year toward free agency.
Is Brandin Cooks a legitimate deep-ball threat for quarterback Jared Goff?
Cooks, acquired in a trade with the New England Patriots, signed an $80-million extension last week without having taken a regular-season snap for the Rams.
That, as much as anything, was an indication of how much confidence McVay has in the fifth-year pro’s potential to take the Rams’ offense to another level, be it with short, mid-range or longer routes, not to mention carrying the ball on reverses.
The search for that kind of player began last year when the Rams made a training-camp deal for receiver Sammy Watkins, who proved a reliable and productive red-zone target but did not pan out as a consistent deep threat. The Rams let Watkins become a free-agent, and he quickly established a new standard for receiver contracts.
Cooks benefited from Watkins’ departure and his deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Can the offensive line maintain continuity without Jamon Brown?
Brown, the starting right guard, is suspended for the first two games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
It’s not a good situation for the Rams, who saw the same five offensive linemen start all but one game in 2017, and not a great look for a 25-year-old player entering the final year of his contract.
Austin Blythe could start in place of Brown, but offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Aaron Kromer is expected to evaluate rookies Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom, and second-year pro Aaron Neary as well.
This could be the last ride for a line that includes two veterans on the far side of their careers and three players in the final years of their contracts. Andrew Whitworth is 36. Center John Sullivan will turn 33 in a few weeks. Left guard Rodger Saffold, 30, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, 26, are playing for extensions.
Is the linebacker corps a weak link?
The addition of Suh strengthened the defensive line, and Peters, Talib and cornerback Sam Shields upgraded the secondary.
Along the way, the Rams traded linebackers Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn and let Connor Barwin become a free agent.
Mark Barron returns as the most experienced linebacker for a group that will feature third-year pro Cory Littleton starting inside full-time for the first time. Second-year pro Samson Ebukam takes Quinn’s edge-rushing spot and Matt Longacre could start at the other outside spot if he is at full strength after back surgery.
Rookie Ogbonnia Okoronkwo begins training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list but is expected to be cleared at some point during camp, McVay said.
Has kicker Greg Zuerlein recovered from back surgery?
Zuerlein led the NFL in scoring last season despite sitting out the final two regular-season games and the playoff game.
He was a huge reason why the Rams led the league in scoring at 29.9 points per game.
Zuerlein made 38 of 40 field-goal attempts, including a seven-for-seven performance in a 35-30 victory at Dallas.
The Rams re-signed kicker Sam Ficken as an insurance policy in case Zuerlein falters.
During a June minicamp, despite the Rams limiting his activity, Zuerlein said he felt “great.” Special teams coordinator John Fassel said at the time that it would not take Zuerlein long during training camp to be ready.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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