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Battle for Rams' center job likely to last into training camp

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Depending on the day, the St. Louis Rams have a different starting center at every organized team activity.

One day it's Tim Barnes, another it's Barrett Jones and the next it's Demetrius Rhaney. It's a three-person competition that figures to continue deep into training camp and perhaps all the way through the preseason.

“We’re not going to make a decision real early," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "We’ll let them all play. We’re rotating them. They’re all getting opportunities to work with Nick (Foles), so he’s familiar not only with the exchanges but also the communication. We’ll make that decision when somebody shows us he’s earned the job.”

In other words, don't expect that decision to come any time soon.

When the Rams released veteran Scott Wells before the start of free agency in March, they parted ways with the only center on the roster with substantial starting experience. Wells had struggled in recent seasons, but he at least started all 16 games in 2014 and 19 more for the Rams in the previous two seasons.

Upon re-signing Barnes and choosing not to pursue outside options in free agency or the draft, the Rams committed to finding Wells' replacement in house. Each of the options brings something different to the table, but none really offers much playing experience. In fact, Barnes' four starts account for all of the starting experience among the three contenders for the job.

Because of those four games, Barnes got first dibs on working with the top offense at the team's first OTA. Jones came second and then Rhaney, and the Rams have continued to mix it up through the first two weeks.

For Barnes, the time is now to prove he belongs. He's been on the Rams' active roster since 2012, appearing in 45 games along the way, but most of that work has been limited to special teams. He filled in for an injured Wells in 2013, stepping in for those four starts and playing a career-high 257 offensive snaps in the process.

This offseason, the Rams declined to tender Barnes as a restricted free agent, allowing him to explore his options. He visited Kansas City, but ultimately the chance to compete for the starting job with the Rams brought him back.

"That was the main factor was, it was kind of like being a free agent out of college again as far as you want to find a place you are going to be able to compete for the job," Barnes said. "I have been a backup for a few years now, and I know I’m getting older and it’s time. It could be do or die, you never know. So this was a great opportunity, and that was our goal to find a place to give me an opportunity to start and play."

While Barnes' playing experience is limited, he's a seasoned veteran compared to Jones and Rhaney.

Jones came to the Rams in the 2013 NFL draft out of Alabama as one of the most decorated college linemen of all time. But a litany of injuries, including a 2014 back surgery, has kept Jones on the sideline. In two seasons he's played in 10 games, but only against Kansas City last year did he appear on offense -- and that was for just 22 snaps. That's the extent of his experience aside from special teams.

The Rams view Jones as one of their most intelligent players, and from that standpoint he might be the most prepared to take over the job. The key for him is proving his body is ready to hold up for the grind of a 16-game season. To that end, he took advantage of his first healthy offseason by adding muscle and showing up leaner for OTAs. He says this is as healthy as he's felt since he arrived in the NFL.

"I definitely wanted to be 100 percent," Jones said. "When I had back surgery last year, I wasn’t able to work out for a long time, so I wanted to put a lot more muscle on. I feel really good about where my body is, make-up-wise, and getting to work out a whole offseason healthy."

Rhaney represents the wild card in the mix. Although he's even more unproven than Barnes and Jones, the second-year center has his share of supporters in the organization. After a knee injury cost the 2014 seventh-round draft choice his rookie season, Rhaney said he's added about five pounds of muscle in the offseason.

It should help Rhaney's cause that the Rams offense has a few tweaks coming that seem to play into his skill set. Rhaney said he played in a zone-heavy scheme at Tennessee State and that new Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti is adding wrinkles to the scheme that fit his style of play.

"The stuff we are running now is similar to what I ran in college, so that’s probably why I’m so happy about it," Rhaney said. "Once I get the plays completely all the way down, I’ll feel real good. It’s exactly what I did in college. My quickness and stuff, that’s what made me stand out more."

With three candidates to sort through, it's safe to expect the Rams to take their time to figure out who gives them the best chance.

"We are all working hard and we have three good candidates," Jones said. "It’s pretty open. You have got to make the most of your opportunities, for sure, and obviously it’s one of the interesting things about the NFL. It’s two of your good buddies on the team and you are competing for spots and jobs, and it’s just what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go out there and work hard and compete."