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Early signs point to Pace returning to Pro Bowl form

Absent from the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1999, St. Louis Rams left offensive tackle Orlando Pace has extra motivation to make the trip back to Honolulu this season.

"My kids got spoiled," said Pace, whose streak of seven consecutive Pro Bowl appearances was snapped last season when he ruptured his left tricep muscle, forcing him to the sideline for eight games. "They missed it. And, believe me, they've let me know that they missed it."

If his performance during the Rams' minicamp this week is any indication, though, the 10-year veteran should be able to successfully quiet his four kids and silence the skeptics who wondered if he would be able to return, at age 31, from a difficult injury.

Pace was cleared to practice in the minicamp, his most ambitious effort of the offseason, and was not limited at all during the three days of practice. While he still has some rehabilitation work remaining, Pace is on schedule to be ready for the start of training camp next month.

"This week, we said, 'Go full speed and see how you feel.' I'm glad we did it. It was a [smart] thing to do because it's going to help his confidence going into training camp. We didn't hold back and he looked good," coach Scott Linehan said.

That is good news, indeed, for quarterback Marc Bulger and the rest of the St. Louis offense. While the Rams statistically ranked No. 6 in the league in 2006, they struggled at times to make up for Pace's absence.

With the perennial Pro Bowl blocker out of the lineup, the Rams used veteran Todd Steussie, who opened the season at left guard, and Adam Goldberg. Neither was as effective in protecting Bulger's blind side as Pace has historically been.

Bulger established career highs for attempts (588), completions (370), passing yards (4,301) and touchdown passes (24) last season, while throwing only eight interceptions. But he was also sacked a career-high 49 times, a ratio of one sack every 13 dropbacks. That is too high, both Bulger and Linehan acknowledged, and the return of Pace should address the problems with pocket leakage.

The first overall player chosen in the 1997 draft, Pace has been one of the premier left tackles of this era, typically included in a threesome that also includes Jonathan Ogden of Baltimore and Seattle's Walter Jones. All three could be viable candidates for Hall of Fame consideration someday.

For now, though, Pace is just trying to recapture his past form, not secure himself a spot in the Canton, Ohio, football shrine.

"It's getting there," said Pace, who has 139 career starts, but played in a career season-low eight last season. "It's a bad injury, especially at a position where you have to extend [your arms] so much, to lock out on pass-rushers. But the progress has been steady, we haven't pushed it, and the signs are all positive. I think I'll be ready to go."

Hopefully, to go all the way to Hawaii again.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.