Early returns promising for Rams' rookie Class of 2013
By Jim Thomas
The Rams’ leading rusher, leading tackler, No. 2 pass-catcher, and top special teams tackler in 2013 all were rookies. In order, that would be Zac Stacy, Alec Ogletree, Tavon Austin and undrafted rookie Ray Ray Armstrong.
And nearly half of the Rams’ touchdown total — 18 of 38 — came from rookie players.
Granted, it takes a minimum of three years to get a read on any rookie class. But the first returns on the Class of 2013 are promising. In fact, at this point the Class of ’13 looks like a more promising group than its immediate predecessor.
No matter how you slice it, the Rams have gotten a lot of mileage out of the first two draft classes of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
Including undrafted players, the Rams had 18 rookies on their roster for all or part of the 2012 season. Six of those rookies started at least one game, three started 10 or more games, and all told the rookie class combined for 43 starts.
The numbers are very similar for the smaller rookie group of 2013. A total of 13 rookies were on the roster for all or part of 2013. Five started at least one game, three started 10 or more contests, and all told the rookie class started 43 games.
The numbers for 2012 do not include undrafted punter Johnny Hekker and sixth-round place-kicker Greg Zuerlein, since they technically didn’t play offense or defense. But both have had big impacts at their positions — and both were much-improved in their second NFL seasons.
Although Zuerlein didn’t hit the kind of moonshots he did as a rookie, he missed only two of 28 field goals and tied for fourth in the league with 52 touchbacks in 2013. So he was clearly improved over his rookie season.
As for the rest of the 2012 draft class?
• First-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers and third-round cornerback Trumaine Johnson showed noticeable improvement in their second NFL seasons.
• Second-round wide receiver Brian Quick showed slight improvement.
• Second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins and fourth-round wide receiver Chris Givens were at best stuck in neutral compared to their rookie seasons.
• Seventh-round running back Daryl Richardson became a forgotten man because of early-season injuries and the emergence of Stacy.
• Second-round running back Isaiah Pead was a non-factor, with his contributions largely limited to special teams over the second half of the season.
• Fifth-round offensive guard Rokevious Watkins was cut at the start of training camp after continuing to battle weight issues.
• And long forgotten seventh-round linebacker Aaron Brown hasn’t been around since early September 2012.
As for the seven-member draft class of 2013, only fourth-round center-guard Barrett Jones and fifth-round cornerback Brandon McGee didnt’ see much playing time, although McGee did develop into one of the core special teams players.
Besides the contributions of Ogletree, Stacy and Austin, third-round wide receiver Stedman Bailey made the most of his chance for playing time over the second half of the season and was starting by the end of 2013.
Although he missed six games in the middle of the season because of a broken leg, third-round strong safety T.J. McDonald ended up starting 10 contests. Coming back for the final six games was invaluable for his early-career development.
“I’m harder on them than anybody because if you are going to be in the National Football League, there should never be a moment where you’re satisfied,” Snead said. “There’s 31 other teams that will eat you (alive).”
Snead did like the competitiveness of the 2013 class, its willingness to do whatever asked, and its unwillingness to pout when playing time was scarce.
As an example, Snead mentioned Bailey, who participated in just four plays on offense over the first eight games but became an effective special teams player during that time.
“I don’t think any of us ever said Stedman Bailey is going to be one of our best special teams players,” Snead said.
But that’s what happened.
“What you liked about him is it’s probably been a long time since he didn’t line up as a starting receiver in an offense going back to junior high,” Snead said. “He didn’t line up that way our first game. He handled it professionally and went out and became one of the best ‘teamers.’ “
Snead said the Rams could tell at Bailey’s private workout that there was some substance to him as a person, as well as a fire within to play the game.
“The same with a Zac Stacy, who didn’t play as much early and didn’t pout, didn’t go in the tank,” Snead said.
As for Austin, who missed the last three games with a high ankle sprain, Snead felt the Rams got the player they were expecting to get.
“He made some plays that I didn’t know you could make,” Snead said. “So yes. The answer is yes. I don’t know if he is going to have 98-yard punt returns on a consistent basis, but when you do that all of a sudden now people are kicking away from you and things like that.”
At wide receiver, Snead said, it’s all about learning the intricacies of route running for Austin — particularly in the slot. There was also an adjustment process in terms of facing opposing defenses, because each tried something different to slow him down.
“I saw that a little bit with Michael Vick early in his career because every time he’d line up to play a team they might do something different, slightly different from week to week,” said Snead, who was with Atlanta for 13 seasons before coming to St. Louis in 2012. “I think as the game slows down for (Austin), trust me, I’ll be glad to have that guy.”
Re: Early returns promising for Rams' rookie Class of 2013
I think its safe to say that the future looks promising for this team. The draft classes are actually producing dividends under Snead/Fisher as opposed to the previous ones where depth was a huge concern and veteran FA's were either not retained long enough or for far too long. This would result in the cap taking huge hits with nothing to show for it, not only production wise but also in regards to molding the young players and coaching them up. The team will continue to get younger while rookies and second year players earn valuable experience under their belt. All of this while playing in the toughest division in football bodes even more well for them, because as Bernie said in a video the other day, "forces you to be better". When a team is able to line up with you toe-to-toe, physically impose their will, take away what you love to do or your best option, and dominate the game in every aspect as well as the score, then you have no choice but to match, exceed, or counter their tactics to get back on top. Its either that or continue to get trounced to the chagrin of hostile fans everywhere you go lol.
What I would really like to see is players such as Brian Quick, Chris Givens, and Stedman Bailey take their game to another level. For the most part we know what we're getting with players such as Brockers, Ogletree, Laurinaitis, and Jenkins, who also has some improving to do as well as he did not have a great 2013 season. But all in all I think were doing fine because the draft, when its all said and done, is a crap shoot at best. You're not going to hit on every player that you draft but you expect to see either an instant contributor or steady growth from the early round picks in particular.