Kendricks' absence opens doors for Harkey, McNeill
By Jim Thomas
As the Rams continue to sort through and develop their options in the passing game, one significant piece of the puzzle is missing. After sitting out the spring practice period because of knee surgery, third-year tight end Lance Kendricks has missed the first week of training camp as well.
Although he’s getting closer to a return as he finishes his rehab, Kendricks is expected to miss the Rams’ first two preseason games. Under that timetable, that gives him three weeks to get ready for the regular season.
“Obviously, we would love to have Lance out here,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “You can’t replace training camp, just the amount of snaps and the amount of reps that we get during these couple weeks before the season starts. They’re really important.
“But I think the good news is that Lance has a year in this system. He understands what he’s going to be asked to do once he comes back. I expect him — after a couple days — he should be back up to speed and be fine.”
Kendricks arguably was the most improved player on the team last season, developing as a receiver and blocker. His 519 yards receiving were the most for a Rams tight end since the move to St. Louis in 1995, and his 42 catches were second-most during that span. Kendricks was a reliable target for Bradford, with 65.6 percent of the passes thrown his way caught.
Because of the surgery, Kendricks was placed on the active/physically unable to perform (PUP) list at the start of camp. That designation means Kendricks can be activated at any point.
“Lance has done a great job in the meetings,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “He’s just been really dialed in; second year in the system does help. Again, all he can do is watch and he’s out there making calls and paying attention.”
“I don’t think it’s a setback. I think what he’s going to have to do is once he gets healthy and ready to go, he’s just going to have to work a little bit extra hard. We have no concerns about him in that regard.”
In the meantime second-year man Cory Harkey, and to a lesser extent third-year pro Mike McNeill, have benefited from extra reps in practice.
“We’ve got great depth,” Schottenheimer said. “(Harkey’s) having a great camp. Mike McNeill is a guy, obviously, who is a match-up problem. So we’re splitting the reps around but we’ve got some other guys that are stepping up as well. Cameron Graham is making some plays. So that’s going to be a fun room to watch as the competition boils through the preseason.”
Harkey, undrafted out of UCLA a year ago, caught Jeff Fisher’s eye during 2012 training camp.
“Cory is a smart, instinctive football player,” Fisher said. “His on-the-line blocking — he was a very good blocker for a college tight end. He seemed to understand concepts.”
Harkey, 6-4, 259, spent the first nine weeks of last season on the practice squad before getting promoted to the active roster Nov. 17. He appeared in five games, mainly on special teams, but did get in a few plays at tight end.
Even that smidgen of playing time “helped a lot,” Harkey said. “And the tight ends that were playing, they were helping me throughout the course of the year. It made a huge difference being able to play last year.”
Harkey worked on getting stronger, getting faster, and being more explosive during the offseason.
When it comes to explosiveness, Harkey said, “it’s not just striking ability, it’s everything. Getting in and out of routes. Getting out of a 3-point stance when you’re going to block an end, a ‘backer. It’s in every aspect of the game.”
During OTAs, and now during camp, getting the extra work in practice has helped his progress.
“Obviously, we want Kendricks to get healthy again,” Harkey said. “He’s big in this offense, but it’s been good for me to be able to go against the ‘1s’ (starters) and be able to be in that tempo and just know the speed of the game.”
McNeill’s skills are more of a match with Jared Cook, meaning he’s more receiver than blocker at 6-4, 240. The Kirkwood High product appeared in 14 games last season, playing special teams and serving as the Rams’ third tight end behind Kendricks and the since departed Matthew Mulligan. McNeill finished with four catches for 31 yards.
“Mike’s got to be consistent on offense, and with the understanding of what he’s supposed to do and get to the right place at the right time,” Fisher said. “But Mike’s other deal is also special teams, and Mike’s really taken a step so far this camp in special teams. ... He’s got a chance to be one of our core guys.”
McNeill, who entered the league in 2011 as an undrafted free agent with Indianapolis, has had to fight for a roster spot every year. He figures this year will be no different.
“There’s eight guys at our position,” McNeill said. “Last year, we did end up at the end of the year with four tight ends. But we started the year with three. So half the guys are gonna be gone, so I’m definitely always battling for my spot and trying to prove my worth."