Rams rely on youth in massive makeover
By Jim Thomas
Not many teams can lose their leading rusher and two of their top three wide receivers, and say with a straight face that they’re looking for improvement next season on offense.
But that’s where the Rams stand after losing running back Steven Jackson (to Atlanta) and wide receivers Danny Amendola (New England) and Brandon Gibson (Miami) in free agency.
With the “garage sale” phase of free agency about to start and the draft still to come, it’s safe to say the St. Louis offense will undergo a massive makeover for 2013. This was partly by design and partly because of outside circumstances.
At the NFC coaches’ breakfast Wednesday, Jeff Fisher said he knew it was possible that Jackson, Amendola and Gibson could all land elsewhere in free agency.
“We’ve known obviously since September about ‘Jack’s’ future,” Fisher said, referring to the change in Jackson’s contract made at that time, allowing him to void the final year of his contract. “It was a good situation for both sides.”
As for Amendola, Fisher said Wednesday the Rams got a strong hint from Amendola’s agents about where things might be headed in September as well.
“We made an attempt to (negotiate with) Danny in September and they decided to wait,” Fisher said. “They had made their mind up that they were gonna wait — just wait till free agency.
“Our issue with Danny was — we didn’t want to lose Danny; we were willing to pay Danny — but Danny had missed a lot of games. So our preference was as we were going through this, is he needed to be on the field to get paid, which makes sense. They understood that, and we understood that. You know, it just didn’t work out. But he’ll do well and we’ll have options.”
When it comes to those “options” at wide receiver and also at running back, Fisher was speaking specifically of the Rams’ draft class of 2012. Namely, wideouts Chris Givens and Brian Quick, and running backs Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead.
“We’ve always said that players make their biggest improvement from year one to year two,” Fisher said.
And it begins with the offseason conditioning program, which for the Rams starts April 15.
“Brian’s second year in the system, we expect him to (develop),” Fisher said. “The guy’s gonna make a lot of plays for us. And the same’s the case for Chris and Isaiah. Those three are gonna have to step up and play some major roles in our offense.”
Givens was the most productive of those 2012 rookies, leading the Rams with 698 receiving yards on 42 catches. Early in the season he caught passes of 50 yards-plus in five consecutive games, becoming the first rookie in league history to do so.
As the season progressed, Givens got more comfortable running short and intermediate routes, which made him more than a one-trick pony.
“He improved weekly,” Fisher said. “We were able to do more and more with him as he got more familiar. I think he knows that this is his opportunity.”
Austin Pettis obviously is being counted on at wide receiver. And potentially, the Rams could have one of the league’s better pass-catching tandems in tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks.
Opportunity also is knocking in the backfield, where it sounds like Pead has a chance to start in 2013 after barely getting off the bench last season.
“He just didn’t get a chance because of the other two,” Fisher said, referring to Jackson and Richardson. “But he’ll get his opportunity this year. ... He’s got a chance to make a lot of big plays for us.”
Pead missed almost all of the spring practice period because his college (Cincinnati) was on the quarter system, meaning its school year ended late. As a result, NFL rules didn’t make Pead available to the Rams until June other than the post-draft minicamp.
So the Rams have high hopes for Pead, which was illustrated when Fisher was asked if Pead would be used on punt and kickoff returns in 2013.
“Probably not,” Fisher said. “If at all, it would be in the kickoff (returns) as opposed to punts. But if things work out, you typically don’t use one of your top backs as a returner.”
Don’t forget Richardson. Fisher hasn’t, even though Richardson’s playing time plummeted over the second half of last season.
“We’ve got to get the ball to him in the passing game more so than we did (in 2012),” Fisher said. “We were spreading it around, but we weren’t necessarily going to the backs as much as we would’ve liked. It would be a great situation where that’s an extension of the run game, to get him out in space.”
Other than Pead and Richardson, the Rams have only two other running backs on their current roster in Terrance Ganaway and Chase Reynolds. The Rams almost certainly will add a couple of more backs to the roster before the start of training camp.
One of those backs could be a draft pick. Maybe even a high draft pick. (Eddie Lacy, that’s your cue.) But three weeks into March, Fisher isn’t certain how the running back depth chart will shake out “A.J.” — After Jackson, that is.
“We’ll fill the position,” Fisher said. “When and how I don’t know.”