Rookie Receivers Working Past Wall
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
For most of his tenure as the Rams receivers coach, Henry Ellard hasn’t had much to worry about in terms of developing young wideouts who were already being asked to contribute.
With the likes of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce in place and seemingly almost always healthy, Ellard was able to take the time to develop young receivers that weren’t necessarily at the top of the depth chart.
That has all changed in 2008 as rookies Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton and youngster Derek Stanley have been asked to fill prominent roles alongside Holt. That has presented Ellard a challenge different from his seven other seasons coaching the position.
“It really is different but I know what they are going through so that’s what I try to talk to them about,” Ellard said. “You tell them what it takes to play at a consistent level all the time. That won’t happen right away and you have to remind them of that. That just comes in time.”
The development of those young receivers has seen its share of highs and lows this season.
First, there was the injury setback for Avery in training camp that allowed Burton to emerge. There was the early flash of talent from Burton and Avery in the third preseason game against Baltimore.
Then it was Burton’s turn to get injured, clearing even more time for Avery. And Avery capitalized with Burton and Drew Bennett out, emerging as one of the game’s most exciting young deep threats.
But the honeymoon hasn’t lasted and the rookie Rams wideouts have had more growing pains than big plays in recent weeks as they have run into the construction of the dreaded rookie wall.
Missed hot routes, poorly run routes and continued health ailments have tested Ellard’s tolerance.
“They are teaching me patience,” Ellard said. “That’s what it’s doing. I try to pass that on to them because as young route runners all you want to do is get open. But they have got to understand that there’s much more to it than that. A quarterback has to go through his mechanics so if you are open but the quarterback isn’t ready to throw you the football, it doesn’t matter much. I tell these guys the more they do it, the better they’ll get. I can show them improvement on every play and they get excited about it. And I get excited for them.”
According to Avery, he hit his rookie wall in about week 10. That collision came on the heels of a breakout that had fantasy football players everywhere buzzing about Avery’s big play ability.
Avery had monster outings against Dallas and New England after a 43-yard diving catch set up a game winning field goal against Washington on Oct. 12. In the next two games, Avery racked up 11 catches for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Word of Avery’s ability to make big plays down the field quickly spread around the NFL and with it came the defensive schemes to slow him down.
“Different schemes, different defenses playing me different even when than when I first came here,” Avery said. “They really didn’t get a feel for me. Now they have a feel for me. Now they play man with a safety over the top.”
It hasn’t helped Avery’s cause that he’s been playing with a cracked hip bone since training camp. He waited a little while for it to heal but it is still cracked and Avery has played through the pain.
All of that combined with the sheer volume of the playbook and the fact that in college Avery would likely be on some down time has made it hard for him to push past his rookie wall.
“You have been through college for four years and the same time every year your body shuts down because that’s the end of the season then you get here and your body is telling you to shut down,” Avery said.
Since his 163-yard outing against New England, Avery has had only one productive game, a nine-catch, 93-yard outing against San Francisco on Nov. 16. In the other five games he’s played, he has combined for eight catches and 87 yards.
Rams coach Jim Haslett says no matter the position, it’s difficult for any rookie receiver to have a regular, consistent impact every week.
“I think young receivers, there’s not too many receivers that come in their rookie year and make a great impact,” Haslett said. “There’s very few. The first round picks, I can’t off the top of my head it’s hard to even think of any, besides Randy Moss. There’s not too many that make that immediate impact.”
It’s not much of a surprise that Avery has had more attention from defenses after his breakout October but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be ways for him to get open. Ellard says the next step in that process is becoming more than the lightning fast wide out who can run by anyone.
“The thing he has to learn is to become a route runner,” Ellard said. “Torry was a great route runner. Isaac was a great route runner. As he works at it, the better he’s gotten. I am looking forward to having a whole offseason to really work on his route running and not always just running by guys all the time. It’s great to do that but you have to be able to run routes well to get separation and that’s just going to come with time.”
Burton, on the other hand, has had a much different ride than Avery. In the early stages of training camp, Burton looked like an emerging star, catching everything in practices and showing he was capable of stepping in and helping right away.
But Burton didn’t get much in the way of opportunities in his first two games, working mostly on special teams in those contests. Against the Giants on Sept. 14, Burton suffered a knee injury that put him out for the next three games and the bye week.
Avery emerged in the meantime as Burton worked to get back. He finally recorded his first catch for a gain of 4 against the Cowboys and had his best output of the season against the Patriots with a pair of catches for 41 yards.
Burton says there hasn’t been much of a rookie wall for him because he’s had so many stop and gos during his rookie season.
“I don’t really feel like I hit a wall,” Burton said. “I am never really tired. I think with me personally, it’s more my knee if anything. I have been playing on it since I took three or four weeks off to let it heal after my surgery. That’s basically it but as far as being tired or hitting a rookie wall, I haven’t really.”
Perhaps there have been no physical issues for Burton but he and Avery are quick to give credit to the veterans, namely Holt, for keeping their heads up and reminding them how to continue to work.
“It’s about your teammates rallying you up and trying to get you back focused and get you back in the right state of mind,” Avery said. “Dane Looker was one of those guys and Torry Holt was one of those guys that told me OK you are going to hit that rookie wall but you have got to stay with it.
Haslett had a conversation with all of his rookies a few weeks ago about battling past any mental or physical fatigue and, using Avery as an example, believes they have moved beyond it.
“I think they’re kind of past it now,” Haslett said. “I think they’ve kind of passed it this week or last week they were coming out of it. But, yeah, I sensed that. I thought Donnie kind of ran into it. He started out with the hip and then missing camp and then all the sudden he’s jolted into starting and then he’s kind of been up and down. Then, he had a couple good games and then you could see he was tired, started to wear out, but you see him coming back again.”
And if regular methods don’t work, Avery has an idea on ways to get back to his dynamic self for the final trio of games in his rookie season.
“I need to get back under the radar for the last three games,” Avery said, laughing. “I think I need to change my number.”
Re: Rookie Receivers Working Past Wall
Planning on getting an Avery jersey. Hope he's part of the Rams on the long term and plays a significant role.
Re: Rookie Receivers Working Past Wall
Yea I love all three of those guys i think they have great potentual to be some of the best wideouts in the game.We just have to hold on to them so they dont end up like Curtis and Mc Donald.
Re: Rookie Receivers Working Past Wall
This shows that we need to keep Holt and Looker on the team. Bennett and Hall won't be here. These two veteran WR's can teach our youngsters (and probably our WR future) to play the correct way.
They had good games, I hope they emerge and become what we want them to be. And I believe one full offseason will drastically improve their play.
I hope Avery doesn't change his number. I'm digging the 17! Changing numbers won't make your play better. haha