St. Louis Rams Training Camp: Rookie Progress Report
How are St. Louis Rams Rookies Performing So Far?
Though the St. Louis Rams added some valuable veterans this offseason by signing tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long, that experience is certainly outweighed by the amount of youth that the Rams have on their roster this year. Seven of the Rams' 22 projected starters from scrimmage, plus their kicker and punter, have a year or less of NFL experience, and the team only has four players over age 30 on their 90-man training camp roster.
The Rams aimed to score big time in this year's draft, opting to trade both of their first round picks to move up and take wide receiver Tavon Austin, although they ultimately got back into the first round to take linebacker Alec Ogeltree. With the remainder of their picks, they opted to select players who experienced very high levels of success during their college careers.
With such a talented rookie class, the Rams will expect to get big contributions from the group right away, as opposed to their more developmental group last year. Due to some behavioral problems and an inability to grasp the offense, second-round picks Isaiah Pead and Brian Quick were stuck at the bottom of the depth chart the whole year. The team is hoping that they don't have any players in that type of situation in 2013.
The Rams held their first full-squad workout last Thursday, and have held three more full practices since then. Many young players have opened eyes, and it will be interesting to see if those players translate their progress to the field when preseason games start next weekend. Here's a quick summary of how the rookies have been faring so far.
Tavon Austin, WR (Round 1)
So far, Austin has performed just as well as St. Louis Rams fans expected him to, which is pretty amazing considering that most of them expect Austin to come in and be better than the departed Danny Amendola right away. During team drills, the Rams have used Austin in a variety of different roles, lining him up in the slot, on the outside and at running back. He's been impressive at all three spots, particularly on the first day of the camp when he sped about 30 yards down field to make a fantastic touchdown catch. At this point, all indications are that Austin will be a major part of the Rams' offense in 2013.
Alec Ogletree, OLB (Round 1)
Ogletree has actually gotten more time early on in camp than many anticipated he would. He's been on the first-team defense for the duration of camp, but what is more surprising is that the Rams generally have kept Ogletree on the field while going to a nickel look and have taken Jo-Lonn Dunbar out. Ogletree's speed and athleticism probably makes him a better fit in a package so focused on pass coverage, but it is still surprising that he is getting the edge over the more experienced Dunbar so early on in his career. With no real competition at outside backer, Ogletree is basically assured of a starting spot, and if he can translate his practice performance so far to a game atmosphere, he should have a successful rookie season.
T.J. McDonald, S (Round 3)
McDonald has gotten positive reviews thus far and looks to have a good shot at starting on opening day. He's primarily been working with the first-team defense, playing alongside Darian Stewart. The safety made some big hits during the team's first padded practice, though that was expected when the Rams took him with their first third-round pick. The greater challenge will be to see how McDonald handles coverage of quick NFL receivers, which we may not have a great gauge on until he has to do it during the regular season.
Stedman Bailey, WR (Round 3)
Though he ranks fifth on the Rams' receiver depth chart at the moment, Bailey looks to have a great shot at contributing during the 2013 season. He has looked good during receiver drills, and he made arguably the best catch of the Rams' opening session, going over a defensive back to secure the ball for a long gain. Bailey is unlikely to supplant anyone ahead of him on the depth chart purely because of his inexperience, but he should get an adequate opportunity to prove himself this year as the Rams spread the ball around.
Barrett Jones, C/OG (Round 4)
After missing the Rams' rookie training sessions and the first three full-squad workouts of camp, Jones returned to the field for Monday's full-pads workout. He worked at center on Monday, though, he said that he is learning both guard positions as well in an effort to be versatile. As things stand right now, Jones probably won't be starting come opening day, but as we've often seen, the offensive line fluctuates more than any other position group, and Jones could get a chance to contribute at some point this year.
Brandon McGee, CB (Round 5)
McGee, whom the Rams selected out of Miami, is a virtual lock to make the team considering their inexperience at the cornerback position, but he likely won't be playing a big role initially, as he is behind established corners Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson on the depth chart. It's always good to have as much starting-quality depth in the secondary as you can, though, and McGee has flashed some potential early on, providing solid coverage while working with the Rams' second-team defense.
Zac Stacy, RB (Round 5)
It's unfair to judge a running back based on a few practices, as their greatest value lies in being able to fool defenders in a full-speed game environment, but Stacy has not looked especially elusive thus far. The rookie from Vanderbilt, who is competing with second-year players Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Terrance Ganaway for playing time, has not shown as much quickness as the more experienced players have early on. He still has a full month to prove himself, though, so there's no need to count Stacy out of the race yet.
The Rams' most exciting undrafted rookie to this point had been wide receiver Andrew Helmick, a 6-foot, 192-pound receiver, who was making so many big catches that he had people believing that he could be the next Danny Amendola. He has a big local connection, having attended Lindenwood University, a school just several miles away from Rams Park that recently moved up from NAIA to NCAA Division II. However, Helmick suffered a hamstring injury during Monday's practice which will keep him out for a few weeks, significantly decreasing his chances to make the team.
Running back Benjamin Cunningham, a Middle Tennessee State product who Jeff Fisher accidentally discovered while scouting defensive players, has opened some eyes over the opening days of training camp. Cunningham, 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, brings the element of power to his running game and has had some nice breakaway runs so far. He has a decent shot to crack the roster, especially with Isaiah Pead being suspended for week one.
Tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, a 6-foot-3, 258-pound Auburn product, sat out the first two full-squad workouts with an injury, but returned on Saturday evening and made a very good first impression, making some big catches during tight end drills. Lutzenkirchen hasn't been talked about much as a candidate to make the roster, but he seems to provide more of a receiving element than the Rams' other backup tight ends, and the team may elect to keep him if they want a player who has a skill set more similar to that of starter Jared Cook.
Lastly, cornerbacks Robert Steeples and Andre Martin, who are both St. Louis natives, have been impressive so far. Both of them have provided some exceptional coverage during the early days of camp, and because no one besides the Rams' top three corners have ever played meaningful downs from scrimmage in the NFL, each one of them has a shot. Steeples may have an edge because of his height. He is 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds, compared to Martin's 5-foot-10 and 195-pound frame. Regardless of if either player ends up making it, it's nice to see some St. Louis products getting a serious shot to compete for a job with the Rams.