It's early in a drill Wednesday at Rams Park. The second-year St. Louis Rams tight end jogs toward the middle of a practice field, churning and grinding and laboring with his 6-foot-3, 247-pound tank of a frame while trying to leave a positive impression on new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Quarterback Sam Bradford cocks back his $78 million right arm, looking calm and composed with a routine throw on the way. The ball floats in the cool evening air, then it approaches the Wisconsin product with no defenders close by, then it glides into Kendricks' palms for the simple catch … no, wait … hold on … can't be … yes, this is happening … it dribbles off his chest like a BB pellet shot against a steel door.
The dreaded drop.
The necessary evaluation.
"Oh, baby!" Schottenheimer says, crouched near Kendricks as the player runs past.
Oh, Slippery Hands Syndrome. It's a stigma that has followed Kendricks even before the Rams chose him 47th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. (Seriously, his NFL.com Combine profile reads, "Has inconsistent hands and drops too many catchable balls," aside the label, "WEAKNESSES.") It's a stigma that he fights one month before the Rams open the regular season against Suhperman and the Detroit Lions. It's a stigma that's one of the NFL's cruelest burdens – a struggle that's part personal, part public and one that involves a whole lot of soul-searching.
The dreaded drop.
The necessary self-study.
"I know there were moments where I would run a route, and I'm like, ‘Cool, I've got the ball,' and I would just drop the ball," Kendricks says. "You don't have it until you have it."
Will he have it this season? It's one of the Rams' questions as they try to heal from parading a weak pass offense last season. Former coordinator Josh McDaniels was the lost mind between the headset for a group that mustered an average of 179.4 yards per game through the air – good (bad) for 30th in the league in the category. Only the Denver Broncos (152.1) and Jacksonville Jaguars (136.2) were more of a mess from the pocket.
Kendricks struggled to keep it all together too. His rookie season was a letdown, in part because of the passes he let down. He had 28 catches for 352 yards with no touchdowns and a fumble. But imagine how much larger those numbers could be without…
The dreaded drop.
The necessary adjustment.
"For me, it's trying to play fast," Kendricks says of his largest growth area. "College, it was so easy, because I was in the same system for four years, and I got to grow in it and learn it. Here, everything's a lot faster, and it's a lot more complex. Just getting out there and playing fast is the main thing that sticks out to me."
There are signs that Kendricks is working to get himself up to speed. Third-year Rams tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has noticed change in his teammate this training camp: The Milwaukee, Wis., native has attacked his conditioning with more edge, he has managed the humidity better in long workouts, he has improved his hands and his focus, he has quizzed tight end Matthew Mulligan – who played under Schottenheimer during time with the New York Jets before the Rams signed him in March – about pass-protection techniques and how someone like Dustin Keller (a career-high 65 catches for 815 yards and five touchdowns last season) became a Latex-glove fit in the West Coast-like system St. Louis will employ this fall.
"From last year, (he has) really grown as far as being a professional, doing the little things – not just on the field but off the field," Hoomanawanui says of Kendricks.
"I think this offense is going to be great for him. You see what the Jets did with Dustin Keller."
Sure, the potential is there. But can it happen?
It's all part of a transition that hasn't escaped coaches during their training camp study. The bosses' eyes have seen a more seasoned Kendricks – both with his muscle near the line of scrimmage and as a lumbering pass option for Bradford. Make no mistake: There is plenty of room to improve, but there has been progress in placing a cough-it-up rookie campaign behind.
The dreaded drop.
The necessary climb toward recovery.
"I think he's improved," Rams coach Jeff Fisher says. "The coaches feel like he's improved, we feel like he's improved. Not only in the on-line blocking or in-line blocking with the matchups with the big guys but also the route running. The hands could become a little more consistent, but he is raw. I think he's having a good camp."
So how does Kendricks work to forget the moments that aren't good?
It starts with remembering sage words from tight ends coach Rob Boras. The advice is simple but has depth. The message, as Kendricks recalls it, goes like this: "Be patient. It's a long season. It's a long learning process, so don't try to beat yourself over the head if you make a drop or miss a play. Just pick up and learn from it and try not to make the same mistake twice."
There it is. The necessary help.
"Just making plays – whether that's catching the ball or blocking or opening it up for Steven (Jackson)," Kendricks says when asked about his goals for this year. "Just going out there and making plays. I want to feel that after the game, I really contributed to that win or I really improved my game."