ST. LOUIS — When Rams receiver Austin Pettis was called into the coach’s office and informed he had made first team on the depth chart, he did not jump with joy, scream with delight or give Jeff Fisher a mighty hug.
“I’ve been here the longest, know the system and had been working hard,” Pettis says.
As pleased as he was, he got it. He understood the promotion was based on longevity as much as performance. With the departure of last year’s leading receivers, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, there were two openings on first team. To fill one of them with the team’s most experienced receiver seemed rather obvious, even though Pettis’ experience is relative. He just turned 25 in May and is entering only his third season after being picked in the third round out of Boise State.
Still, that makes him the old guy among a crew that includes second-year pros Chris Givens and Brian Quick and rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Givens, the leading receiver among returning Rams, was penciled into the other starting spot in the lineup the team issued before training camp.
Austin, the eighth pick in the draft, figures to be on the field more than any receiver, but the Rams avoided listing him as a first-teamer by going with two tight ends in the starting lineup. The depth chart on espn.com also lists only two receivers but includes a fullback. On four other depth charts I found online or in a printed preview guide, though, Pettis didn’t make the first-string cut.
All these depth charts were compiled well before the Rams even opened camp. Not only do these projected lineups remain a work in progress, they don’t take into account the various formations the Rams will use.
They will employ as many as any team, too. Sam Bradford says he expects the Rams to rely more on one-back sets, opening a spot for a third receiver. There will be times when tight end Jared Cook lines up as a third receiver and times when Austin starts off in the backfield. The Rams might not even carry a fullback on their roster but still would drop a tight end such as Lance Kendricks into the backfield on occasion.
The big difference this year, of course, is an upgrade in talent at the skill positions. A perceived upgrade, anyway. It’s not often a team can lose its leading rusher, Steven Jackson, and top two receivers and consider itself significantly improved.
The Rams believe they are, though, to the point that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was asked Monday if there are enough footballs to go around to keep all the playmakers content.
“I think we’ll find enough,” said Schottenheimer, who prefers such a challenge to the one he faced last year when the Rams proved woefully short on play-making ability.
However the offense shakes out, expect Pettis to play a key role. His experience helps, as does his ability to handle different responsibilities. He isn’t quite as fast as the other receivers, but he might be the most reliable in the red zone. All four of his touchdown passes came inside the 10-yard line last season, including three in the second half of the season when Bradford turned around his performance in the red zone.
While Pettis would like to start as much as anyone, he’s more concerned about helping the receiving corps shake its reputation as team weak link. In fact, he spent his offseason directing the workouts in Southern California of two of his competitors for a starting spot, Quick and Givens.
The coaching staff has noticed — and applauded — Pettis’ eagerness to mentor the younger receivers. Their offseason work appears to be paying off, too, though that’s easy to say with the team still more than a week from its first exhibition.
“I know we haven’t been out here long, but we’re so far ahead of where we were at this time last season in terms of what we’re doing,” Pettis said. “This being the second year with the same offense, I don’t have to think about where to be like last year. It’s all about playing now.”
Though Schottenheimer said Monday that “everything here is based on running the football,” the Rams have too much speed to not open up their passing game.
“I hope so,” said Pettis, who knows that would mean more chances for him. Whether he’s starting on not.
* Per the new CBA, the Rams are not practicing Tuesday. Except for those who arrive for treatment, no players were expected to show up at Rams Park.
* Right on schedule, fourth-round pick Barrett Jones joined team workouts Monday in the first full practice with pads. Fisher said last Monday that Jones would be cleared for full work in a week or two, and the Alabama All-American made it in a week. Jones, expected to back up the offensive line, underwent surgery on his left foot after helping Alabama win the BCS championship game.
* Pettis, the nephew of Texas Rangers third base coach Gary Pettis, was a rookie with the Rams when the Cardinals faced the Rangers in the World Series. Who did you root for? “That was tough,” Pettis said. “I wanted my uncle to get a ring.”
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.