Reason for hope: Rams’ 2013 rookies got some good seasoning
The talk from the Rams’ second-year players during OTAs has been about now knowing what to expect in the NFL and being far more familiar with their playbooks. It’s a common pattern for NFL sophomores.
"We always feel like guys make their biggest jump from year one to year two, so we would expect that from all of them," Rams coach Jeff Fisher told FOXSportsMidwest.com on Thursday. "That would include Stedman (Bailey), Brandon McGee, Barrett Jones, the entire class. They have all made significant strides."
The 2013 rookies who started games last season were first-rounders Tavon Austin at wide receiver and Alec Ogletree at linebacker, third-rounders T.J. McDonald at safety and Bailey at wide receiver, and fifth-rounder Zac Stacy at running back.
McGee, a defensive back picked in the fifth round, played in 15 games. Fourth-round pick Barrett Jones, who arrived from Alabama with a suitcase full of accolades for his work on the Crimson Tide offensive line, played in three games after rehabbing from an injury.
But the key is they all gained NFL game experience.
"The good thing about last year, despite the success, is I got the experience along with that, so I know what to expect," Stacy said. "I know the playbook a little more. That’s really one of the main emphases I’ve been working on, just trying to know the playbook like the back of my hand, which will allow me to play faster, play smarter, just be ahead of the curve."
Stacy, whom the Rams traded up to select, turned out to be one of the steals of the 2013 draft. After getting a late start to his season because of an injury, Stacy emerged as a starter for the final 12 games and rushed for a team-high 973 yards and led the Rams with eight total touchdowns.
"I still have a lot of improving to do," he said. "That’s what I’m most excited about, the improvement I can make to be a better running back, to be a more complete back — running, protecting and catching balls out of the backfield. So that’s really just my main focus right now."
Though Stacy came on partway into the season, the Rams’ most consistent rookie was Ogletree, who started all 16 games and was named the team’s rookie of the year. He led the team in tackles with 119 and showed a knack for the big play with his six forced fumbles and his 98-yard interception return for a touchdown in Houston.
"I think Tree is going to get better," Fisher said, "despite the fact that he had a really good rookie year."
Austin, the team’s first first-round pick at No. 8 overall, showed the explosiveness St. Louis was looking for when it selected him. He finished with six total touchdowns — four receiving, one rushing, one punt return — and was second on the team in receptions and third in receiving yards.
The wide receiver said the difference between then and now, during OTAs, is that he has had time to grow mentally.
"It’s not really about physically," Austin said. "I had time to grow mentally. I understand the playbook more, I understand everything. Last year I was just out there just playing. This year I understand more. That’s what I’m working on now."
McDonald missed six games because of injury but finished with 53 tackles, one interception and one sack in 10 games. Bailey, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the 2014 season after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, had 15 catches over the team’s final five games.
McGee was credited with nine tackles as a rookie, but with the offseason release of Cortland Finnegan he could play a more important role in 2014.
"Brandon McGee is coming on in his second year already," Fisher said.
Jones is a wild card of the group because he was hurt most of the season, but he figures to have opportunities going forward as a backup center or guard.
As a group, the Rams’ seven draft picks from 2013 have already proven they can contribute at this level, if not excel. That will be significant as St. Louis tries to take the next step as a rebuilding franchise.
"I think what’s important is they played last year," Fisher said. "It’s not like they were first-year players last year that didn’t get experience. They got playing experience and that’s why, despite the fact that we’re young, our young team has played a lot of games in the NFL already."