Gordon: Much hinges for Rams on young players

2013-06-10T05:10:00Z 2013-06-12T14:29:06Z Gordon: Much hinges for Rams on young playersBY JEFF GORDON • jeffgordon@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

NFL prospects face a steep learning curve. Some develop traction quickly, as running back Daryl Richardson did last season for the Rams.

Others struggle to get a grip, such as wide receiver Brian Quick during his frustrating first season.

How well coaches teach this summer — and how well the players learn — will determine the team’s fate this season. The Rams will enter the season with an offense in training.

“In college I remember us only installing about three to four plays a day, whereas now we’re installing about 23 plays a day,” said wide receiver Stedman Bailey, a third-round draft pick from West Virginia. “It’s a whole lot more I have to think about, a lot more that I have to process in my mind.”

Rookie receiver Tavon Austin faces the same challenge. So does rookie running back Zac Stacy. Both could be key offensive components if they catch on as quickly as Richardson did.

“It’s an awful lot being thrown at us,” Bailey said. “We have older guys — Sam Bradford, Austin Pettis, Chris Givens — they are helping us out along the way.”

On the Rams, the skill position “older guys” aren’t so old. Bradford and Pettis are 25 and Givens is 23. The incumbent running backs are Richardson (23 years old), Isaiah Pead (23) and Terrance Ganaway (24).

Tight end Jared Cook, a key free-agent addition on offense, is just 26. Fellow tight end Lance Kendricks is 25.

Together, the young veterans and rookies are striving to master the offense. The process started during the rookie minicamp, and it has continued through offseason workouts at Rams Park.

After those workouts, the players will continue working informally until training camp begins and the challenges intensify.

“You have to be very precise in this game, the NFL,” Bailey said. “Every little thing counts, as far depth on a route, how high you have to set a defender up on a release.

“This level is whole lot different. There is a lot of verbiage in the plays when it’s been called. There is a lot more you need to process in your mind. In college I had a little more freedom to run routes. I had a lot of option routes. Here, everything has to be precise. All the little things matter. If you’re not doing all the little things right, it could be trouble for the offense.”

The Rams got mixed results from their rookie offensive class last season.

Richardson emerged immediately as the complement to the bulldozing Steven Jackson. He became lightning to Jackson’s thunder.

Conversely, Pead played catch-up all season before finally emerging in a cameo role.

Givens developed quickly as the deep threat the passing game desperately needed. He broke some catch-and-run plays for big gains and got better running the possession routes as well.

Meanwhile, Quick remained a raw prospect, offering size on the outside and not much else.

Now the Rams are moving forward without their established playmakers. Jackson and receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson signed elsewhere as free agents.

They added a lot of speed to their offense, but also plenty of inexperience. The still-developing Bradford is leading running backs, receivers and tight ends who haven’t reached their full potential.

They are early in the process, as coach Jeff Fisher noted after Thursday’s practice session.

“From a rookie standpoint, the light will come on, but then they’ll go home for a week and it comes back off,” Fisher said. “That’s what you need to see, just the consistency day-to-day, and we’re getting there.”

Pead could become the lead running back, but his one-game NFL suspension will set him back. It opens the door for Stacy and Richardson to do the heavy lifting for Game 1 and beyond.

Pettis accomplished little as a rookie. He got better during his second season, delivering a pair of five-reception games before catching touchdown passes in each of the final two games.

The Rams grabbed his attention by drafting two receivers; Pettis has impressed his coaches with his offseason commitment.

Kendricks also made big strides during his second season. He caught three touchdown passes during the last six games, including an 80-yarder that illustrated his big-play potential.

If Quick can learn to use his size to beat press coverage at the line and win battles for the ball down the field, he could erase all that “draft bust” chatter during his second year.

Givens is much farther along, evolving toward a multi-dimensional threat.

“I expect Chris to have a great year,” Bradford said. “He works extremely hard. I think one of the most impressive things about him these past couple weeks is we’re starting to move him around, too.

“Where last year he primarily played ‘Z’ for us, now he’s being asked to play inside. He’s being asked to go backside and play ‘X.’

“He’s a really, really smart football player. He understands the game. He understands our offense. I think by moving him to different spots in our offense, he’ll be able to run more routes. There’s only so many routes you can run from one position. But when you move him to two or three different spots, you can incorporate him in the whole offense.”

The Rams are eager to use Cook’s unique size/speed combination to attack defenses from different angles. They will move the explosive Austin around to the field while getting him the ball in space.

This all sounds exciting in theory, but the young Rams must work very hard to make it reality.

Jeff Gordon

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This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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