Under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, the Rams have invested four picks in the wide receiver position over the 2012 and 2013 drafts — one in each of the first four rounds.
And over the course of the last training camp at Rams Park, it was hard to keep your eyes off the group — spectators and media alike.
• Electrifying rookie Tavon Austin, whom the Rams traded up for in the first round of the 2013 draft.
• Tall, athletic Brian Quick, the first player taken in the second round of the 2012 draft.
• Sure-handed Stedman Bailey, a teammate of Austin’s at West Virginia and a third-round pick last April.
• Deep threat Chris Givens, a fourth-round pick in 2012 who was coming off a promising rookie year.
Throw in the “graybeard” of the group, sure-handed Austin Pettis, and you had what became known as the Rams’ big five.
But the Rams never turned into the wide-open, pass-happy team that was expected. Just four games into the season, the Rams scrapped a pass-first scheme that featured three-wide-receiver sets. It was replaced with a run-first offense featuring multiple tight ends.
Elsewhere, players the Rams considered in those past two drafts such as Alshon Jeffery and Keenan Allen gave secondaries fits. Meanwhile, the Rams failed to have a 1,000-yard receiver for the sixth consecutive season.
Who knew Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt would be so hard to replace?
Even though he missed the last three games with a high ankle sprain, rookie Austin led Rams wide receivers with 40 catches. To find the last time the Rams’ leading wide receiver had fewer catches in a season, one must go all the way back to 1986. That year, Henry Ellard led the entire club with just 34 catches.
Givens led the Rams with 569 receiving yards this season. Again, it’s Ellard in 1986 for the last time a Rams wideout led with fewer receiving yards (447).
There’s a pretty good explanation for what happened in 1986. Eric Dickerson rushed for 1,821 yards, or more than the entire Rams team total in 2013, and the Rams finished 10-6.
Twenty-eight years later, as the Rams begin shaping their roster for 2014, what’s the game plan at wide receiver? Do the Rams stay patient, keep working with the youngsters and look for better days from the group?
Or do they go the other way? Keep drafting or trying to upgrade the position through trades or free agency until they get it right?
For several reasons, it’s both difficult and short-sighted to make decisions based strictly on catches and yards. For starters, the offensive switch after the first San Francisco game led to reduced playing time, which led to fewer targets and fewer catches for the wideouts.
In the first four games, when the Rams were throwing the football all over the lot, they averaged 27 completions in 46 attempts a game.
Over the final 12 games, when they went heavily with the run, they averaged only 16 completions in 27 attempts a game.
That’s 11 fewer completions and 19 fewer attempts per game. Not only that, the switch in offensive philosophy gave the wide receivers less time on the field.
On any given play, the Rams have five offensive linemen, a quarterback, and one running back on the field. That’s seven players and leaves the wide receivers and tight ends competing for playing time within those last four spots on the field.
In the first four games, the wide receivers accounted for 66.5 percent of those snaps to 33.5 percent for the tight ends.
In the final 12 games, the wide receivers’ share of playing time dropped to 54.3 percent of that pie. The tight ends’ time increased to 45.7.
Obviously, the Rams used backup quarterback Kellen Clemens for the final nine games following Sam Bradford’s season-ending knee injury. Although Clemens’ accuracy improved as he went along, he still wasn’t as accurate as Bradford, and there was an adjustment period with a new thrower for several weeks.
Take those factors into consideration, and the success or failure of the Rams’ 2013 wide receiver group shouldn’t be based solely on catches and yards. By season’s end only four teams in the NFL had thrown fewer times than the Rams, and only seven teams had fewer completions.
“Obviously, the more you throw it, the more the numbers are gonna jump up,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said late in the season. “You look around the league, you’ve got the Broncos and teams that throw it all over the place. They’re gonna have a bunch of guys with 50, 60, 70 catches.
“But for us it doesn’t come down to how many catches a guy has. It comes down more for us to are we getting explosive plays? Are we hitting big plays? Are we converting third downs? And those are things that allow you to go score points. Ultimately the goal is however you do it, score points.”
But Schottenheimer says his offensive goal every game is to have the number of running attempts plus the number of completions total 50, which leaves a lot of wiggle room in terms of how much you’re throwing or running in any particular game.
And Fisher doesn’t think the fact that the team is throwing less makes it tough to evaluate the wide receivers.
“Everybody’s getting opportunities and getting targets,” Fisher said. “Opportunities to catch the football. Our evaluation process goes beyond just Sundays. It includes the week’s practice.”