NFC West: Tavon Austin

Rams Camp Report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
9:45
PM ET
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp:
  • The pads didn't pop as often or as loud Tuesday evening but the Rams continue to ratchet up the physicality as they prepare for the season opener. Once again, the run game took precedence and got plenty of work. Coach Jeff Fisher indicated after practice that he wants each of his running backs to get about six carries in the preseason opener and deployed them in a similar fashion Tuesday night. Even rookie Tre Mason got some reps with the first-team offense and had a couple of impressive runs, including one where he burst through the hole, bounced off a would be tackler, and darted left into the end zone for a would-be touchdown. It was one of his better practices. Running back Zac Stacy departed practice early. The injury didn't appear serious, but we'll see more when Friday night arrives. Receiver Austin Franklin also limped off during the workout.
  • Receiver Brian Quick returned to the practice field after sitting the past couple of practices. He made his presence felt early with a nice diving catch along the sideline from quarterback Sam Bradford. The rest of the injury list remains the same as Monday with key players such as linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and guard Rodger Saffold among those sitting it out.
  • Speaking of sitting it out, Fisher said after practice that Bradford, left tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells will be held out of Friday's game. He used the term highly unlikely when describing Bradford but that lines up with what he's intimated since the beginning of camp, so it's probably safe to assume Bradford won't play. For what it's worth, word out of Saints camp is that quarterback Drew Brees also won't participate.
  • Elsewhere on the practice field, receiver Kenny Britt landed awkwardly in individual drills but didn't miss much and came back to haul in another deep ball from Bradford for a big gain later in practice. ... Defensive lineman Alex Carrington provided a scary moment when he pulled up just as he got close to Bradford in a team drill. The two made contact, but no damage was done. ... It was one of receiver Tavon Austin's best practices as he came up with some big plays, highlighted by an over-the-shoulder gem on a perfect throw from Bradford in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. He later beat cornerback E.J. Gaines and safety T.J. McDonald on a deep ball down the right sideline. ... It's been two practices in a row in which receiver T.J. Moe came up with a big play or two. He'll need a big preseason performance to stake a claim to a spot, but he's picking a good time to make some noise.
  • The Rams are back at it with a special teams practice set for Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. ET at Rams Park. That practice is closed to the public.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Where names like Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt once dotted the landscape of the NFC West, the role of the wide receiver in the rough-and-tumble division has changed dramatically.

The smash-mouth offensive approach of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers has set a physical tone that has left the St. Louis Rams looking to duplicate the recipe.

As other teams around the league go in search of gun-slinging quarterbacks and big-play wide receivers, teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams are loading up on physical offensive linemen and powerful running back committees.

[+] EnlargeJared Cook
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJared Cook led the team with 671 receiving yards last season.
The Rams did their part in May's draft when they used the No. 2 overall pick on massive offensive lineman Greg Robinson and a third-round choice on talented back Tre Mason.

"When you lay your foundation for your skyscraper, it's probably the least exciting thing that you do but that's the thing that holds that skyscraper up for a lot of years," general manager Les Snead said. "It was definitely a strategy that we're going to get our foundation stronger and I think that's going to help us."

It's an approach that's understandable considering the neighborhood the Rams occupy. If you can't win the line of scrimmage or at least manage a stalemate against the likes of Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco, chances are you're going to get left behind.

But just because the days of the Greatest Show on Turf are long gone doesn't mean that a successful passing game isn't part of the blueprint.

On the surface, it's easy to look at a team like Seattle and say it won a Super Bowl by running the ball and playing good defense. In reality, that assertion is too simplistic and a disservice to what the Seahawks' passing game did in 2013.

While receiver production is easily quantified in catches, yards and touchdowns, teams like the Seahawks and Niners aren't as worried about the quantity so much as the quality of those relatively infrequent pass attempts.

For the Rams to keep pace with the NFC West front-runners, that's something they'll have to improve in 2014.

"It's very important," Rams receiver Tavon Austin said. "Like they say, football is a game of inches so when it does come your way, you have definitely got to be ready to make a play to help your team win."

Which brings up the question of what, exactly, the Rams need from their receivers to win in 2014?

Beyond the emphasis the group is putting on run blocking, there must be improvement made when it comes to taking advantage of any chances the passing game yields.

Last year, the Rams finished 29th in dropbacks but 24th in yards per attempt (6.64), yards per completion (10.38) and yards per dropback (5.79). For what it's worth, Sam Bradford ranked 36th in the league in yards per attempt among qualifying quarterbacks with Kellen Clemens checking in at No. 25.

Those numbers are due in large part to an apparent aversion to throwing deep. The Rams were 28th in the league in yards per air attempt -- which measures how far the ball travels on the pass without factoring run after catch -- at 7.56. Adding to that the fact the Rams struggled with hanging on to the ball, finishing second to last in the league with a drop rate of 5.9 percent.

"You have got to be balanced and in order to be balanced, you've got to make big plays in the run and pass game," receiver Chris Givens said. "We have to take advantage of every opportunity. We feel like last year we left too many things on the field."

That's something that didn't happen often in Seattle and San Francisco.

The Seahawks and 49ers ranked second and third, respectively, in rushing attempts in 2013. The commitment to the ground game was evident but also buoyed by the fact that both were capable of making big plays in the pass game when needed.

Seattle ranked 31st in the league in dropbacks but second in yards per attempt (8.35), third in yards per completion (12.12) and fifth in yards per dropback (7.15). San Francisco was last in the league in dropbacks but seventh in yards per attempt (7.70), second in yards per completion (12.21) and ninth in yards per dropback (6.73).

Beyond that, when the Seahawks and Niners did look to pass, they rarely looked to dink and dunk. Seattle ranked seventh and San Francisco third in air yards per attempt in 2013.

Among the receivers on all three teams only San Francisco's Anquan Boldin broke 1,000 receiving yards with 1,179. But Seattle and San Francisco each had at least two receivers with 778 or more yards.

With a young, mostly unproven receiver corps, the Rams are expected to be a run-focused offense with play action passes spinning off any success on the ground. Of course, half the onus also falls on Bradford but they don't necessarily need any of their wideouts to bust loose for a 1,200-yard season or even a 1,000-yard season.

That's probably a good thing since nobody on the team has ever exceeded new addition Kenny Britt's 775 yards in 2010. Tight end Jared Cook led last year's team with 671 receiving yards and Givens was first among receivers with 569.

The Rams are betting on improvement from that group in 2014 but if the passing game can complement the rushing attack and defense like it does in Seattle and San Francisco, it might not be as big of a gamble as it might seem.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For most of his football-playing life, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin had little use for the intricacies of playing a position.

Blessed with unteachable speed, quickness and agility, the game came easy to Austin. The hard part was getting him the ball, what he did from there was only a matter of how fast his legs could take him to his destination.

But as with most athletes, eventually simply being better than everyone on the field isn't enough. For some, everyone else catches up in high school, for others it's college, and for those really blessed with God-given ability it doesn't happen until the pros.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceTavon Austin says things are coming easier to him after a bumpy rookie season.
Almost from the first day he arrived in St. Louis, Austin realized he fell into the final category. He was inundated with a lengthy and complicated playbook. He was asked to perfect a theretofore unknown NFL route tree. Identifying NFL coverages? Forget it.

Austin might as well have been a character direct from a Robert A. Heinlein novel. He felt like the stranger in a strange land.

"I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish," Austin said. "At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I was out there just playing. I really didn’t know what was going on. You try to do anything to make a play."

Much was made of the Rams' -- namely, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's -- inability to put Austin in position to succeed. Though there was some truth to that as the Rams stubbornly stuck to lining Austin up in the slot and throwing him quick bubble screens that went nowhere, Austin also shared in the blame for his slow start.

As Austin worked on his route running and understanding of the playbook, he struggled to find separation working out of the slot and on the occasions he did, he had trouble making the catch.

After making six catches for a pedestrian 41 yards in his debut against Arizona, Austin had three drops the following week against Atlanta and another in Week 3 against Dallas. Two weeks later against Jacksonville, he tacked on two more for a total of six in four games. He hit his low point in Week 9 against Tennessee, failing to record a catch on only two targets while playing 29 snaps.

Making matters worse, Austin was making big plays on special teams that were routinely called back because of penalties and, for the first time in his career, he suffered a late-season injury that cost him the final three games. It was all part of Austin's new NFL reality.

"That was definitely a big adjustment," Austin said. "The first time I’ve missed three games ever. I’m just going to prepare mentally and physically so it doesn’t happen again. It’s just something I had to go through."

To be clear, Austin's first season wasn't a total bust. In fact, his overall production was OK for a rookie at one of the toughest positions to learn upon entering the NFL. He set NFL records in a tour de force performance against Indianapolis in Week 10 when he had two catches for 138 yards, both of which went for touchdowns, and a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.

From there, Austin appeared more comfortable and the Rams found better ways to deploy him, moving him out of the slot and putting him outside the hashes where he could use his speed to run go routes or make catches on deeper crossing routes with the opportunity to make defenders miss in the open field. He finished the season with 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, nine carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, and 678 return yards while playing in 13 games.

During the team's recent organized team activities, Austin has returned fully healed from the ankle injury and much more advanced in his understanding of the position than when he first arrived.

"I understand coverages better, I understand the plays, the depth of my routes, the splits and everything, so I’m way better off right now," Austin said. "I’m just glad to come out here and make some plays to keep on going."

Austin has been doing a little bit of everything during OTAs, and though it's unwise to judge any players based off practices with no pads and no contact, he has showed flashes of improvement. During a seven-on-seven drill in Thursday's practice, Austin lined up on the hash and ran a well-executed post route down the seam and elevated to make a contested catch between two defenders for a 17-yard touchdown.

Adding more variety and versatility to his route running should only make Austin better in Year 2. And for the Rams, that would be a welcome sight. The team is betting on its current crop of young receivers to take a step forward in 2014. None more so than the former No. 8 overall pick.

"The game is slowing down right now for me, and hopefully it will just keep on slowing down some more," Austin said. "I feel like it will if I keep in my book and (keep) listening to (receivers) coach (Ray) Sherman and I think I’ll be fine."
The past week saw the St. Louis Rams finally dip their toes into the free-agent pool, signing a pair of veterans in defensive tackle Alex Carrington and quarterback Shaun Hill and taking a flyer on under-the-radar youngsters in cornerback Greg Reid and linebacker Etienne Sabino.

It was also a busy week for coach Jeff Fisher, who spent most of the time discussing potential rule changes and alterations at the owners meetings in Orlando. Fisher also spent some time chatting with reporters in Orlando, offering some thoughts on a variety of issues.

A look back at the week that was:

  • [+] EnlargeTavon Austin
    Tony Avelar/AP PhotoThe Rams are hoping to get more out of receiver Tavon Austin in his second season.
    After trading up to the eighth pick in the NFL draft last year, the Rams selected receiver/returner Tavon Austin in hopes that he'd provide a spark to an offense in desperate need of one. In his rookie year, Austin certainly flashed that game-changing ability, especially against Indianapolis and Chicago, but missed time at the end of the year with an ankle injury and fell short of the many lofty outside expectations for him.
But the Rams have no concerns about that. In Orlando, Fisher expressed confidence Austin would take the next step in 2014 and the team would have a better idea of ways to best use him.

“We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all," Fisher said. "One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back -- one against Dallas --and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two.’’

  • Signing Carrington was no surprise in that the Rams were looking for help on the defensive line. It was a little more of a surprise that he was the team's first free-agent addition from another team. St. Louis saw great value in Carrington, who has the ability to play all over the line and signed a relatively cheap one-year deal.
“We just wanted rotational depth at the tackle spot," Fisher said. "We’ve had over 100 sacks the last two years, so we can rush the passer, I think we can continue (that). We just wanted some more experience at that spot. It will take a little of the draft pressure off us at some point. Alex has been injured, healthy now and has played a lot of different positions in a number of schemes in the last couple years and hasn’t been able to settle down. We liked him coming out, we thought he would be a disruptive type pass rusher and run defender and we’d like to give him a chance to do that.’’

Carrington is coming off a torn quad but the Rams have no concerns about his health moving forward.

  • It's no secret the Rams have interest in help on the offensive line as many have linked them to the top three tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan. The first two are expected to go in the top six or so but Lewan's status is a little more of a question mark given some off-field issues.
Fisher didn't want to speculate on how that might change the way the team views Lewan but said it will require a deeper look.

“It doesn’t cause you pause in evaluating, but it certainly going to cause to do more background and research on it,’’ Fisher said.

  • Finally, anytime a player like receiver DeSean Jackson comes available, the obvious question is whether the Rams would have interest in him. Clearly, the Rams could use a No. 1 type of receiver and a proven one like Jackson might make even more sense than taking a chance on even the most talented receiver in the draft.
Jackson is scheduled to visit Washington first and Oakland and Buffalo have also expressed interest. Indications from the Rams are that they won't be involved in this particular conversation in any sort of serious way. While the Rams could use the help, they don't have a lot of salary cap space to use on a player who would probably require another big cap number. Theoretically they could give him a smaller number in the first year but that would require them to backload the deal more than they'd like and eat up valuable space that could be used on extensions for current players in the next few years.

There's also the idea that Jackson would be a bit redundant with Austin, which is to say they are both smaller receivers with games built on speed and change of direction. Not that both players couldn't succeed but it still may not be the best fit.

Beyond all of that, there's the larger X-factor of why, exactly, Philadelphia released such a productive player under contract in the prime of his career. One way or another, the Eagles had their reasons and, like Fisher mentioned with Lewan, there will need to be some major legwork done by any team looking to add Jackson.
The past week saw the St. Louis Rams finally dip their toes into the free-agent pool, signing a pair of veterans in defensive tackle Alex Carrington and quarterback Shaun Hill and taking a flyer on under-the-radar youngsters in cornerback Greg Reid and linebacker Etienne Sabino.

It was also a busy week for coach Jeff Fisher, who spent most of the time discussing potential rule changes and alterations at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. Fisher also spent some time chatting with reporters, offering some thoughts on a variety of issues.

A look back at the week that was:

  • [+] EnlargeTavon Austin
    Tony Avelar/AP PhotoThe Rams are hoping to get more out of receiver Tavon Austin in his second season.
    After trading up to the eighth pick in the NFL draft last year, the Rams selected receiver/returner Tavon Austin in hopes that he'd provide a spark to an offense in desperate need of one. In his rookie year, Austin certainly flashed that game-changing ability, especially against Indianapolis and Chicago, but missed time at the end of the year with an ankle injury and fell short of the many lofty outside expectations for him.
But the Rams have no concerns about that. In Orlando, Fisher expressed confidence Austin would take the next step in 2014 and the team would have a better idea of ways to best use him.

“We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all," Fisher said. "One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back -- one against Dallas --and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two."

  • Signing Carrington was no surprise in that the Rams were looking for help on the defensive line. It was a little more of a surprise that he was the team's first free-agent addition from another team. St. Louis saw great value in Carrington, who has the ability to play all over the line and signed a relatively cheap one-year deal.
“We just wanted rotational depth at the tackle spot," Fisher said. "We’ve had over 100 sacks the last two years, so we can rush the passer, I think we can continue [that]. We just wanted some more experience at that spot. It will take a little of the draft pressure off us at some point. Alex has been injured, healthy now and has played a lot of different positions in a number of schemes in the last couple years and hasn’t been able to settle down. We liked him coming out, we thought he would be a disruptive type pass rusher and run defender and we’d like to give him a chance to do that."

Carrington is coming off a torn quad but the Rams have no concerns about his health moving forward.

  • It's no secret the Rams have interest in help on the offensive line as many have linked them to the top three tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan. The first two are expected to go in the top six or so but Lewan's status is a little more of a question mark given some off-field issues.
Fisher didn't want to speculate on how that might change the way the team views Lewan but said it will require a deeper look.

“It doesn’t cause you pause in evaluating, but it certainly going to cause to do more background and research on it," Fisher said.

  • Finally, anytime a player like receiver DeSean Jackson comes available, the obvious question is whether the Rams would have interest in him. Clearly, the Rams could use a No. 1 type of receiver and a proven one like Jackson might make even more sense than taking a chance on even the most talented receiver in the draft.
Jackson is scheduled to visit Washington first and Oakland and Buffalo have also expressed interest. Indications from the Rams are that they won't be involved in this particular conversation in any sort of serious way. While the Rams could use the help, they don't have a lot of salary cap space to use on a player who would probably require another big cap number. Theoretically they could give him a smaller number in the first year but that would require them to backload the deal more than they'd like and eat up valuable space that could be used on extensions for current players in the next few years.

There's also the idea that Jackson would be a bit redundant with Austin, which is to say they are both smaller receivers with games built on speed and change of direction. Not that both players couldn't succeed but it still may not be the best fit.

Beyond all of that, there's the larger X factor of why, exactly, Philadelphia released such a productive player under contract in the prime of his career. One way or another, the Eagles had their reasons and, like Fisher mentioned with Lewan, there will need to be some major legwork done by any team looking to add Jackson.
ST. LOUIS -- Nine games into his rookie season, St. Louis Rams receiver/returner Tavon Austin hadn't yet provided the electric play making ability many expected when the team moved up to choose him No. 8 overall in last year's draft.

Austin
Plagued by early drops and route-running adjustments as well as the team's inability to get him the ball in space, Austin's first nine games were only memorable for how unmemorable they were. Along the way, penalties had often nullified the few big plays he had made such as a long touchdown catch against Carolina and a punt return against Dallas.

Finally, the floodgates opened in Week 10 against Indianapolis as the Rams stunned the Colts in Austin's coming out party. With 10 minutes, 48 seconds to go in the first half, Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee boomed one 58 yards that looked poised to either go into the end zone for a touchback or fall out of bounds at the Rams' 2.

Austin waved off his teammates, yelling 'Poison,' the code word for stay away as the ball skipped toward the goal line and up the sideline. At the last moment, Austin made the snap decision to grab the ball and attempt a return. Before the Colts could react, Austin was speeding down the sideline with the ball and a cadre of blockers in front.

By the time the play was through, Austin had motored 98 yards for a touchdown and the first big play of his young career. It gave the Rams a commanding 21-0 lead on their way to a convincing 38-8 victory and was the first of a trio of big plays on the day for Austin.

While Austin might have fallen short of the inflated outside expectations that existed for him, the punt return and the ensuing long touchdown catches proved Austin is more than capable of being the type of game changer the Rams thought they were getting when they spent such hefty draft capital on him in April.

Rams still in need of top receiver

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
3:45
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ST. LOUIS -- Less than 24 hours after the St. Louis Rams' 2013 season had come to an end with a blowout loss to Seattle, coach Jeff Fisher was asked how his team can catch up to the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC West.

The Seahawks’ dominant defense, much like Arizona’s and San Francisco’s before it, had stifled the Rams' offense. After spending another afternoon stuck in the mud with just 158 yards of total offense, Fisher pointed to the obvious solution.

“All three teams play really good defense, and we’ve got to play better offense and score more points to compete with them,” Fisher said.

[+] EnlargeVontae Davis and Tavon Austin
AP Photo/AJ MastThe Rams used a first-round pick on receiver Tavon Austin last year, but that doesn't mean they will shy away from receivers early in the upcoming draft.
As the Rams prepare for free agency and the NFL draft, those words should loom large in determining the direction they take. It should also yield an added emphasis on finding more playmakers at wide receiver.

St. Louis finished 30th in the league in total yards and 22nd in offensive points scored in 2013. In some sense those numbers were skewed by the absence of starting quarterback Sam Bradford, and some strange scenarios, such as the Houston game where the Rams jumped to such a big lead and got so many big plays from the defense and special teams that the offense wasn’t needed.

The Rams played nine games against the top seven defenses in the league in terms of total yards allowed. Clearly, that’s a big reason for the Rams’ lack of production. It’s also a big reason the Rams need to get better offensively, considering three of those defenses are in the NFC West and not going anywhere anytime soon.

After the offense’s aborted attempt to go to a more wide-open attack in the first four games, Fisher and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer returned to their run-heavy roots in Game 5 with rookie back Zac Stacy in the lead role.

That attack gave the Rams a chance week to week, but it was exposed by defenses capable of stopping the run. Never was that more evident than in the season finale against Seattle when the Seahawks shut down Stacy and forced Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens to try to beat them through the air.

Clemens, who had most of his success when the run game was working, simply wasn’t able to take advantage. Not all the blame for that should go on Clemens. Those struggles exposed a bigger issue that has remained a problem for the Rams since the heyday of Torry Holt: the lack of a top receiver capable of regularly creating separation against top cornerbacks on the outside.

Chris Givens led Rams receivers in yards with 569. For greater context, the Rams haven’t had a wideout reach even 700 receiving yards since Holt in 2008, nevermind 1,000 yards, which Holt hit in 2007. A total of 57 receivers -- not including tight ends and running backs -- finished with more yards than Givens in 2013.

Asked last week how he views a receiving corps with so little production, Rams general manager Les Snead said he still has faith in the team’s young group.

“Statistically, you’ve heard me say teams win, individuals don’t,” Snead said. “We’re in this fantasy football type age, and I think if you look at seven of the top 10 pass-catchers, seven of the top 10 didn’t make the playoffs. So there’s three of them who are in. So yes, those guys are really good individual players, had great seasons, it didn’t mean their teams made the playoffs.”

Actually, four of the top 10 receivers in terms of yards made the postseason, but it’s also worth noting that nine of the 12 teams making the playoffs had a 1,000-yard receiver. The three that didn’t -- Seattle, Carolina and Kansas City -- each had at least two pass-catchers more productive than the Rams’ leader regardless of position, tight end Jared Cook.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the Rams played the 2013 season with the youngest group of skill position players in the league, especially at receiver. Austin Pettis, in his third season, was the team’s most experienced wideout.

With that youth came plenty of growing pains, including a variety of dropped balls, route-running troubles and miscommunications. Bradford’s absence also has to be accounted for in looking at the numbers.

Still, the lack of production at wideout doesn’t seem to faze Snead, as evidenced by his response to the question on whether he believes the team still needs a No. 1 receiver.

“I go back to this and the answer is really 'no' on that,” Snead said. “I think our receivers right now, I truly believe as they progress and the oldest guy just finished his third year, we cannot have another receiver around here and we’re going to be a good football team.”

Rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey showed flashes of promise in their first season, and should figure prominently into the plans for 2014. The Rams seem prepared to remain patient with Brian Quick, and Givens certainly fills a role as a deep threat.

While Snead likes the progress of the receivers, it also doesn’t mean the team is necessarily averse to adding at the position. As is common at this time of year, Snead, Fisher and Co. are playing their cards close to the vest.

In the past two drafts, the Rams have used four picks on wideouts, including the No. 8 overall choice on Austin a year ago. But that doesn’t mean they should stand pat at the position.

Even if it means using a premium draft pick to add one, for the Rams to have a chance to overcome the elite defenses in the division they must find a way to add a consistent difference-maker at wide receiver.

All-NFC West: St. Louis Rams

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

 ST. LOUIS -- As though the St. Louis Rams' last-place finish in the hypercompetitive NFC West division wasn't enough of a reminder of how far they have to go to become legitimate contenders again, one need only look at how they fared in our voting for an all-division team.

While Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona each had at least seven representatives on a team consisting of 26 players, the Rams finished with just three players to qualify. In all honesty, it's hard to argue with the result, save for one notable exception I'll get to in a moment.

The three Rams to make the list are defensive end Robert Quinn, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and returner Tavon Austin. Before we get into the reasons, let's lay out the rules of the voting here. We voted for actual teams with an additional defender allowed because of the different defensive schemes used by the teams in the division. We also stuck to positions so we couldn't just vote for the four best linebackers regardless of inside or outside. We had to have two outside 'backers and two inside 'backers.

With that out of the way, it's hard to argue against any of the three Rams who made the cut.

Quinn was the obvious choice, an absolute no-brainer who is not only the best at his position in the division but in the NFL as a whole. He has built a compelling case to be the league's defensive player of the year. Quinn became a complete player in 2013, adding a much-improved ability to stop the run to his repertoire in addition to his dynamic pass-rush skills. All of that added up to his first career Pro Bowl invitation.

Ogletree put together a strong rookie season, showing the type of week-to-week improvement the Rams hoped he'd achieve after using a late first-round pick on him in 2013. Staying on the field for all three downs, the former college safety was adept in coverage right off the bat, but game experience helped his instincts and he got better against the run along the way. What's more, Ogletree showed a knack for the splash play, forcing six fumbles and returning an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.

It should be noted that while Ogletree had a good year and is deserving of his inclusion, he's also a direct beneficiary of our voting rules. Other outstanding linebackers were left off because of the plethora of talented inside linebackers and the standard allowing for only two of them to make it.

In a division loaded with dangerous returners such as Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Golden Tate, it was the Rams' other first-round pick who landed the votes to be the team's returner. Austin had a rocky start as a returner as penalties from his teammates nullified some big returns and left him frustrated in the first part of the season. But Austin grew up along with his young special-teams units and began to find a groove. His scintillating 98-yard punt return for a touchdown against Indianapolis was the team's most exciting play of the season and just a glimpse of what the future may hold for the dangerous rookie.

All three of those Rams are deserving of their place on this team and though I argued vehemently for the inclusion of one more, punter Johnny Hekker, he came up short to the more well-known name in San Francisco's Andy Lee. In fact, each NFC West reporter threw out a nomination for the punter he covers, but the case for Hekker was far better than the others. He was consistently excellent throughout the year and set the league record for net punting in a season. At least the Pro Bowl voters got that one right.

Aside from Hekker, it's hard to see anything more than maybe some minor quibbles with the team from a Rams perspective. Cases could be made for Michael Brockers at defensive tackle or Greg Zuerlein at kicker. Jake Long likely would have landed a spot if we took the two best tackles rather than a left and right.

As it's currently constructed, I have little doubt the Rams' roster is much better than it was when coach Jeff Fisher arrived. For St. Louis to take the next step, more players like Quinn will need to take the next step forward and emerge as elite in the game's toughest division.

ST. LOUIS -- Nobody had higher expectations for St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin's rookie season than Austin himself.

As the first skill position player drafted last April, Austin was expected to come in and jump-start the Rams' offense and special teams with his combination of speed and elusiveness.

While there were flashes of all of that -- he took over and dominated the team's win against Indianapolis -- the thing lacking most was consistency.

Austin summed up his first NFL season best on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after sitting out his third consecutive game with a sprained ankle.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
AP Foto/Tom GannamTavon Austin scored touchdowns three different ways (four receiving, one rushing, one punt return).
“I did OK,” Austin said. “Not the year I definitely wanted. I had a slow start and then hurt at the end but my focus next year is finish the year out and play how I usually play, make big plays and help this team win.”

Much like his punt return style, Austin's season was full of stops and starts. He struggled with drops right off the bat, losing the handle on six passes in the first five weeks. Likewise, the Rams rarely found ways to get him the ball in open space.

Aside from a two-touchdown game against Atlanta in Week 2, Austin was a relative non-factor the first nine weeks of the season. Of course, the lack of production wasn't all his fault, either.

Silly penalties nullified a handful of big punt returns, including a touchdown against Dallas and a tripping penalty canceled out a long touchdown grab against Carolina.

Austin insisted he wasn't frustrated but it was evident on his face as he left the locker room moments after the team's win against Jacksonville in Week 5 with his eye black still under his eyes.

The worm finally turned against the Colts, jump-started by a scintillating 98-yard punt return for a touchdown as the Rams surged to a 38-8 win and Austin added touchdown catches covering 138 yards total.

“That's definitely my favorite play so far,” Austin said of the return. “Hopefully in the future we have got a lot of big plays coming too.”

Austin followed the next week with a 65-yard touchdown run to give the Rams an early lead against Chicago on the way to another convincing win. It wasn't until two weeks later that Austin had another big play, a 56-yard rush against Arizona where Austin suffered the ankle injury as he fell to the ground.

For the first time in his football-playing career, Austin had to sit out a game. And another. And another.

Austin says he fought the urge to be frustrated by missing games, opting to pay close attention and trying to see things from the sideline that aren't as visible when he's on the field.

“You see a lot,” Austin said. “You see defenses, you see the mental side of it, how smart you are as far as reading coverages on the sideline. That's how I took it. I definitely didn't take it as a loss. I took some positive out of it. I believe I got a lot smarter.”

Austin's ankle injury doesn't appear to have any long-term implications. He said Monday he would have been able to play this week if the Rams had a game. But Austin also is clear that he wants to find ways to continue building his body heading into his second season.

“I am going to put on a couple more pounds, not lose my speed and just work on the small things of the game, the mental part, some things like that,” Austin said. “That's what I can improve.”

Austin's final numbers fall well short of the many unrealistic expectations that were placed on him when he entered the league. He finished with 40 catches for 418 yards, nine carries for 151 yards and five touchdowns combined between the two.

As a returner, Austin added that aforementioned touchdown while averaging 22.11 yards per kick return and 8.48 yards per punt return.

While the numbers aren't eye-popping, Austin made enough big plays to show that he does indeed have the ability to be a game-changing player. The challenge moving forward falls not only on Austin to become a more consistent route runner and pass-catcher but also on the Rams to put him in position to make plays.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer found some creative ways -- see the touchdown run against Chicago -- to use Austin but those were too few and far between. Additionally, it will be interesting to see where Austin fits if the Rams remain committed to the run-heavy approach they showed in the final 12 weeks.

Austin has too much ability to only touch the ball in the offense four or five times a game but if that is to be his role, the Rams have to at least find ways to maximize those touches. Adding a No. 1 receiver to open some things up underneath would also be a helpful touch.

Regardless of how that plays out, Austin has his sights set on bigger things in 2014 after his introduction to the rigors of the NFL.

“It's a different league but I'm grateful for the opportunities I had and I took advantage of them,” Austin said. “I'm going to keep on pushing and next year will definitely be a better year.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the third consecutive week, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin is questionable for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks because of an ankle injury. But there appears to be a bit more hope than there's been the past two weeks.

Austin was a limited participant in practice Friday, ending a run of nearly three straight weeks in which he'd gone without participating in any practices. In each of the past two weeks Austin has missed those workouts then missed the ensuing game. Austin getting some work on Friday at least leaves the door open that he could return for the season finale.

Technically, the questionable designation makes a player participating a 50/50 proposition. Austin is likely to be a game-time decision for Sunday.

Here's the rest of the Rams' Friday injury report:

Doubtful: RB Daryl Richardson (thigh)
Questionable: Austin (ankle), S T.J. McDonald (illness)
Probable: DE Chris Long (thigh)

McDonald and Richardson did not practice Friday. Long was a full participant.

Morning Ram-blings: On rookie receivers

December, 27, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have found themselves in a perpetual search for help at wide receiver, a search that has centered mainly on the NFL draft.

Given the lack of success enjoyed by most free-agent receivers striking it rich, it's an approach that makes sense but also one that requires plenty of patience. Rare is the wideout who can enter the league and make a splash right from day one. Receivers like Julio Jones and A.J. Green are hard to find and even harder to obtain.

So it should be no surprise that the 2013 rookie class hasn't provided the type of instant impact many would like to see when it comes to receivers. ESPN Inside Slant columnist Kevin Seifert took a look at the production (or lack thereof) of this year's receiver class, and the results are interesting in that they line up with what has become the norm for first-year players at the position.

Seifert charted the 17 drafted wideouts who have caught at least one pass this season. Of that group, only San Diego's Keenan Allen and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, a third- and first-round pick, respectively, have played what one would consider starter's snaps. In other words, it's not easy for rookie receivers to even get on the field much in their first year.

Here in St. Louis, the Rams spent the highest draft pick of any team on a receiver in 2013, selecting Tavon Austin with the eighth pick after moving up in a trade with Buffalo. The Rams also drafted Stedman Bailey in the third round. Hopkins leads all rookie receivers with 915 snaps this season. Austin and Bailey have combined for 547.

Austin was the player many hoped would provide the biggest return given the investment. But it's not easy to incorporate a unique player such as Austin, who is at his best operating in space. As the Rams struggled to find and sustain an offensive identity, Austin struggled to find his niche, occasionally finding himself barely even used in the offense.

Still, the Rams found other ways to use Austin, and he's had some electrifying moments along the way. While his 40 catches for 418 yards may be a disappointment to some, he's found a way to provide enough big plays as a receiver, runner and returner to score six touchdowns, which ranks only behind Allen and Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson in terms of rookie receivers.

Sidelined by an ankle injury the past two weeks and potentially again this week, Austin has missed out on opportunities to add to his totals. In the meantime, Bailey has helped fill the void; he scored his first touchdown on a double-reverse last week against Tampa Bay.

It's unlikely Austin or Bailey will ever be a No. 1 receiver in a conventional sense, but both have done enough to at least elicit optimism they can be key cogs for an offense moving forward. As is often the case with rookie receivers, the wait can be the hardest part.

I.C.Y.M.I.

A roundup of Thursday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... In the Ram-blings, we wondered if Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a bit vulnerable given his recent struggles and his past problems with the Rams. ... From there, we looked at tackle Jake Long's contract and how it changed with his move to injured reserve. ... Next, we took a deeper look at all the Rams have to play for Sunday in Seattle. ... In the injury report, we noted the continued absence of Austin. ... We finished the day with a look at how the Rams could gain the No. 1 overall pick and come out winners before their season finale even begins.

Elsewhere:

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando offered his weekly look at the matchups in Inside Edge.Insider

At stltoday.com, Jeff Gordon writes that while the Rams and Seahawks both spend plenty of time talking, only the Seahawks have truly backed it up so far.

Jim Thomas has a breakdown of all the Rams could gain on Sunday. Thomas also writes that coach Jeff Fisher believes the Rams are closing the gap in the NFC West.

NFL.com provides an early look at the draft with three needs for every team.

Tavon Austin remains out

December, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin again did not practice Thursday as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Austin
Austin suffered the injury Dec. 8 against Arizona and has not played or practiced since, missing games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has expressed optimism the past couple of weeks that Austin might be able to return in time to get back on the field, but time is running out for that to happen.

The Rams have one more practice Friday before traveling to Seattle for the season finale. If Austin doesn't at least get some work in at practice, it seems likely his season will end without another appearance.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams were without safety T.J. McDonald because of an illness and running back Daryl Richardson did not practice because of a thigh ailment.

Defensive end Chris Long returned to practice as a full participant after sitting out Wednesday with a thigh injury.

Tavon Austin questionable again

December, 20, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In today's edition of the Tavon Austin injury watch, we can confidently report that, well, there's not much to report.

Austin sat out Friday's practice, just like he did Wednesday and Thursday, as he continues to nurse his ankle back to health. He didn't practice before sitting out last week's game against New Orleans, either. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Austin will be questionable for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.

Austin
Fisher said Monday that he hoped Austin would be able to practice at some point this week. Clearly, that didn't happen, which makes Austin's status more tenuous for this week. It seems unlikely he'd play without practicing, but it's possible he could improve in the next couple of days, test the ankle before the game and play against the Bucs.

Here's the Rams' complete Friday injury report:

Questionable: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh)

Probable: Offensive lineman Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)

Tavon Austin still not practicing

December, 19, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Earlier this week, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he hoped receiver Tavon Austin would practice at some point this week as he continues to battle an ankle injury.

Austin
Austin will have one more chance to do that Friday after he sitting out practice for the second consecutive day Thursday. Austin suffered the ankle injury near the end of the team's game against Arizona in Week 14. He did not practice last week and missed his first game against New Orleans. But Austin is out of his walking boot and appears to be moving around better.

The chances for Austin to get back on the field this week against Tampa Bay will likely hinge on his ability to return to practice Friday.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams made some additions to the two they had listed Wednesday. Here's the full breakdown:

Did not practice: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), offensive tackle Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness)

Limited practice: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said rookie receiver Tavon Austin's ankle injury is severe enough that he wouldn't have been able to play against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday but he is hopeful Austin can return to practice at some point this week.

"He wouldn't have been able to play yesterday and he'll be day to day this week," Fisher said. "We hope to get him on the practice field at some point during the week and see (how he is)."

Austin injured the ankle late in the Rams' loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 8 and did not participate in practice at all last week. He watched Thursday and Friday's workouts with a walking boot on his left foot. Austin was not in the boot during pregame warm-ups before the team's win against the Saints.

Back in the spring after the Rams drafted Austin, he said he had never missed a game during his high school or college careers. Sunday was the first game he's missed in this, his rookie season.

"It's not sitting very well with him right now," Fisher said. "He was a little frustrated but he's not able to play. He'll be day to day this week."

With Austin out, the Rams promoted Justin Veltung from the practice squad to handle punt return duties. He had two opportunities but only returned one for a gain of 7. Isaiah Pead filled in as kick returner and averaged 26.5 yards on two attempts.

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