This upcoming 2014 NFL season, a wide variety of relatively unheralded sophomore and third year players will inherit or take over key roles for even the best teams in the NFL. Whether it's an already-established starter that will now be assuming more responsibility, or a green, untested player that will now look to become a reliable backup, every roster depth chart has a few big question marks.
I'll break it down by "who" the player is, "where" he plays, "why" he'll potentially play a key role in 2014, and "how" he'll succeed in that.
On tap today, we have the St. Louis Rams.
WR Tavon Austin
Who: The Rams' first-round pick in 2013, eighth overall, Austin came in with a lot of fanfare as one of the most electric playmakers in the draft. His size was, and continues to be, a concern, but his speed and open field moves are not.
Where: In space.
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Why: Austin is what people have called an "air" player -- he's best operating in space where he's able to use his elite athleticism, speed, and elusiveness to make defenders miss. He showed this in spurts his rookie season and when he was able to get to the edge on an end-around or find some space in the open field, he made defenses pay. It just didn't happen often enough and his 10.5 YPC was a little lower than you'd hope for the eighth pick in the draft.
That said, it wasn't far off from his college average of 11.9, and part of this is the nature of his use -- bubble screens, quick slants in the slot, and things underneath. In 2014, the Rams will look to get him more involved and hope he'll turn into what he was in college - a dangerous touchdown maker (29 in all) that has the ability to score from anywhere on the field at anytime.
How: Misdirection was the most effective tactic in 2013 and with a strong stable of runners in 2014, it should continue to be a strategy. This concept is similar to the fly-sweeps that you saw the Seahawks run with Percy Harvin in the Super Bowl. Stretch a defense laterally while also threatening the middle of the field. Just watch what happens when you get him some blockers in front of him:
Watch the defense first bunch up to stop the run, opening things up laterally.
As for the traditional receiver methods, another thing the Rams will look to do is target him deeper downfield, which is conducive to his speed. The main thing though is that St. Louis will have to protect Sam Bradford long enough for these plays to develop where Austin can turn on the jets and get separation. With the upgrades on the OL, that seems possible.
WR Brian Quick/WR Stedman Bailey
Who: Bailey was a third-round pick in 2013 and Quick was their second-rounder in 2012 (33rd overall, which is, as integers go, very close to 32, and the first round). Both have been quiet thus far for St. Louis.
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Where: Austin Pettis and Chris Givens are likely starters for the Rams at wideout, and Kenny Britt is a wild card. Bailey and Quick have the potential to make some noise in this offense. Givens is a prototypical deep threat and Pettis is more of a possession guy, so having a big red-zone target like Quick that can go up and pluck the ball at its highest point or a shifty, reliable underneath guy like Bailey could really round out St. Louis' receiver corps, especially when you throw Tavon Austin into the mix in various spots.
It's important to note that Bailey is suspended the first four games of the 2014 season.
Why: St. Louis needs to start seeing some return on their investments at the receiver position and Sam Bradford is in a make or break year (again). The gap between Givens/Pettis and the guys behind them isn't enormous, so if a lightbulb can go on for Quick as he enters his third season and Bailey can continue to improve upon his rookie year, theses two could potentially make a big impact in 2014.
How: Consistency will be important. For Quick - after making a big jump from Appalachian State to the pros, the transition has been tough. He'll need to play fast, play aggressively, and use his size to his advantage.
RB Zac Stacy
Who: Stacy was a fifth-round pick by the Rams in 2013 and quickly found himself as the Rams feature back in his rookie year. He rushed for 973 yards and seven touchdowns, with an incredible 250 carries in only 12 games. That's a big load for a rookie, and while his 3.9 yards per carry average wasn't great, he was at times -- with Bradford gone -- the only major threat for the St. Louis offense.
Where: Feature back. The bellcow. 224 pounds of physical, punishing runner.
Why: Like all teams in the NFC West, the Rams pride themselves on being physically tough and aggressive in the trenches. Stacy gives them a sustainer-type of running back that can move the chains and push the pile. When used in conjunction with Benny Cunningham, Isaiah Pead, and possibly rookie Tre Mason, the Rams should have a relentless rushing attack that can combine thunder (Stacy/Cunningham) with lightning (Mason, Pead).
How: Stacy proved to be a remarkably tough man to tackle. He averaged 2.45 yards after contact per carry (per Pro Football Focus), 8th in the NFL, and showed surprising quickness, burst, and vision. Stacy will face a stiff running back competition (more on that below), but if he keeps doing some of the things he flashed his rookie year, he'll be in good shape.
Here are a few examples:
RB Isaiah Pead/RB Benny Cunningham:
Who: Pead was a second-round pick in 2012, #50 overall, after blowing up his senior season at Cincinnati and winning MVP honors at the Senior Bowl. Cunningham was an undrafted free agent signee in 2013 out of Middle Tennessee State that surprised by making the final 53-man roster. Despite their disparate draft statuses, Cunningham is up the uptick and Pead may be on the roster bubble.
Where: I'm assuming that Stacy will be the Rams' starter -- that's not a given, but just my hunch -- so Cunningham and Pead will be fighting for the backup job, along with rookie Tre Mason.
Why: Pead has a lot of talent, but for whatever reason, hasn't been able to showcase it on the field. He'll likely never be a feature back for the Rams (they shopped him during the draft, reportedly), but I'm sure their coaching staff would love to see him contribute as a change of pace threat with open field elusiveness and explosiveness. If he can figure out a way to do this, great -- but if not, Cunningham will be waiting in the wings.
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The rookie UDFA was surprisingly effective in limited attempts as a rookie, and averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 47 totes. Not bad at all. He's definitely got better size as a real backup to Stacy, whereas Mason may be that change-of-pace type of space player the Rams are looking for.
How: Ball security, toughness, creativity running the ball, and of course, productivity will decide this competition.
LB Alec Ogletree
Who: The Rams' second of two first round picks last year -- *covers microphone* - good gravy how many draft picks did the Rams get from this RG3 deal? -- Ogletree came on and started as a rookie, showcasing his talent while taking his lumps while he adapts to the pro game.
Where: Outside linebacker.
Why: Ogletree is part of the new generation of outside linebackers -- "undersized" but with excellent athleticism, speed, and explosiveness to contend with the new wave of pass-happy offenses. It's less common for linebackers to push 260 pounds and need to take on guards at the second level -- and more common for them to have to run with absurdly athletic tight ends and even slot receivers.
Ogletree gives the Rams the type of chase-speed they want at the linebacker position -- in 2013 they played a variety of schemes but frequently played their safeties in a deep shell, requiring their linebackers to flow to the football and cover underneath. He excelled in this, racking up 119 tackles to lead the team and forcing six fumbles. He should only continue to improve in 2014. He could have a big season.
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How: Ogletree will have to clean up some things -- tackling, recognition, spacing, awareness -- all things that first-year players tend to run into, but he could be a real linchpin for the Rams' defense this year as his responsibilities and assignments expand. In Gregg Williams' scheme, this means he might start racking up sacks as he blitzes off the edge as well.
S TJ McDonald
Who: McDonald was a third round pick for the Rams in 2013 out of USC and came on immediately to play a big role as their strong safety. He missed eight games in his rookie year but started the other ten, racking up 53 tackles and an interception.
Where: Strong safety.
Why: Gregg Williams likes to use his safeties in interesting ways -- in the box, deep, blitzing, all over -- so McDonald will no doubt play a big role in 2014. If he can adapt well to the new scheme, he'll take over the role that Roman Harper played for years in New Orleans, and that role sent him to two Pro Bowls. McDonald already has experience playing a variety of roles during his rookie year, so hopes are high for him in his sophomore campaign.
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How: Study tape on Harper from New Orleans. Stay healthy. Fly to the football, make impact plays. If he's patrolling deep, look to capitalize on forced throws and panicked throws as a result of the Rams' inevitably awesome pass rush. Easy, right?