While last weekend in Earth City was very important for all players, draftees, CFAs (college free agents) and tryout participants involved, it held equal importance for the coaching and scouting staff. Those members of the organization who started their evaluations last August watched every facet of the two-day practice sessions with bated breath, eager to see if their initial instincts were on point.
“When you get them in and you get to see your players for the first time, there is a moment of pause that they show what you hope they will show,” Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said about the Rams’ rookie minicamp, their second under the Jeff Fisher regime. “All you want out of the first couple of days is to show some of the raw talent, the athletic skills that you drafted them on, because if they don’t show it this weekend they may never show it and coaches tend to bury them. But all the guys flashed many times this weekend and I think we all walked away pretty excited.”
All of the Rams’ draft picks excelled somewhere, and several flashed great things to come in the very near future.
Tavon Austin and former West Virginia teammate Stedman Bailey displayed – and confirmed – everything I saw when evaluating them on film during my draft prep work. Both will need further route refinement and lessons vs. bump and press, but the tools are in place. Austin’s explosive movement and COD (change of direction), along with burst and acceleration in getting to top speed in two steps, was extremely impressive and something I have not seen in my 15 years in the league. Bailey, a bigger receiver reminded me of a young (and perhaps more talented) Az-Zahir Hakim, an ex-Rams wideout who played a key role during the Greatest Show on Turf era.
Both receivers ran crisp routes, seemed to pick up the offensive concepts quickly and, from my vantage point, had no mental errors. They consistently created separation in one-on-one drills and caught the ball outside their frame, with Bailey making a few acrobatic receptions. They by no means walked through the door outfitted in Pro Bowl jerseys, but their weekend production was very encouraging.
“Smart, competitive … they were very well coached,” Fisher said about his new receivers. “They did a nice job with West Virginia coaching them with the little detail things – the release on the line of scrimmage, route running. They’re probably ahead of most – from a first-impression standpoint – which is really encouraging for us.”
Another rookie who stood out was outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, a big man with exceptional movement skills. He is an excellent athlete, and his awareness and man coverage skills were immediately evident with two interceptions and several passes defended.
“He’s learning,” Fisher said. “He has no problem learning and we knew that. He’s got a good feel for what he’s doing. His drills are good, very athletic. He’s going to be a good player for us. I’m kind of looking forward to getting him lined up and getting to the OTAs with the rest of the defense.”
Safety T.J. McDonald, meanwhile, impressed me with his size, movement and football instincts. Several draftniks and analysts questioned his ability on the back end or deep as a free safety, saying he was stiff and tight-hipped. I disagreed, grading a fluid athlete with great size (6-2, 219 pounds) for the position, smooth hips to flip and transition with receivers, and an ability to play downhill or close to LOS (line of scrimmage) with explosive tackling skills. McDonald ran the show on the back end this past weekend, showing good communication.
Cornerback Brandon McGee, who played in a high percentage of sub packages (nickel and dime) at the University of Miami, displayed great movement skills with balance, foot quickness, COD and stop-and-restart burst in man coverage against both Austin and Bailey. Barrett Jones and Zac Stacy, however, did not participate. Jones continues to rehab from a Lisfranc foot injury, which he suffered during Alabama’s national championship game, and Stacy was attending his graduation ceremony at Vanderbilt.
The Rams also signed several college free agents who jumped out at me with size, athletic ability, speed and all-around football awareness. These players will help the Rams’ depth at several positions and contribute immediately as core special teamers.
Ray Ray Armstrong, OLB, Miami
Cody Davis, DB, Texas Tech
Phillip Steward, LB, Houston
Jonathan Stewart, LB, Texas A&M
Cannon Smith, DB, Memphis
Phillip Lutzenkirchen, TE, Auburn
Finally, the Rams invited 26 tryout players from around the country. As of Sunday afternoon, three had been signed to free-agent contracts: Mississippi State linebacker Joseph LeBeau, Colorado quarterback Tim Jenkins and North Dakota State cornerback Andre Martin. The team will look to fill out its numbers with the signing of a few other tryout players or free agents as it moves on to OTAs (organized team activities) starting May 21.
After watching the youngsters run around in helmets and shorts this past weekend, it is easy to say that this draft class will yield no less than four starters, with several others developing into heavy contributors. The Rams will again carry the trophy for the youngest team in the NFL, which is fine with Fisher and his staff. Molding them into professional football players is the challenge ahead, but within a few years, a championship foundation should be extremely strong.