Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the tight ends.
Last offseason, the Rams signed tight end Jared Cook to a five-year, $35 million-dollar deal. Especially since head coach Jeff Fisher had worked with Cook in Tennessee and knew what he was getting, the prevailing thought was that Cook would be a huge contributor to the passing game. Despite his relative lack of production during his prior four seasons in the league, it seemed that if Cook was just used correctly, his 6-foot-5, 254-pound frame and 4.4 speed would be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Despite a spectacular Week 1 performance against the Arizona Cardinals in which Cook caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns, Cook was a pretty major disappointment in 2013. He led NFL tight ends with eight dropped passes, and only caught 64.6 percent of the passes that were thrown his way, which ranked him 45th among the league’s tight ends according to Pro Football Focus.
On the bright side, Cook did lead the Rams in receptions (51), receiving yards (671), and receiving touchdowns (5). But he never really emerged as a clear go-to target, and when he wasn’t being used in the passing game, he was a relative liability as a blocker, finishing with a -7.0 run blocking rating from PFF, which ranked him 40th among tight ends.
It’s difficult to tell if it was because of his improvement or Cook’s struggles, but at times it seemed like backup tight end Lance Kendricks was just as effective as Cook during 2013. Kendricks, a second-rounder in 2011, struggled with injuries all through the offseason and then again during the regular season, but he made the most of his opportunities (which were decreased by the addition of Cook), catching 32 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns. He did a great job of holding onto the balls that were thrown his way, catching 76.2 percent of the passes throw his way, Unfortunately, he regressed as a blocker (at least according to PFF in 2013), dropping from a -0.9 rating in 2012 to a -13.3 rating last year. Those struggles could possibly be attributed to his two injuries— an offseason knee scope and a broken finger in Week 9.
Kendricks and Cook will both be relied upon to play large roles in the Rams’ offense again in 2014. It will be important for Cook to try to continue to improve his run blocking, though, as the Rams will be run-focused from the start this year after attempting to switch to a pass-heavy offense in 2013 and failing.
Beyond those two, blocking specialist Cory Harkey also figures to have a safe spot on the roster. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder played a big role after the Rams switched to a run-first offense in 2013, serving as the team’s primary lead blocker out of the backfield. Harkey is more or less the team’s starting fullback, but he can very capably spell Kendricks and Cook on the line of scrimmage if needed. He improved his receiving skills last offseason, which previously had been raw enough to prevent him from getting drafted, and he caught 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. As Harkey continues to improve and the Rams increase their emphasis of the run game, expect Harkey to see even more action in 2014.
The Rams have kept four tight ends on the roster for the past two years, so it’s likely that they’ll keep at least four again in 2014. The players competing for that remaining spot or two are former Indianapolis Colt Justice Cunningham, converted defensive lineman Mason Brodine, and undrafted free agent Alex Bayer. All three of them have some intriguing qualities that could enable them to gain the edge.
Cunningham, the 2013 Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant, has been in the Rams’ program since late last season, joining the practice squad after being released by the Colts. He’s seen as a very good blocker, and he has a lot of athleticism, with a 6-foot-3, 258-pound frame, decent speed, and a 116-inch broad jump that made him one of the top performers at his NFL Combine. He’s also had the most time to prove himself to the Rams as a tight end, since Brodine and Bayer joined the position group this offseason.
Brodine has been with the Rams since August of 2012 and has transitioned from defensive end to defensive tackle to tight end during the course of his tenure. He’s a freakish athlete who has been impressive during training camp and the preseason, blocking a kick and recovering a fumble while providing quality pressure from the interior last year. Unfortunately, the Rams always had too much established depth to afford Brodine an opportunity on the active roster, so maybe converting him to offense will finally give him the chance to graduate from the practice squad. Hopefully, Brodine’s size and strength will give him an edge as a run blocker. If you were to pick the winner of the battle based on athleticism and potential to be a special teams contributor, Brodine would probably be the guy. He probably needs to prove himself at least serviceable as a receiver to make the squad, however.
Finally, Bayer is a 6-foot-4, 258-pound rookie from Bowling Green who established himself as an athletic player with good run blocking ability in college. He’s shown flashes as a receiver during OTAs, and he could be a guy to watch as a dark horse for the 53-man roster. Bayer got a $10,000 signing bonus upon coming to the Rams, so they obviously were intrigued enough by him to outbid other teams for him.
Above all, whoever wins the battle will have to contribute on special teams like last year’s fourth tight end, Mike McNeill, did. That means a premium will be placed on athleticism, which all of them seem to possess a high amount of. The battle for the last tight end spot may be one of the more intriguing ones to watch as camp progresses.