Rams to lean on youth in drive for winning season
When the St. Louis Rams host the Arizona Cardinals Sunday in their regular season opener, the age demographics of their roster won’t look too different from those of Senior Convocation. Over half of the Rams’ 53 active players are either rookies or second-year players, and the team will be counting on youth to make a dent in the two-team NFC West power structure.
The San Francisco 49ers are the defending conference champions, and the Seattle Seahawks look poised to build on last season’s playoff appearance. Meanwhile, St. Louis will vie for its first winning season since 2003, though the Rams came close last year at 7-8-1.
First-round draft pick Tavon Austin, a package of lightning quickness wrapped into a 5-foot-8-inch frame, may be the most enticing piece. Austin is a wide receiver with the potential for usage in the backfield and on special teams. The team hid most of his abilities in its preseason tune-ups, although he contributed an 81-yard punt return against the Denver Broncos.
A Baltimore native, Austin also had the chance to play against his hometown team, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, in the Rams’ preseason finale.
“I had a lot of texts from people from Baltimore saying, ‘Do your thing. We’re still rooting for you,’” Austin said.
He won’t have to worry about conflict of interest in the regular season, but he will have to worry about the elite passing defenses in San Francisco and Seattle, which ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in passing yards allowed last year.
Several other rookies could contribute immediately for the Rams.
Outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, another first-round selection, will start next to Rams’ mainstay James Laurinaitis. Ogletree struggled in his first two preseason games but broke out against the Broncos by returning a fumble for a touchdown.
Third-rounder T.J. McDonald, the starting free safety, is another potential impact player on defense. He and veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan have lockers next to each other—no coincidence considering Finnegan’s experience playing for head coach Jeff Fisher in both Tennessee and St. Louis, along with his Pro Bowl selection in 2008.
“I’ve got guys like [Finnegan] and a lot of the veterans that are helping me out throughout this transition, and I’m always open to asking questions,” McDonald said.
McDonald had five tackles in three preseason games.
“It’s felt good—definitely solid to get my first NFL action,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of stuff we’ve got to keep improving on, but it’s a good start.”
Fifth-round pick Zac Stacy is third on the depth chart behind Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead (though Pead is suspended for Week 1 due to a substance abuse violation) but looks like a candidate for touches out of the backfield. After the Rams’ final preseason game, in which he rushed 11 times for 37 yards, Stacy spoke about his adjustment from the college game to the NFL.
“It’s all about getting a rhythm, just getting a feel for the game,” he said. “The more hits you take, the more accustomed you become throughout the game. It was good getting my feet wet a little bit, getting series after series after series.”
A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Stacy added that his “internship” in the Southeastern Conference has prepared him well for the pros. Now, as Stacy and other young Rams transition to full-paid football employees, the consumers are counting on them for immediate production.
Kickoff for Week 1 is 3:25 p.m. at the Edward Jones Dome.