Rookie Class Forms Strong Foundation

Posted Jan 7, 2013

The common timeframe most teams allow before judging the production and performance of a draft class is three years.

While that still remains true for the Rams, if ever there was a class of rookies that could be evaluated after just one season, it’s likely this year’s class for the Rams. With so many rookies contributing in so many ways for most of the 2012 season, few rookie groups have ever been asked to grow up so fast.

Considering all the production the Rams got from their group of rookies – both drafted and undrafted – the scary thing for the rest of the league is that there are still big jumps to be made between now and the start of the 2013 season.

“Biggest improvement -- in our experience -- is that from year one to year two, you’re going to see significant improvement,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “As we’ve talked about numerous times, most of our class had plenty of experience on Sunday. Obviously, the offseason program is going to be paramount as far as they’re concerned and OTAs and training camp and such. But, we would expect each one of them to improve.”

Taking yet another step forward for this year’s group of rookies would only bode well for the Rams future coming off a season in which they played an integral role in the team’s progress.

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, receiver Chris Givens, running back Daryl Richardson, safety/special teamer Rodney McLeod, kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker either starter or played major roles in 2012.

“Yeah, we were very pleased,” Fisher said. “Some got to play a little bit more than others. ‘Jenks’ missed a play, a snap or two on defense all year. That’s a tough position to play, for the production that he had, the big plays that he had. Chris came on. Chris shows you what he can do.  ‘Brock,’ once he overcame the ankle injury, was pretty solid for us inside, and he’s only going to get better. So, the class is there.”

Receiver Brian Quick, running backs Isaiah Pead and Terrance Ganaway, guard Rokevious Watkins, safety Matt Daniels, defensive tackle Matt Conrath and quarterback Austin Davis either got limited work this season or were held back by injury.

But that group is expected to make even more of an impact in 2013 after a full season in the systems and a chance to go through an entire offseason program.

“Overall, the class was good,” Fisher said.

Leading the way was Jenkins, the talented cornerback out of North Alabama who claimed the team’s version of a Rookie of the Year award as voted on by his teammates. Jenkins led the Rams with four interceptions, returning three for touchdowns and adding another score on a fumble return against San Francisco on Dec. 2.

Nearly from the day he arrived in St. Louis, Jenkins was plugged into the starting lineup and making an early impression.

“You always knew Jenkins had the ability to play,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “From the moment he stepped in, you knew he was talented. One of my old coaches always told me it takes about three weeks before you actually see a guy’s character and how he plays. That’s what happened with Jenkins.”

For the rest of the rookies, it took just a bit longer. Brockers was limited early by a high ankle sprain that cost him the first three games of the season. Meanwhile, the likes of Johnson, Givens and Richardson were settling into their roles.

With each passing week, though, another rookie seemed to step forward whether it was Brockers’ breakout performance in San Francisco on Nov. 11, Givens’ rookie record with five consecutive games with a catch of 50-plus yards, Johnson’s interception and three pass breakup game against Tampa Bay or Richardson’s 102 yards of total offense against Washington in replacing injured back Steven Jackson.

“We have a lot of young talent around here,” Dunbar said. “It clicked at different times for each of them but when it did click they started making plays. It took a little while for the young guys to get going but when they did, you can see they are good players.”

Of course, in order to take the next step and make the leap that Fisher expects in year two, the rookies will now face perhaps the most difficult challenge of becoming a professional: acting like a professional away from the confines of the season.

Admittedly not a fan of the new system that gives players even more time off and doesn’t allow for offseason programs to start until mid-April, Fisher made it a point to let all of his players know that what they do away from the haven of the regular season is as important as what they do in it.

That’s true regardless of age but for rookies getting extended time away with money in their pocket for the first time, it can be an especially worrisome time for a coach. While players are allowed to continue working at the team facilities in the offseason, it is not required.

Fisher hopes they’ll take advantage of that opportunity as much as possible and then make good decisions when they aren’t around.

 “That’s three and a half months,” Fisher said. “That’s a long time. We’ll stay in touch, but they are responsible for the decisions that they make, starting from today until the time they return, and, for that matter, 365 days a year. But life’s different now for them, especially for the rookie class. We’ve had enough opportunities and enough discussions throughout the year preparing them for the adjustment. It’s things as simple as traveling commercially. They haven’t traveled commercially in the last 21 weeks. Those kinds of things they have to be mindful of.”

For some of the rookies, the lessons learned throughout the season should serve as a reminder that things can go awry in season and there are even more temptations throughout the offseason.

Jenkins and Givens were suspended for a game during the season for violation of team rules, an incident that resulted in both not only missing the game but running the stadium steps in San Francisco before the game.

It’s a misstep they won’t soon forget, according to Givens.

“It was humbling,” Givens said. “I learned that it can be taken away at any moment. It really just motivated me to become more of a team player and to really just put my best foot forward.

“You really have to have your life together on and off the field in order to be successful because any little thing can throw off your game. When you have everything going the right way on and off the field, you really set yourself up for a good Sunday.

The real hope of Fisher, his coaching staff and even the team’s veterans is that those lessons of one season in the league were enough to hammer home the basic principles of conducting yourself as a pro.

As the team’s longest tenured veteran, Jackson believes Fisher’s message got through but also recognized that it can be easy to stray from the lessons learned in just one NFL season.

“That’s really hard,” Jackson said. “These young guys have never had this much time on their hands so we hope that they do it in a responsible manner and take care of themselves. That’s a part of the job of being professional is doing those things when people are not watching.”