The first year of the St. Louis Rams rebuilding project is in the books. Fans swallowed the early returns, a 1-15 season, with surprising amount of optimism due to their confidence in the vision of the franchise's new leadership. As the makeover continues and before roster gets any more reconfiguration, TST delves in for a look at the positions and players, grading their performance from the 2009 season and assessing their status for the next season. Now, we turn our attention to the tight ends as we continue our look at the roster, following up on the review of WRs last week.
With the notable exception of RB Steven Jackson, the Rams desperately need playmakers on offense. We've experienced and discussed that need at WR, but for a team implementing a West Coast offense a quality tight end is a must-have component. This season, Rams tight ends caught most of their passes in short yardage, which is part of their job. However, the Rams lack a TE capable of threatening with his speed on seam routes and the ability to go anywhere on the field, especially down it after catching a pass. Rams tight ends didn't match up well against linebackers and defensive backs either, limiting their role and effectiveness in the offense. Let's take a look.
2009 Season: 34 receptions, 332 yards, 1 TD
McMichael's age really started to show itself this season. Maybe it was age, maybe it was the injuries that put him on IR last year, but with slower legs a key facet of McMichael's game was gone. Only three of his 34 catches went for 20 yards or more. The dropped passes stand out even more in the minds of fans.
Contract Status: Free agent
Outlook: It's unlikely the Rams will keep McMichael.
2009 Grade: C-
2009 Season: 21 receptions, 273 yards, 3 TD
After making Billy Devaney look like some kind of waiver wire savant last year, Fells broke out of a slow start with a two TD game against Green Bay in week 4. Of course, you can't forget his special teams TD on a fake kick against Detroit in the Rams only win of the season. He faded after a strong middle part of the season, but much of that can be attributed to the Rams struggling offense. He ended his season with a trip to the IR list after fracturing his thigh bone and spraining a knee ligament in week 15 against Houston.
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
Outlook: RIght now, he's the best TE on the roster. The top of the depth chart probably isn't the right spot for Fells though. Fells has good hands (60% catch rate this season) and size to create mismatches against smaller linebackers. What he lacks is the speed to expand his role as a receiving threat, and as such is limited to the more traditional TE role of blocking and check downs, though his strengths make him a legitimate target in the end zone.
2009 Grade: B
2009 Season: 8 receptions, 94 yards
The Rams signed Bajema as their blocking TE, part of their effort to upgrade blocking up front. The move worked. Bajema proved himself to be a useful contributor, and until the OL started to suffer injuries, the Rams QBs had time in the pocket. He even subbed for FB Mike Karney some. Pat Shurmur even made use of Bajema's hands a few times.
Contract Status: Signed through 2011
Outlook: Bajema will be 27 when the season starts. He's a solid, important young role player whose contributions will always fly under the radar.
2009 Grade: A
2009 Season: Butler was signed to the practice squad after the final roster cutdowns came in early September. He made it to the active roster late in November, working some as a backup FB in the wake of Mike Karney's injury.
Outlook: Butler's a blocker. It's reasonable to think he'll be in camp this year as an insurance policy for Billy Bajema. I'd be surprised if he made the final roster next September though.
Finding a receiving threat at TE will be a big priority for Devaney and Spagnuolo this offseason. The right guy would mix well with the current crop of Rams receivers, helping get them open more and mitigating the need to find a true blue #1 WR. Keep an eye on the draft as there are some good names in the mix at TE. Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham would be a great addition to the Rams, if he proves to be healthy after missing this season, and might be an option in the second round.