St. Louis Rams Position Battle: The OTHER Tight Ends

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Rams have a few young tight ends vying for playing time in 2014. Based on their varying skill sets, which direction will they go when rounding out their depth chart?

Barring the unforeseen, the St. Louis Rams have Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks inked in as their starters at Tight End for the 2014 NFL season.  But like most positions, there are questions about how they’ll round out their the depth chart. 

To begin answering that question, one must look at the position itself.  The tight end position has changed drastically over the past few years.  A position which was seemingly relegated to blocking duties has transformed into one that heads downfield, takes advantage of size, and makes the most of mismatches in the defensive secondary.  Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis are just a few players who do it well...extremely well. 

The Rams have a fair mix of both [blocking and receiving], fielding Cook and Kendricks.  Essentially, one man’s strength is another man’s struggle.  Cook, who lead the team in receiving yards in 2013 [with 671 yards] has shown an ability to be lethal as a receiver.  He struggles, to say the least, with the responsibilities of blocking.  It’s quite the opposite for Kendricks.  A second round selection out of Wisconsin in 2011, Kendricks is entering the final year of his rookie deal.  He’s often praised for his blocking, but earned the moniker "Handbricks" early in his NFL career...for obvious reasons.  He’s since made adjustments and has more reliable hands.  Doubling back to the original point, the Rams have a good [not great] tandem at the position.  The team seems content with that.

Aside from the starters, the Rams lost Mike McNeill to the Carolina Panthers in free agency, leaving Cory Harkey as the only returning TE from 2013.  Harkey has proven far more effective as a blocker than receiver, dating back to his college career at UCLA.  In his four years as a Bruin, he caught only 28 passes and two touchdowns; with only one catch for 10 yards in his senior season.  To his credit, he hauled in 13 receptions and two touchdowns for the Rams in 2013.

Harkey probably stands a very good chance of making the final 53-man roster for 2014.  What the Rams intend on doing with their McNeill replacement will be far more telling.

As it stands, it looks to be a battle between undrafted free agent from Bowling Green, Alex Bayer, and Mr. Irrelevant from the 2013 NFL Draft, Justice Cunningham [South Carolina].  Cunningham was signed to the Rams’ practice squad last November, after the Colts [who drafted him] moved him from the practice squad to active roster for one game, before releasing him.  The Colts were interested in re-signing Cunningham, but he took the advice of his agent, and signed with the Rams.  Regarding the Rams interest, Cunningham said, "I know during the draft, they showed the most interest of everybody.

Let’s have a look at these three, before making any final roster prognostications for 2014...



Despite it’s absence in the graphic, Alex Bayer measured in with 32" arms and 9 1/2" hands.  Aside from the length advantage [wingspan and hands] of Justice Cunningham, there’s very little that sets the three apart with the measurable-s highlighted above.  How about a few more of their combine/pro day results...

Player
40-yd Dash
Bench Reps
Vert. Jump
Broad Jump
Cory Harkey
5.11
13
26.5"
109"
Justice Cunningham
4.94
17
31.5"
116"
Alex Bayer
4.78
20
31.5"
111"


It’s evident that combine/pro day results mean little in the big picture, as Harkey - who seems to consistently grade out lowest - saw meaningful playing time in 15 of the team’s games in 2013.  And regardless of the figures above, Harkey’s value to the running game [specifically] goes far beyond these numbers.

To put it in perspective, you have to look at how the Rams’ offense transformed last season.  It wasn’t until Zac Stacy’s emergence in Week 5 that the Rams were able to establish a run game, maintain drives, and effectively move the ball downfield.  It’s not as if Stacy didn’t have some help though.

Prior to Week 5, Harkey had only been on the field for 11 offensive snaps.  With one quarter of the season gone, Harkey’s contributions on offense were trending well shy of 50 snaps for the year.  The transition to a run-first, pound-the-ball offense immediately benefited Harkey, who the Rams used as a lead blocker [fullback] for Stacy.  Harkey played 40 offensive snaps against the Jaguars in Week 5, barreling through holes and targeting would-be tacklers.  He would average 29 offensive snaps per game from Week 5 until the end of the season.

And while he won’t be challenging any Rams’ receivers for time in the slot, Harkey’s shown to be a very valuable asset in the rushing attack; one which the Rams will continue to rely heavily on in 2014.

Tight ends have many responsibilities though, and they go well beyond fullback duties.  What else do these players bring to the team, and how does it make them the best fit for a roster spot?

The Scheme

Based on the most recent draft, and the complete absence of added value at TE in the first seven rounds, it seems as though the Rams are very comfortable with Cook and Kendricks as their starting duo at TE.  As aforementioned, that tandem offers versatility - as receivers and blockers - to the Rams’ offense.

The [other] three youngsters will provide us with an interesting offseason position battle.  It’s likely, when the dust settles, that only two of the three make the roster.  Is it going to be as a result of one’s ability to contribute as a receiving threat?  Will it be the ability to adequately protect the QB/RB from an ensuing tackler that’s going to separate themselves? Perhaps it’ll be their propensity for blowing up linebackers or defensive backs clearing the way for Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, or Tre Mason.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.  Ideally, a well-rounded tight end would be serviceable in all of those areas.

None of the three having blazing speed, or incredible leaping ability; unlike Cook, who at 6’5" ran a 4.37 40-yd dash, with a 39.5" vertical.  Heck, none of the three ran the 40 faster, or had a higher vertical than Lance Kendricks did at his combine.  

But, at some point, whether during the Combine [for Cunningham only], pro day, or the endless hours of watching tape on these players, the Rams saw something in each that they think can help their offense.

The running game will be critical for the Rams, if they’re to contend in the tough NFC West in 2014. They’ll need to rely heavily on a rushing attack, and the TE’s ability to adequately use their hands and feet to keep defender’s at bay are critical if they’re to see meaningful playing time.

Blocking/Receiving

Two primary roles of a tight end are blocking and pass-catching.  They don’t necessarily have to excel at one or the other, but both are very important if they're to be involved in the offense.

As a receiver, there are two things of great importance:  hands and toughness.  Earning the nickname "Handbricks" would indicate you’re faltering in at least one of the categories.  You’d like to see a tight end catch the ball with his hands; not his body.  This would, ideally, minimize dropped passes.  That’s not to say it prevents them.  If a player uses his body to catch the ball, yet holds onto it consistently, it’s a moot point.  Toughness is essential, as a lot of tight ends are asked to run routes in traffic, across the middle of the field.  The tight end operates under the assumption that he’s heading into an area of the field where he could potentially, and willingly, absorb a punishing hit.

Blocking may be the most important characteristic of the young players looking to fill out the Rams’ depth chart.  The Rams have a bevy of young wideouts, and if you add Jared Cook to that mix, it’s fair to assume they’re not interested in a freak athlete with blazing speed, who the defense will recognize as a deep threat prior to the snap.  They’re probably far more interested in looking for a Kendricks-esque type player who can do a little bit of both [blocking and receiving].  Something to note regarding blocking is that it can be taught.  While you’d like to have acquired a tight end who’s already mastered the skill set, it’s not imperative.  A player willing to improve, partnered with some great coaching [enter: Paul Boudreau], can learn to become an effective blocker.

With that said, let’s have a gander at the two newest Rams’ tight ends [video via Draft Breakdown].  It’s a small sample size, but pay attention to the highlighted player’s ability to block and make catches.

Alex Bayer [vs. Northern Illinois] 2013.  7 catches, 124 yards, 1 TD.


Justice Cunningham [vs. Tennessee] 2012.  6 catches, 108 yards.




If you’re the scout, what did you see that you liked?  And where did the players show weakness[es]?

Athleticism

Speed, power, agility, leaping ability, explosiveness...ideally you’d like to find a player that possesses all of these abilities.  In fairness, though, having those characteristics doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve drafted [or acquired in free agency] the next Jimmy Graham.

Yet some, potentially all, of those characteristics - and how they translate onto the field - are going to play a role in one of these young men making the roster.  As the chart above [with draft profile results] indicates, there’s nothing astonishing in the numbers, and they won’t have you leaning in one player’s direction.  They shouldn’t.  

At the conclusion of their college careers, here’s the final draft profile analysis for Bayer and Cunningham [via NFL.com], which highlights a few of their athletic abilities and shortcomings:


As I stated earlier, I think the Rams’ [backup] position battle should be one to follow closely this summer.  If Cory Harkey’s shown us anything, it’s that you can't underestimate the value of the hard work put in by an undrafted free agent.

While Harkey looks to be a lock for the final roster, another undrafted free agent, and a guy who was one pick shy of becoming one himself, are vying for roster a spot and an opportunity to make the kind of impact Harkey made last year.

And while we’re talking about depth/backup players, like Harkey, you never know when your number is going to be called.  Whether it’s a change in the game plan, or injury to a starter, it’s possible one of these players goes from being almost nonexistent, to heavily involved.  Stay tuned.

*****

You can follow Brandon Bate on Twitter at 
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