Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is not to say that drafting Sammy Watkins , Greg Robinson, or Jadeveon Clowney etc. would be a bad idea. It is simply to explore the merits of a (rarely talked about) scenario in which the Rams draft a Tight End who they believe will provide the biggest impact to the team.
As Rams fans, we've more or less seen the same mock drafts over and over these past few months (and probably will up until draft night). We've been repeatedly accosted with some combination of Robinson, Matthews, Watkins, Lewan, and Clinton-Dix with an occasional sprinkling of Clowney, Evans, Gilbert, Donald, and Dennard. So, as an exercise in creativity and situational exhaustiveness, let's explore a different path together. A path where the Rams draft the most suitable tight end in this year's class with one of their first or second round picks.
We need a true #1 wideout. There's no denying that a chain-moving, dominant, "go-to" receiver would at least be a step in the right direction towards elevating the Rams' offense to a playoff caliber unit. A true #1 receiver is a player that is always a threat to make a big play, rarely covered so well that he has zero chance to catch a pass, draws (and often beats) double coverage, opens up opportunities for lesser receivers, is a viable redzone target, and consistently moves the chains as needed.
So why is it that we need a wide receiver to do this? Couldn't a tight end accomplish all the same tasks above if not more? Look at Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas. Can't all of these guys break off a big play at a moment's notice? And I'm pretty sure most of them draw double coverage. What about jump balls? Can you honestly say that those tight ends ever have zero chance of snagging a contested ball? And I'd say most of those guys are just as consistent as any wide receiver. So yes, the Rams do need someone to consistently move the chains, but perhaps we've all been looking in the wrong place.
Specifically for the Rams, drafting an elite tight end can prove to provide a wealth of benefits. First, I'll touch on scheme fit. As we all saw during last season, the Rams were able to show off a more than serviceable power run game. Consequently, the Rams began playing out of a two or more tight end set for the majority of their offensive snaps (against the Jaguars for example, the Rams used two or more tight ends in 49 of 72 offensive snaps). Since more TE's typically means less WR's, adding another wideout through the draft would further limit the valuable snaps available to our young and developing receiving core (of course, the addition of Kenny Britt will do the same, but adding yet another receiver will only make the situation worse in this poster's opinion). On the other hand, drafting a tight end would not affect the number of snaps taken by our wide receivers and would improve a rather ho-hum tight end unit.
"BUT WE ALREADY HAVE JARED COOK AND WE'RE OVERPAYING HIM AND I DON'T LIKE IT WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER TIGHT END!!!" some may say. And while I may or may not agree with their sentiment, why would that mean we shouldn't have another elite tight end? Excluding obvious off the field issues, was it a bad idea for the Patriots to draft both Gronkowski and Hernandez in 2010 when we focus on their on-field production? During that season, the Patriots were 1st in points/game with 32.4(!), 4th in yards/play at 5.9, 2nd in third down conversion percentage at 48%, and 8th in total yards. You want to know something else? Their leading receiver that year was Wes Welker with a rather slight 848 yards. Not a single receiver had more than 900 yards on that offense and only Welker had more than 800. Hernandez was 3rd in receiving with 563 while Gronk was 4th with 546. Not bad for a couple of rookies. Finally, BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the team with 1,008 yards rushing (I'll explain why this is important in a moment) while the team had 1,973 rushing yards total. What about 2011? The Patriots were 3rd in points/game, 3rd in yard/play at 6.3, 5th in third down conversion at 46%, and 2nd in total yards. Wes Welker led receivers again but nearly doubled his output with 1559 yards receiving. Who were second and third? That's right, Gronkowski and Hernandez with 1327 and 910 yards respectively. Once again, Green-Ellis led the rushing category, though with only 667 yards rushing, and the team totaled 1764 yards on the ground.
What can we learn from all these numbers? The Patriots moved the ball by owning the box. While the Patriots' run game wasn't especially dangerous, it was enough of a threat to grab attention from opposing linebackers and safeties. When you add a stud slot receiver and two extremely dangerous tight ends to the mix, the area between the numbers is as good as open. Linebackers and safeties playing good coverage? They're probably playing off the line a bit or leaving space open between the tackles, run it at them. Is the defense starting to cheat towards the line or playing 8 or more men in the box? Send a tight end or the slot receiver on a streak to take the top off the defense. Either he'll be open or he'll draw enough attention to open the underneath route etc etc.
Also worthy of note, Deion Branch led all *outside* receivers with a paltry 706 yards receiving in 2010 and again in 2011 with a similar 702 receiving. So, as we can see in 2010, the Patriots weren't even close to having a receiver break a thousand yards receiving and yet they still had one of the most dominant offenses in the league.
So, basic formula: quicker than fast slot receiver, two athletic and capable tight ends, an above average ground game, a quarterback who can make accurate throws from a clean pocket, and an offensive line good enough to give him that clean pocket. Are you guys starting to see how very close we are to emulating one of the most unstoppable offenses in recent years? We are one Gronk-shaped player (maybe two if you consider bolstering our offensive line) from completing this recipe.
What about Lance Kendricks and Corey Harkey? Many Rams fans are big fans of these non-flashy and still productive tight ends, myself included. I can see Kendricks being the perfect 3rd TE. He does what needs to be done, is a great blocker, and is a fairly consistent pass-catcher. Plus, I think he'd be a great sub for Cook on running downs because Cook can be a little bit of a pansy in the run game. For Harkey, it'd be nice if Fisher simply moved him to fullback full-time or H-back. As TST poster TimGodfrey6 wrote a few months ago, the Rams could really use a good fullback and I think Harkey has the tools to become one. Not to mention he's great out of the backfield.
So, given all this information, who should the Rams draft? In my opinion, that's for Les Snead and Jeff Fisher to decide. However, going with the Gronkowski mold, I'd suggest Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5" 262lbs) or Troy Niklas (6'6" 270). Here are some of their highlights.
The Supreme Austin Seferian-Jenkins Highlights (via MockingNFLDraft)
Troy Niklas || Notre Dame Highlights ᴴᴰ (via Harris Highlights)
The Rams haven't had a wide receiver break 1,000 yards receiving since Isaac Bruce did it in 2006. I can't tell you how many times I've read this godawful sentence and its variations in articles strewn across the internet. Those in favor of drafting a wide receiver seem to clamor to it as though it's some sort of "draft a wide receiver" indicator. If that's the case, shouldn't it worry us to no end that Jared Cook broke a Rams Tight End record that had stood for over *THIRTY YEARS* with a measly 671 yards receiving? While I believe the Rams can't really go wrong with any of their early round picks, drafting a tight end could result in the most positive impact possible for our offense. What do you think about the Rams drafting a tight end? Do any of you have some other "out of the box" draft scenarios for the Rams? Let me know in the poll and in the comments section below.