Coming into camp the Rams have a stable of running backs that are the envy of many teams. The unchallenged starter from last season was Zac Stacy. The Vanderbilt product exceeded his SEC colleagues by amassing 973 yards in 2013. Consider that week 1 Stacy had just 1 carry for 4 yards. At that point Stacy wasn't the Ram's full time RB. Fast forward to weeks 5-17, and Stacy cranked out 969 yards over those 12 games. Minus week 1, that's 80.75 ypg! Let's not forget his 140 yards receiving over that same period. Stacy comes into the 2014 season as the de-facto starter, however Zac has reason to look over his shoulder.
Benny Cunningham surprised many last season with his bowling ball style of running. The undrafted-free-agent from Middle Tennessee racked up yards as a secondary back. Considering that Zac Stacy played nearly every down when starting, there weren't a whole lot of carries to take. For the year Cunningham carried 40 times for 261 yards. That's 5.6 ypc, which led the NFL in that category for backs with 45 carries or more. Cunningham enters the year as the primary backup and is unlikely to challenge Stacy for the #1 spot.
Oh, Isaiah Pead. Over his 2 years Pead has just 17 carries for 75 yards and 14 catches for 94 yards. Considering the talent the Rams have at RB, the Pead project may very well be over. Pead did just enough last season on special teams to hang on with the Rams this year. Pead shouldn't get comfortable however, as there was talk of the Rams trying to trade him during the NFL draft.
Full disclosure: I am a known SEC fanatic. Auburn is one of the teams I love to hate on, mostly because I grew up in a very Crimson environment. I have watched every snap of Tre Mason's career. I even picked him in all of my mock drafts to the Rams in either the 3rd or 4th round. When the Rams picked him in this draft I pulled out the good old external hard drive labeled Auburn Games and gave him a second look. What I saw upon second review was a back who has all of the tools to be an every down back. The biggest knocks against Mason are ball security and blitz pickup, with the latter being a necessity in the defense heavy NFC West. With Mason's superior balance and agility, these issues are certain to be rectified with some time in camp and on the field. Ball security can be taught. (Note the picture above.) His 8 fumbles don't look so bad when you put it into the context of a two year period, and that he faced defenses at the top of their game for half of that time. Pass protection can also be taught, however it takes time. Mason won't be on the field during 3rd downs anytime soon, unless the Rams are running a dual back set.
Tre Mason was a powerhouse in the white hot SEC. He amassed 1,816 yards in 2013, eclipsing fellow alum Bo Jackson's school record. In case that number doesn't pop out at you and hit you on the head, remember that Mason did this in the SEC, the conference known for the toughest defenses in college football. Running for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns against Missouri in the SEC Championship game made people take notice. Rushing for 195 yards against Florida State in the National Championship (the most by any running back in BCS Championship history) made people chafe their palms praying that their team drafted the workhorse.
With rookie skill position players we all too often upgrade our expectations the higher they are drafted. Mason's ability negates his 3rd round position in my eyes. Again, take draft status out of the equation for Mason. I fully expect Mason to challenge Benny Cunningham for the #2 RB spot, and eventually take away carries from BC. Taking into account his pass protection fault and the fact that Zac Stacy is already the starter entering the season, I expect Mason to take more of the load than Benny Cunningham had last season as the #2. Mason's explosiveness and elusiveness past the line of scrimmage will parlay into more playing time, especially as the season grinds on and Stacy's legs get tired. Fans should see plenty of Mason in the backfield when not in a "must pass" situation. Behind the now formidable offensive line, Mason should realistically sit in the neighborhood of 550 yards rushing and receiving by season's end, and even more if the Rams can play with a lead. If Sam Bradford takes half the season to shake the rust off, the Rams could even be looking- dare I say it- at two 1,000 yard rushers a la the 2008 New York Giants and 2009 Carolina Panthers. I also see Mason returning kicks due to his wealth of experience fulfilling the same role at Auburn.
Will He Make the Roster?
Without a doubt Mason will be on the 53 man roster. You don't draft arguably the best RB available and relegate him to the practice squad. Mason's spot on the game-day roster was solidified the moment head coach Jeff Fisher told him he expects for Tre to compete for the starting spot. Mason is a rabid competitor. His roster spot was soldered into place when the Rams released Daryl Richardson.
The video below shows almost every play Tre mason was involved in during the SEC Championship against Missouri. Besides his burst around the corner, note how he does what you expect a back to do once you have a lead, and that is to grind out yards. There are plenty of plays where Mason is asked to run behind the guards. You'll also observe how Mason has a nose for the extra yard by always falling and pushing forward once he is going down. As a bonus you get to observe the Ram's 1st round pick Greg Robinson doing his thing!