Nick Foles finds himself in a place he never thought possible at the beginning of the 2014 season. Yes, 2014. Remember now, he was coming off a great 2013 campaign, and looked to be dialed in as the Philadelphia Eagles' starter. But things happen in the NFL, don't they? Now with the St. Louis Rams, Foles is starting from scratch when it comes to finding chemistry with his wide receivers, let alone any kind of harmony in a new offensive scheme...
What will make Fole's transition easier, is finding a guy he can rely on to catch passes thrown his way. The St. Louis Rams have some talent in the wide receiver category, but none have had the luxury of stability at the quarterback position to take any kind of "next step". The turnstile, revolving door the Rams have had at quarterback over the last few years has pinned this team in the ranks of the under-performing. While some NFL pundits like to take swings at the receiver corp of the Rams, I think the spillover of poor quarterback play has incorrectly tainted what could be a VERY good group.
In my opinion, Foles needs to center his attention on three Rams receivers heading into this season: Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey, and... Who do you put here? Seriously, you need to think about this one. Bailey, and Quick - if he gets his shoulder squared away - present great possession options for Foles. Key first downs, and tight crossing route hits will fall to these two receivers. Neither of them being what anyone would call a "true #1 WR", they'll be scheme and field position dependent. Someone will need to fill in that titchy third slot, and I think I know who it could - but probably won't - be: Chris Givens... Yes, swing away at me Rams' faithful with your Tavon Austin this, or Kenny Britt that, but in a way this will be more about whether Givens can re-establish himself as a receiver who can stretch the field the way he did in 2013.
I think Tavon Austin is an explosive, talented, young man who may not ever find the key to excelling in the NFL in the way Jeff Fisher and team general manager Les Snead hoped. Much has been said about finding ways to utilize Austin's talent the right way, but I contend there's more to the story here. First, the fact former Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer failed to make Austin explode onto the NFL scene seems kind of short sighted. Playbook complexity not withstanding, Austin simply wasn't capable of playing at the NFL level in his rookie year. He showed sparks when the Rams faced a team like the Indianapolis Colts, who simple didn't pay Austin much attention. But "attention" is the key here, and separates the the men from the boys in the NFL. If game-planned by an opponent, a receiver has to find ways on his own to confound schemes bent toward stopping him...
A case in point is Baltimore's Steve Smith, who at 5'9", is only an inch taller than Austin. Though almost twenty pounds heavier, the unrelenting Smith has 13,262 career receiving yards, to go along with 73 touchdowns. Smith can play every down, and bends opponent defensive scheming toward accounting for him at all times on the field. The 15 NFL season veteran is tough as nails, and there isn't a corner back in the league who doesn't respect him for what he can do to change a game in the blink of an eye. Austin could change a game, and has. His performance against the Colts in 2013 was flat out amazing, with 314 all-purpose yards. But then, he all but disappeared, with an injury hitting him in Week 14 against Arizona.
In 2014, Austin didn't make much of an impact. Look at the following chart, and see if you can find the most troubling stat for Austin in 2014:
|2||09/14||@ TB||W 19-17||1||0||0||0||--||--||0||2||21||10.5||18||0||--||--|
|5||10/05||@ PHI||L 28-34||1||0||2||33||16.5||22||0||--||--||--||--||--||--||--|
|8||10/26||@ KC||L 7-34||1||0||2||12||6.0||9||0||2||7||3.5||4||0||--||--|
|9||11/02||@ SF||W 13-10||1||1||2||11||5.5||7||0||2||7||3.5||4||0||--||--|
|10||11/09||@ ARI||L 14-31||1||1||2||20||10.0||17||0||1||10||10.0||10||0||--||--|
|12||11/23||@ SD||L 24-27||1||1||3||11||3.7||6||0||3||27||9.0||15||1||--||--|
|14||12/07||@ WAS||W 24-0||1||1||2||14||7.0||9||0||5||46||9.2||18||0||--||--|
|17||12/28||@ SEA||L 6-20||1||1||2||13||6.5||7||0||2||1||0.5||2||0||--||--|
Look at the catch numbers per game... On the low side, it marks Austin as a receiver the Rams' quarterbacks didn't regularly look to, but to me it signals a more troubling thought: Austin can be taken out of a game by defensive coordinators. What's more, I think there's a durability question that's yet to be answered when it come to the diminutive Austin. The high side for most Rams fans is #11 just didn't get his number called, or that an NFL team - in some mystical way, shape, or form - couldn't find a way to create a play that would allow Austin to excel... Really? The old fall back could ring true, that the Rams offensive line didn't allow time for Austin to... Yada, yada... I'm not buying it, and neither should you. Great receivers find ways to contribute, through game savvy and intellect. The aforementioned Steve Smith is different from Austin in this way, plus he battles for the ball on every play. Austin is the kind of receiver who needs a bit of room to make a catch. In the open field, I'd take Austin over Smith. Austin won't break tackles like Smith, but he can find post catch running lanes as good as anyone in the NFL
The idea of finding ways to fit Tavon Austin into an offensive scheme so he can succeed doesn't really hold water. It's why I lean toward Chris Givens over the former UWV star. The sad thing is, I think Givens below marginal 2014 season may very well have placed him out of Jeff Fisher's long view for the Rams. Givens is a speedy, sure-handed receiver who can run any route, and has what it takes to cross the middle of the field without getting killed. Where he may have something in common with Tavon Austin is his field awareness, which hasn't shown to be a strong point. This ability to break off a route to come to a quarterback's aid is what separates a great receiver from the also-rans. In the blink of an eye, they need to KNOW what to do, and Austin - or even Givens - just haven't shown they have this crucial skill.
Nick Foles has to be searching for a receiver among the Rams who he can rely on, game in, and game out. The question remains: Is Tavon Austin going to be his guy? I just don't think so. Can Chris Givens? Maybe, but it would take a complete re-commitment by the Rams new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to the former Wake Forrest star receiver.
You may have noticed I didn't say much about Kenny Britt? You'd be right, and here's why: The injury bug that's haunted Britt his entire career could be hiding out there, and I just don't pin my hopes on it staying away for a second straight season. Brian Quick's shoulder injury has me more concerned than most, simply because I have first hand insight into what limitations may follow what could have been a re-construction of the joint itself. We won't know the extent of Quick's injury and repair, but what I do know is loss of joint mobility ALWAYS follows a severe shoulder injury - ALWAYS...
The Rams receiver who opposing teams could wind up having to focus on is Stedman Bailey, who I think is on that titchy razor's edge between star and mediocrity. If I were Cignetti or Foles, Bailey is my guy! He can catch any pass, anywhere. He's shown a toughness I can easily compare to Steve Smith, and a field awareness that needs to be taken advantage of in 2015.
Who winds up being Nick Foles favorite target is a complete mystery at this point, but if he doesn't find one, the 2015 season will be a long one indeed for the St. Louis Rams...