Dec 8, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (11) is tended to by a trainer after suffering an injury in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Rams 30-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Rams 2014 Sophomore Class: Breakout Or Slump

The sophomore slump is an all-too-common phenomenon in football, where a seemingly promising rookie season is followed by a drastic drop-off in production on the field in the second, or sophomore, year. Ever year, it seems as though the football gods are simply throwing darts at a list of former rookies, sporadically hitting names that will inevitably trail off in their next year. The St. Louis Rams have certainly not been immune to the dreaded “slump.”

Daryl Richardson,  Chris Givens, and even Janoris Jenkins fell prey last season. Richardson was marked as the “next great” running back in the historical Rams backfield, but, due to a variety of reasons, was benched by Week 5 and subsequently released by the team after the emergence of Zac Stacy. Chris Givens finished his rookie season as the No.1 receiving threat on the team, including five consecutive games with a 50+ yard catch. However, Givens failed to find his footing early in 2013  as Bradford’s top target, eventually losing his “starter” designation and losing reps to Stedman Bailey towards the end of the regular season. Janoris Jenkins led the NFL in defensive touchdowns in his rookie campaign and did not allowing a touchdown in coverage for eight-consecutive games to end the year. In his sophomore season, he managed only one turnover, no defensive touchdowns, and allowing a team-high seven touchdowns in coverage.

However, it isn’t always dark and grim for second-year players in the NFL. Sticking with the theme of the St. Louis Rams 2012 rookie class, there were a handful that avoided the slump and improved on their rookie seasons. Michael Brockers, after missing the opening quarter of his rookie year, managed respectable numbers in 2012. In 2013, he built on that progression, managing 5.5 sacks and tallying 32 defensive stops, which was Top 10 among defensive tackles last season. More impressively, Brockers registered only one penalty the entire season; and that was the bogus  “roughing” call versus the Chicago Bears on a should-have-been sack. Trumaine Johnson jumped from rotational defensive back to a starter in his sophomore year, and ended the year leading all Rams’ cornerbacks  in interceptions and tackles, and allowed the fewest touchdowns and lowest catch rate in coverage. Last, but not least, Johnny Hekker might have had the biggest jump in his sophomore year; from barely grading among the Top 15 punters in 2012, to setting an NFL record for average net punting yards in a season, snagging an invite to the Pro Bowl, and being named to the AP 1st-Team All-Pro squad.

So, with those juxtaposed situations in mind, how does the St. Louis Rams 2013 rookie class project heading into the 2014 regular season?

Here, we’ll take our best guess at who will “breakout” and who will “slump” in their sophomore campaign. For this, we’ll touch on the four rookies have saw significant playing time last season…

 

Tavon Austin: Breakout

Being marred early on in his rookie year by inept play calling, then late in the year by injury, the arrow for Tavon Austin heading into 2014 seems like it could only be pointing up. Even with all of the asterisks being tagged on the 2013 season, Austin did manage to make some noise as a rookie. The dynamic “offensive weapon” recorded five offensive touchdowns, as well as a 98-yard punt return score, which led to him being named to the Professional Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie squad. He also set a rookie record for most consecutive 50+ yard touchdowns, nabbing three in a two-game span from Week 10 to Week 12. Heading into the 2014 season, with a solidified offensive philosophy, a better understanding of the playboook and personnel, and having a genuine, passing quarterback in the backfield, there is nothing that would suggest Tavon is in line for a “slump” this upcoming season.

 

Alec Ogletree: Even

Aside from some inconsistencies in tackling and some early troubles in coverage, Alec Ogletree performed about as well as anyone could have expected in his rookie campaign. The former safety-to-linebacker convert dethroned James Laurinaitis for the tackling crown in St. Louis, and led all rookies linebackers in solo tackles (Top 10 overall in the NFL), pass deflections, forced fumbles (3rd overall in the NFL), and was the only first-year linebacker to score a defensive touchdown (a 98-yard interception return, nonetheless). While there is certainly room for improvement, especially with a genuine defensive coordinator manning the helm, it might be unrealistic to expect much more from Ogletree, at least in terms of production, in his second season in the league. “Breaking out” for the former-Georgia Bulldog may just be a matter of grasping some media recognition and becoming more consistent in the second level of the St. Louis Rams defense.

 

T.J. McDonald: Breakout

Much like Tavon Austin, due to some injuries and misuse in the secondary, McDonald set his rookie bar relatively low. To keep it simple, if he can stay on the field for 16 games in Gregg Williams’ scheme, there is absolutely no reason he cannot usurp his production from the 2013 season. If he cannot, there is a problem…

 

Zac Stacy: Slump

After waiting on the sideline for the opening quarter of the season, Zac Stacy burst onto the scene when finally given a shot at the starting role in the St. Louis Rams backfield. The Vanderbilt bruiser managed 973 yards and seven rushing touchdowns in a mere 12 regular season games, leading the NFL in rushing yards for the majority of that span. Moreover, his 80.75 yards/game would have ranked him Top 5 in the league. However, a “slump” can come in many different forms. In some instances, the drop in the production has nothing to do with the individual’s performance, but, rather, their opportunity to perform. That very well could be the case for Stacy, with college phenom, Tre Mason, entering the picture after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL Draft. While most would suspect Stacy will earn the starting job heading into Week 1, it is difficult to gauge how much of the carry load he will be splitting with Mason. Moreover, his struggles with injury, which plagued him at various points during his rookie campaign, might be more costly in his sophomore season, with a starting-caliber back waiting in the background for his shot at the lion’s share of playing time. Although his impact while actually on the field might not regress, his actual production will almost certainly drop in 2013, assuming Jeff Fisher actually attempts to employ a two-back system. If that is the case, Stacy’s sophomore campaign will, understandably, fall under that “slump” heading by season’s end.

 

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