On the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Greatest Show on Turf, everyone will harken back to the days of QB Kurt Warner, RB Marshall Faulk and WR’s Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl. Certainly, the offense was loaded with talent, and it was built on one of the best receiving corps in NFL history. While the Rams have yet to rediscover as much talent and depth at the WR position than what they had 15 years ago, the Rams boast the most talented and deep TE corps in the NFL today.
Looking back to the 2013 season, the Rams’ top three TE’s combined for 96 receptions, 1,042 yards and 11 TD’s. At first glance, one could point out the production of superstar tight end Jimmy Graham as higher than the Rams’ entire unit. Yes, Graham’s 16 TD’s are very impressive, but what happens when a team is able to shut him down? Using last season’s Saints vs. Rams game as an example, the offense struggles. In the Rams 27-16 victory on Dec. 15, Graham was held to just two catches for 25 yards – his second worst performance of the season. His presence also caused QB Drew Brees to force two throws in his direction, both of which resulted in interceptions. In a similar example, what happened to the Detroit Lions when WR Calvin Johnson was shutdown or injured last season? The point being there is value in depth, and this is just as evident at the TE position than any other in today’s NFL.
As of now, the Rams use three TE’s in starting roles, and they all bring unique skill sets to the offense. Jared Cook has the size, speed and explosiveness to be successful. He stepped in immediately via free agency and became the Ram’s leading pass catcher (51 rec., 671 yds., five TD’s), despite having an up and down season. On top of his ability to stretch the field vertically and beat linebackers and safeties up the seam, he is also a great red zone target. As a matter of fact, despite his 4.4 speed, all of his scores in ’13 were from inside the red zone. He managed to produce a solid stat line last season despite having QB Kellen Clemens under center for the majority of the season. His reception and TD totals should both increase in 2014.
The Rams use a ton of multiple TE sets, and typically on the other side of the line opposite Cook is Lance Kendricks. Kendricks is a pass-catching TE by trade, but he is more than willing and able to block, both on pass and run plays. Similar to Cook, he is a great red zone target. He’s at his best during play-action plays, when he shows the defense he is blocking and then slips past them for a score. Despite having his targets reduced due to the presence of Cook, Kendricks managed four TD’s last season, tied for second best on the team. He will never be a superstar, but that’s fine. As long as he continues to be a reliable target in the red zone and an able blocker he’ll have a place on the roster.
Now it’s time to discuss the x-factor of the group: Cory Harkey. The hybrid TE/FB is the reason why the Rams are the deepest team in the NFL in this category. To an outsider looking in, Harkey’s stat line was quite forgettable last season. He only produced 13 rec., 113 yds., and two TD’s in 15 games played. But to fans who watch the Rams week-to-week, Harkey’s impact is tremendous. First, he is a very capable receiver who is adept at moving the chains. Of his 13 catches, seven resulted in first downs. His unassuming nature allows him to slip by defenders and make plays. He is also the best blocking TE of the group, and he is used both on the line and in the backfield as a fullback in Brian Shottenheimer’s offense. His dual-threat ability confuses defenses, as he could be a blocker or receiver on any given play.
Other notable TE corps include Brent Celek and Zach Ertz of the Eagles (68 rec., 971 yds., 10 TD’s combined), Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert of the Bengals (85 rec., 903 yds., six TD’s combined), and Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow of the Jets (57 rec., 786 yds., six TD’s combined).
No team uses as many multiple TE sets as the Rams, and few incorporate more than two TE’s in their offensive gameplan. Defenses facing the Rams, however, need to prepare for three different players – all with unique skillsets. If the Rams are going to move the ball on offense, they will need Cook, Kendricks and Harkey to continue to make an impact.