Aug 16, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams tight end Lance Kendricks (88) is congratulated by teammates after scoring against the Green Bay Packers during the first half at Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Rams "Hidden Gem": Lance Kendricks

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When most think about the St. Louis Rams offense, the first player that comes to mind is likely Sam Bradford. The is completely understandable, given that his performance in 2014 is arguable the single-most important, determining factor to whether the Rams will, again, finished below the .500 mark, or will finally break that trend and slide into the upper echelon of teams in the NFL. After Bradford, most probably think of Zac Stacy, the near-1,000 yard rusher from last season, or Tavon Austin, the dynamo second-year receiver out of West Virginia, or even Jared Cook, the athletic hybrid tight end who has yet to play to his potential in the league. After sifting through several more receivers with big potential, and listing off a handful of notable offensive linemen, you may finally whittle your way down to the player that might be in store for a truly breakout year in the league: Lance Kendricks.

The year before Jeff Fisher and Les Snead took over the show in St. Louis, Lance Kendicks was drafted by the Rams with the No.47 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Kendricks was considered, at the time, to be a perfect fit in St. Louis, adding an offensive weapon for Bradford in the passing game, and had the potential to contribute as a blocker, if he were able to add some weight to his relatively-slim, 243 lbs. frame. His 25 bench reps, 122.0 inch broad jump, and 4.15 40-yard shuttle were Top 5 among tight ends in his class, fitting the mold of the “new” H-back/tight end hybrids that had been taking over the league.

Kendricks was up and down in his rookie year, often being forgotten on the bench in favor of more traditional tight ends, like Michael Hoomanawanui and Billy Bajema. That would change in his first year under the Jeff Fisher regime, with Kendricks taking his  first step in “breaking out” of his rookie shell, snagging 41 catches for 500 yards, including four touchdowns.

However, in that second season, Kendricks struggled mightily with drops. To make matters worse, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason, forcing him to miss out on the individual workouts with Sam Bradford, all of OTAs, training camp, and the entire 2013 preseason. With Jared Cook joining the squad via free agency and undrafted free agent, Cory Harkey, playing extremely well throughout the preseason, Kendricks was eased back into the lineup gradually. In fact, it wasn’t until the monumental switch to Zac Stacy in Week 5 that he took, at least, 50% of the offensive snaps.

In a recent interview with Joe Lyons, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the fourth-year tight end touched briefly on that topic,

 “Last year was definitely frustrating, trying to get back into the rhythm after missing so much time. But this year, with OTAs and camp, we’ve been able to work together and just get the offense going.’’

Heading into 2014, Kendricks has been blessed with a clean bill of health, participating in both OTAs and training camp, as well as flying to Oklahoma to take part in Sam Bradford’s personal offseason mini-camp. So far, it appears that has paid off,  managing four catches in only 24 offensive snaps this preseason, including the beautiful touchdown grab versus Green Bay.

There are a number of factors that could lead to this being a “breakout” year for the University of Wisconsin product. For one, he is a much better blocker than Jared Cook, both in-line and out of the backfield. As a result, Kendricks can be on the field on any down, in any formation, and still be threat in the passing game.

He is also a significantly better offensive weapon, in terms of route running and vision with the ball in his hands, than Cory Harkey. That versatility will likely keep Kendricks on the field if the Rams opt for a two-tight end set during an obvious passing down; again, more opportunities to catch the football. Those traits, coupled with the fact that most defensive coordinators will be focused primarily on stopping players like Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin, could make Kendricks particularly dangerous in the St. Louis Rams offense.

The fourth-year tight end also may benefit from the play calling of Brian Schottenheimer, who has, in the past, resorted to the short passing game in short yardage and goal line situations. As a result, tight ends and slot receivers have typically scored a disproportionate amount of the receiving touchdowns for the St. Louis Rams since 2012. In fact,  Tavon Austin and the trio of tight ends caught 15 of the 22 total receiving touchdowns (68%) thrown last season.

Kendricks may also heavily benefit from the chemistry he has established with Sam Bradford, having been with the quarterback for three seasons; tied with Austin Pettis for the longest tenure among offensive skill players. In fact, relative to the number of times players went into a passing route, Kendricks was targeted at a significantly higher rate than any other player on the St. Louis Rams roster last season. More specifically, he was targeted 42 times in only 194 routes (21%), whereas Jared Cook (18%) and Chris Givens (16%), the two leaders on the Rams in receiving yards, were targeted at a far lesser rate. Moreover, Kendricks has caught four touchdowns in each of the last two season, tied with Austin Pettis for the most in that time period.

The former second-rounder might not be the flashiest player on the field. He might not lead the St. Louis Rams in receiving yards, touchdowns, or catches of 20+ yards. However, Kendricks could turn out to be one of the hidden gems of the Rams offense in 2014, and could very well play a pivotal role in the success of Sam Bradford and the rest of the St. Louis Rams next season.

 

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