The St. Louis Rams will face off against the Denver Broncos this weekend in their third preseason bout of the year. Naturally, with “vanilla” play-calling, minimal game-planning, and an extremely small 1st-team sample size, the quality of individual play it going to be polarized across the league . Hence, you have starting quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Michael Vick, with 85+% completion percentages, starting wide receivers, like Chris Givens and Torrey Smith, averaging 25.0+ yards per reception, and starting running backs, like Chris Johnson and Stevan Ridley, carrying the football for 8.0+ yards per rush attempt. However, on the other side of the coin, other stars are not playing “up to par” during the preseason, like Ray Rice averaging 1.5 yards per attempt or Aaron Rodgers having yet to throw a touchdown pass.
Analyzing the league at this point in the preseason is futile, and hardly an accurate gauge of ability, with most “starters” having only played 35 to 65 offensive or defensive snaps. As much as this pertains to veteran players, it doubly applies to the rookies, who are not only seeing very few snaps on the field, but are simultaneously getting their “first taste” of NFL action. First overall selection, Eric Fisher, has played only 44 offensive snaps for the Kansas City Chiefs, and is currently graded by Pro Football Focus as the 138th best tackle of the preseason, out of 140 qualifying players. Giovani Bernard, the first running back taken in the 2013 draft, is averaging a mere 3.8 yards per attempt, with his longest rush being fewer than 10 yards.
So, when you see the title “Team-by-Team NFL Rookie Class Report Card Heading into Preseason Week 3” is certainly raises an eyebrow, especially once you get to the St. Louis Rams section. For those who do not feel like clicking through the endless tabs, the Rams’ rookies promptly received a failed grade of “D,” highlighted by limited production and heavy reliance on relatively subjective grading scales for defensive abilities. For a taste of the assessment, here is their take on St. Louis’ eighth overall pick,
"Expectations are high for the rookie season of No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin, but he is going to have to step up his play from where he has been this preseason.He has only played 26 snaps and has an overall grade of minus-2.1 from Pro Football Focus, while his only offensive production has been 28 yards on four receptions. – on Tavon Austin"
What the analysts “grading” the preseason fail to comprehend is that the preseason gives a fairly limited scope in which to view the player’s performances. Not only are the top rookie getting very few offensive snaps, they are, more importantly, running very basic offensive and defensive game plans, with very little “scouting” done against the opposing unit, if any at all. Moreover, offensive players, like Tavon Austin, are not going to be utilized the way they would during the regular season. Brian Schottenheimer was adamant about him having to “hold back” on using Austin in the preseason, unwilling to display any of the creativity that will inevitably be unleashed once “meaningful football” begins in September. Wide receiver screens, reverses, and running Austin out of the backfield have no place in these “uptempo scrimmages”; why give opposing teams extra film?
However, if the “grader” had taken his nose out of statistics page, and actually watched the game against Green Bay, he would have seen a rookie receiver who created separation at will, who immediately located the soft spot in zone coverage, and who should have had his first receiving touchdown, had Bradford brought the throw down a couple of inches.
Alec Ogletree, to be fair, has not played quality football in his two outings this preseason. However, the St. Louis Rams’ defense may be more “vanilla” than the offense, which has, at least, thrown a couple of sprinkles on their ice cream. Tim Walton must be holding his cards close, with the Rams essentially abstaining from putting pressure on the quarterback through the blitz and the secondary playing primarily in a soft zone, far from their coverage specialty (i.e. Cover 2-man under). In fact, Cleveland Browns left tackle, Joe Thomas, complained that the Rams starting defensive line was “just standing there” when asked about handling the pass rush in Week 1. Limited pressure from the front-four and holey zone coverage in the secondary is a linebackers worst nightmare, supported by the fact that James Laurinaitis, a perennial Top 5 inside linebacker, is ranked similarly low in the “grading.” Ogletree was a mess in coverage against the Cleveland Browns and missed a couple of tackles against the Green Bay Packers, but those issues are fixable.
Grading our rookies, or any player for that matter, based on preseason snaps is certainly not a worthwhile endeavor. T.J. McDonald has played only 47 defense snaps, which is comparable to less than half of one regular season game, Barrett Jones just got cleared to play after recovering from offseason surgery, and Zac Stacy has been held out of practice with injury for most of the last two weeks.
Maybe, we should wait until after the regular season to “grade” these players.