Since the Rams used their two first round picks in May’s draft to add playmakers to both their offensive and defensive lines, much of the post-draft outlook has been positive. It’s been said by many that tough, physical play at the line of scrimmage is crucial to gaining an advantage in the historically dominant NFC West. In the selections of offensive tackle Greg Robinson of Auburn with the second overall pick and defensive tackle Aaron Donald of Pittsburgh at no. 13, all signs point to the Rams having taken steps to do just that.
However, physical line play hasn’t been the only staple of success in the NFC West. I’m kicking myself for just now taking the time to go through the numbers, but after doing some research, I’m comfortable saying that the selection of Auburn running back Tre Mason in the third round is equally as important to the team’s success going forward as were the selections of Robinson and Donald.
Without undermining the defensive play of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” or the 49ers vicious front seven, much of the success that these two teams have had in recent years stems from them having mastered the run-first approach on offense. What’s funny is that, in the wake of quarterback Sam Bradford’s Week 7 injury and the emergence of rookie running back Zac Stacy, many (me) were quick to call the Rams a run-first team as a new offensive identity emerged. However, as successful as Stacy’s rookie season was, the team is still a few steps behind Seattle and San Francisco in that department.
What we saw last season as backup quarterback Kellen Clemens took the reins at mid-season was a team that lived and died on their ability to get early leads. If it happened, Stacy and the team’s pass rush could slowly but surely be relied on to grind away the rest of the game. If not, the game was put into the hands of Clemens and an inexperienced group of wide receivers, and it usually didn’t go well. Despite that, Stacy was indeed a revelation. After earning his first start in Week 5, he’d go on to rack up 250 carries for 973 yards and seven touchdowns. “Grain of salt” alert, but if his just-over 20 carries per game is extrapolated to 16 starts, he out-attempts league leader LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia by 19 carries. Stacy was a horse in 2013.
However, the Rams as a team finished middle-of-the-pack in rushing attempts last season, some of which can be attributed to having to play from behind on more than a few occasions. Despite their newfound run-first identity, they still passed the ball 506 times compared to 426 rushes. For comparison’s sake, the Seahawks and 49ers were just the opposite. Seattle ran the ball 509 times and passed 420 times, while San Francisco had 505 rush attempts to 417 passing.
It wasn’t any different in 2012, either. Seattle had 536 rush attempts to 405 passing and San Francisco was 492 to 436. These two teams run the ball.
In finally making my point, the selection of Mason at 75th overall might prove to be an extremely vital pick if the Rams are going to up their running game in the mold of the NFC West rivals. As you know, Mason ran all over SEC defenses in his final collegiate season, to the tune of 317 carries, 1816 yards, and 23 touchdowns. The only other SEC backs to get more touches in a season since Herschel Walker got damn near 400 back in the early ’80s were Arkansas’ Darren McFadden (325) in 2007 and Auburn’s Rudi Johnson (324) in 2000.
You see, the Rams didn’t need to pick up a change-of-pace back via the draft or free agency to complement Stacy’s hard-nosed style. They needed a substitute. If they do intend on continuing a heavy run-first approach, then they need someone who is capable of shouldering the sizable load that Stacy undertook last season. While he’s already endeared himself to fans, the Vanderbilt product is still very young, and it’s impossible to predict his long-term production level and its subsequent wear-and-tear. This goes double if he continues to get the amount of carries he did last season.
What the Rams have now in Mason is a guy cut from the exact same cloth as Stacy. Even their measurables stack up. Both stand 5’8 and hover around 210 pounds, and Mason’s 40-yard dash time was just five hundredths of a second faster than Stacy’s at the combine. So the Rams were smart to pick up a Stacy clone that can help push them towards the rushing levels of league powers San Francisco and Seattle, because as you can see, they still have a way to go.