In what was a promising-yet-dismal campaign for the Rams in 2013, there were a few bright spots that left the fan base clinging to hope for seasons ahead. During the month-long run up to training camp and the subsequent kickoff of the 2014 season, this got me thinking. Who has been the most overachieving player on this Rams’ roster in recent seasons?
There are a handful of worthy candidates, as the Rams’ depth chart features a number of late-round draft picks and players who’d been written off by other teams. Before dishing out the award though, we must determine what constitutes overachieving.
First, it has to be a player that came into the league with little to no expectations placed on them to perform. These players usually come in the form of late selections in the draft or have entered the league through the undrafted free agent process. Second, it must be a player who has performed at a level that surpasses the expectations placed on them, with the widest gap between “level of play” and “perceived abilities” as major contenders for the superlative. Pretty straightforward.
With that said, there are a few candidates who could be considered among the Rams’ most overachieving player. These are the players who most would consider the bright spots in what was a very up-and-down 2013 season. We’ll go with a runner-up format before revealing our pick, so let’s get started.
First runner up: Defensive End Robert Quinn
It’s difficult to call a former first-round pick an “overachiever” when they are expected to develop into top players. However, removing Quinn’s draft status from the equation, his evolution into the 2013 PFWA Defensive Player of the Year in his third season is remarkable. Rams fans will know Quinn’s story well, but prior to his being selected at 14th overall in the 2011 draft, Quinn revealed to the world that he’d been playing with a brain tumor the size of a dime. From Pete Prisco’s profile on Quinn earlier this Spring:
“Quinn said the tumor, which was at the top of his spinal cavity, was preventing the fluid from flowing in and out of his brain like it should. It was building up and causing pressure on his brain, thus the headaches. Doctors operated, drilling two holes to drain the fluid, but leaving the dime-size tumor in his head.”
Additionally, prior to his junior season at North Carolina, Quinn was booted from the Tarheel squad after lying to investigators about receiving improper benefits from a travel agency. As he entered the 2011 draft with questions about both his health and character, Quinn seemed like a long shot to become the player Rams fans know him as today. For that, his inclusion on the list is validated.
2. Tackle Joe Barksdale
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Barksdale’s play in 2013. As the right side of the Rams offensive line rotated constantly in the wake of injuries, Barksdale emerged as a surprisingly stout right tackle. His consistent level of play earned him the distinction as the team’s second-highest grading offensive lineman from Pro Football Focus (behind tackle Jake Long) and contributed to the emergence of Rodger Saffold’s potential at guard.
Barksdale is a former 2011 third round selection of the Baltimore Ravens but was released by the team in 2012 despite featuring in all of the team’s contests that year. The Rams scooped him up on waivers shortly thereafter, where he’d feature on special teams and in spot duty for the remainder of that season. His breakout 2013 came as a welcome surprise to just about everyone, and if the offensive line emerges as a sudden strength of this team in the upcoming season, Barksdale’s emergence figures to be a big part of it.
1. Punter Johnny Hekker
In just two seasons, Hekker has gone from an undrafted free agent signing into a record-breaking, Pro Bowl talent. Signed out of Oregon State in 2012, Hekker entered the league unkown to just about everyone except those who follow Beaver football closely, but it wasn’t long before he became an impact player and fan favorite.
He was a Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week nominee in just the second week of the season after a 48.7 net yard outing against the Redskins, and he’d even throw a touchdown pass to former Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola two weeks later on a fake field goal attempt. In 2013, he’d bring his level of play to another level. On his way to earning a Pro Bowl selection (as one of just two Rams to make the team, the other being Quinn), Hekker would finish first in the league in max hang time with a booming 5.60 seconds, which contributed to his limiting opposing returners to just 79 total return yards for the entire season. It goes without saying, but as a result, his 44.2 net yard average broke the NFL’s single season record of 44.0 established by San Francisco’s Andy Lee in 2011.
Look for the trio of Hekker, Barksdale and Quinn to further establish themselves as cornerstones of this team in 2014.