It’s not a fun topic to discuss, but with the Rams heading into training camp expecting starting-caliber production from many of their soon-to-be second-year players, the effect of one or more of them hitting a sophomore slump stands to hit this team pretty hard.
It’s never pretty, but sophomore slumps are fairly common and sometimes even necessary in a player’s growth process.
Much-maligned Rams quarterback Sam Bradford suffered one of his own after a rookie season that saw him lead the team to within one win of a division title and earn the distinction of AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. As a follow up, he’d struggle with nagging injuries and win just one game as a starter in 2011. Generally speaking, in order to have a sophomore slump, it means a player had a relatively successful first season before regressing on some level in the next. The Rams got a few solid contributions from their rookies last season, so they’ll have a few candidates for this unwelcome distinction in the season ahead.
Of the team’s seven 2013 draft picks, five look poised to inherit or re-inherit starting roles at their position after the class as a whole had a largely successful rookie campaign. The two that aren’t among the aforementioned group, fourth round offensive lineman Barrett Jones and fifth round defensive back Brandon McGee, have yet to carve out roles for themselves on the team and will face much lower expectations for production entering the 2014 season. For that reason, a slump on either’s behalf won’t so much affect the team’s performance as a whole, but will more likely affect their respective chances of being retained after the season.
The five remaining members of the 2013 draft class – wide receiver Tavon Austin, linebacker Alec Ogletree, safety T.J. McDonald, wide receiver Stedman Bailey, and running back Zac Stacy – all look to be key contributors in the Rams’ upcoming chase for the NFC West. Other than Stacy, each of them were taken within the first hundred picks of the draft and will be expected to take steps forward in their respective developments.
That implication of merely “taking steps” probably suits three of the remaining five players best. Austin and Bailey both showed flashes of their individual abilities in year one and will be asked to simply be more consistent threats headed into year two. I wrote a piece last week on what can be reasonably expected from Austin in his sophomore season, and expecting him to break out into the game changer he was drafted to be at this point probably isn’t fair.
While he did show the ability to do that (namely against the Bears and Colts late in the season), expecting him to have performances like that every week is unrealistic and the Rams showed that they can still grind out wins if Austin doesn’t show up. Any improvement on his rookie season will be very welcome, but a lack of improvement won’t break the team’s back in 2014. The same can be said for Bailey, who used a limited number of opportunities last season to flash a level of toughness and mere pass-catching ability that looked unique among the rest of the corps. He faces a four-game suspension to open the season, which could very easily put him behind in terms of both the depth chart and personal development. Regardless, when he does return to the lineup, he’ll be expected to be more of an every-down player than Austin and therefore a lack of production could drag down the offense.
McDonald will also be asked to “take steps” from a banged up, albeit promising, rookie season. He looks a lock at this point to open the season as the team’s starting strong safety and is the type of player that could thrive in new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive scheme. Given the Rams’ lack of depth in the secondary and specifically at safety, McDonald will have to stay healthy and become a solid performer if the team hopes to improve upon what was a lackluster effort against the pass in 2013. If he regresses in his development, the Rams’ secondary is in trouble.
The last two members of the 2013 draft class are the two whose stars shone brightest in their rookie years. Ogletree made more than a handful of big plays (to the tune of six forced fumbles) and was the first person not named Laurinaitis to lead the team in tackles since 2009. The Rams re-signed fellow outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, but with the selection of defensive back Lamarcus Joyner in the second round of this year’s draft it won’t be a shock to see the Rams become a Nickel-heavy team. If that’s the case, Ogletree will be asked to both resume his playmaking ways while also improving on his tackling consistency and his contributions in coverage. Again, glancing at the team’s young, thing secondary, they can’t afford any dips in coverage contribution.
And then, finally, there’s Stacy. The seventh-rounder burst on to the scene in Week 5 and immediately established himself as a hard-nosed, reliable starting back in which the team could build its offense around. He was denied a 1,000-yard season after a stifling performance from the Seattle defense kept him in check in Week 17, but by then he’d already done enough to have the entire fan base excited about his future. However, heading into year two, Stacy is (for me) the likeliest to suffer the dreaded sophomore slump.
Like Bradford in 2011, he’ll enter the season with extravagant expectations as the team looks to resume its run-first identity, and I tend to think he’ll perform as well as he did last year. The big differences now, though, are the presence of rookie Tre Mason (a Stacy clone who will eat up carries) and the fact that he is no longer an unknown commodity. Teams will know that – barring Bradford’s performance – our offense is going to hinge on its ability to run the ball and that keying in on Stacy might not be the dumbest move.
Stacy will have the most eyes on him among his class mates, defenses looking to shut him down, and a new backfield member to take away carries from him. I’m not saying it will happen (it’s early and what do I know?), but for those reasons, Stacy looks the likeliest at this point to suffer the dreaded sophomore slump.