IRVINE, Calif. — After selecting Jared Goff No. 1 overall, the Rams spent the rest of draft weekend improving what Pro Football Focus dubbed the NFL’s worst pass-catching group heading into 2016. The problem is, those receivers and tight ends came in rounds four and six; the Rams had dealt two second-round picks and a third-round pick to the Titans for the chance to take Goff.
So Rams passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Mike Groh (the team doesn’t list an offensive coordinator) turns to a much-maligned veteran group to buoy what was, statistically speaking, the worst passing game in the NFL last season. Dismiss it as obligatory August optimism if you’d like, but the former Bears receivers coach is very high on one returning starter who promises to have a larger role in 2016.
“He’s developing as a true wide out,” Groh says of fourth-year receiver Tavon Austin, the 5-foot-9 speedster who caught a career-high 52 passes last season while operating primarily out of the slot and backfield. “I believe he’s becoming a threat as a receiver more than just a gadget guy.
“I’m excited about the skills he brings to this offense; he’s a touchdown waiting to happen. I know the headaches he causes defensive coordinators.”
Groh says Austin’s varied skillset gave Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio pause during preparation for Chicago’s visit to St. Louis in Week 10 last year. Ultimately Chicago cruised to a 37-13 win, with Austin producing just 23 yards of offense on five touches (fellow returning starters Kenny Britt and Brian Quick didn’t fair much better, combining for two catches for 43 yards on 10 targets).
Groh envisions gaudier stat lines for Austin, a Baltimore native whom the coach recruited when he was offensive coordinator at Virginia and Austin was in the midst of winning three consecutive state titles for the Dunbar Poets. UVa lost out to West Virginia, and four years later the Rams drafted Austin eighth overall in 2013.
“He was a video game. That highlight tape was fun to watch,” Groh says. “It’s not about Tavon adjusting to the NFL; it’s about people understanding how to use him properly.”
Austin figures to be the centerpiece once again, but the up-and-comer to keep an eye out for is Tyler Higbee, the fourth-round tight end out of Western Kentucky who is built like a mannequin in an Under Armour catalog. At 6-foot-5, 250, Higbbee slipped into the latter half of the draft due to a knee injury that took a chuck of his final season, as well as his arrest for assault 18 days before the draft. (Higbee pleaded not guilty in May to assault charges stemming from a fight outside a Bowling Green bar; the alleged victim suffered a brain hemorrhage.)
In Irvine Higbee is still somewhat limited by the knee injury, but he’s still shown done enough to generate some buzz.
“He was a guy who you could tell even from rookie minicamp who would impress,” said backup quarterback Sean Mannion. “You see 6-6 guys who can run, but for him to be so fluid, and such a great route runner and good hands, he looks like a natural. I think he’ll be really, really good.
“He’s running routes we would normally have receivers run and it looks natural. Tyler’s capable of running a 15-yard comeback and being No. 1 in the progression as a tight end. That’s rare.”
Groh said Higbee has a ways to go as a blocker, but could become an immediate asset for Goff and Case Keenum as a receiver.
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FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT THE RAMS
1. The soccer fields at UC-Irvine aren’t exactly packed to the gills with Rams fans (Irvine is about an hour south of the stadium Stan Kroenke is building in Inglewood) but those who have shown up to evening practices have been excitable and astute observers. During practice last week Goff fired a laser across his body to a crossing receiver 20 yards away, eliciting a “Woooooo!” from those in attendance. It was an NFL throw from an NFL quarterback in Southern Cal for the first time in more than a decade.
2. In practice, Goff has displayed some of the same foibles that got him into trouble during the second preseason game vs. Kansas City: an unwillingness to let go of the ball in the face of the arriving pass rush. On Saturday Goff fumbled on third-and-4 after taking a hit rather than throwing the ball away. During our camp visit, there were several instances when he took what would have been a sack while searching for open receivers. On the other hand, Keenum has been efficient if not spectacular in games and in practice. We’re halfway through the preseason, and the idea of Goff starting in Week 1 against the 49ers seems more and more like an unlikely prospect.
3. Rookie fourth-round receiver Pharoh Cooper out of South Carolina seems like a safe bet as the receiver who will contribute the most after Britt, Quick and Austin get their touches. Says Groh: “He’s a competitively mature kid. He’s got a high football IQ and we love his tools as well. He’s probably the furthest along, but coming from South Carolina with Steve Spurrier you might expect that.”
4. Despite practicing an hour away from the action in L.A., the Rams are beginning to get a taste of the celebrity culture awaiting their return to the city. On Thursday the team hosted Yankees manager Joe Girardi and pitcher C.C. Sabathia, and earlier this summer rappers Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar, and new Lakers coach Luke Walton stopped by.
5. My favorite moment of the visit, courtesy of backup running back Benny Cunningham: The MMQB delivered an advanced copy of Madden 2017 to Benny and buddy Bradley Marquez, a second-year receiver, so they could play and offer their review on video. During the first quarter of their game, Rams defensive lineman William Hayes jumped offside on second down, to which Cunningham yelped, “That’s real! He did that today in practice!”
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