Saturday, June 30, 2012

Kendricks Looks for Breakout Second Season

by Nick Wagoner

As Brian Schottenheimer and his staff prepared for the 2011 NFL Draft, one player that continued to catch their eye was a young tight end out of Wisconsin named Lance Kendricks.
Before Schottenheimer and the New York Jets had a crack at selecting Kendricks in the second round of that year’s draft, the Rams scooped him up with the intent to make him one of the focal points of a revamped offense.
Fast forward a year and Schottenheimer is now the offensive coordinator of the Rams and is getting the chance to work with Kendricks, the one tight end on the Rams roster who seems to have some sense of job security at a position that will have a lot of competition in training camp.
“I know one thing, I think starting with Lance, we really liked Lance back in New York when we looked at him,” Schottenheimer said. “I think he’s got a chance to be a terrific all around player. Then we are complementing him with guys that can do some stuff in the running game, also some matchup (stuff).”
Kendricks returns to the mix after an up and down rookie season in which he looked like a potential breakout star in the preseason but through some nagging injuries and missed opportunities, he didn’t quite live up to his preseason performance when the lights came on.
Soon after the season ended, Kendricks went to work on figuring out what went wrong and why he was unable to carry over a preseason performance in which he had 11 catches for 155 yards and three touchdowns in just part of the four exhibition contests.
Kendricks appeared poised for a big rookie season but a key drop in the opener against Philadelphia set him back and he never fully recovered on his way to 28 catches for 352 yards and no scores in 15 games.
In looking back at the film from those games, it didn’t take Kendricks long to recognize what slowed him down.
“The main thing I saw was a lot of times when I was tired was when I made my most mistakes,” Kendricks said. “Just being able to stay focused and fight through that and compete and go out there and just perform when I am tired was my main thing I wanted to do better. When you get tired, you can forget things and I would have a mental error here or there so I think most of it just came from fatigue.”
To that end, Kendricks took what he learned from watching the film into the weight room and his workouts.
Kendricks played most of his rookie season at around 243-245 pounds. But he wanted to put on some muscle while also adding more cardiovascular fitness.
A strict regiment of cardio workouts combined with a lot of weight lifting, stretching and the incorporation of more protein into his diets has helped Kendricks add about 5 pounds of muscle, up to 250.
“I was just trying to be more mentally into it that way so when I do get tired I can keep focused,” Kendricks said.  “Just from watching film and being able to play the game those weeks I played, I think I have learned a lot and caught up to the speed of the game. For me, I think that was what was most important, just being able to catch on to the speed of the game.”
Of course, Kendricks being a little bit behind in 2011 certainly was understandable considering the circumstances he came into after he was drafted.
The lockout kept the Rams and Kendricks from going through a full offseason, denying all rookies the chance to get acclimated to the advanced speed of the NFL and the opportunity to begin learning more advanced NFL systems.
Kendricks just completed his first NFL offseason program, again tasked with the responsibility of learning a new offensive scheme. He said those additional workouts were certainly a benefit.
“I think being able to go through the playbook with the coaches and run through some plays before training camp starts helps us get a jumpstart on everything,” Kendricks said. “Just having this offseason and being able to workout with the team, I was able to focus on getting my body right and getting healthy and taking my protein and doing the things they feel is right which will help me out in the long run.”
Early indications from the team’s Organized Team Activities and minicamps are that Kendricks figures prominently in Schottenheimer’s offense. The Rams are carrying nine tight ends (if you include Ben Guidugli, who has worked at fullback and tight end) on the roster right now, a clear indication of the position’s importance within the scheme.
Not only are there many tight ends competing for what will likely be four spots on the roster, there is a lot of information for those tight ends to process. Aside from quarterback, no position in Schottenheimer’s offense demands more in a mental capacity.
“That comes with the versatility of this offense; you have to be able to know a lot of things and know what to do at all times,” Kendricks said. “I think I am accepting the role as it is. We are all intelligent guys and learning from each other and trying to help this offense. That tells us we are just as valuable as anyone else. We are taking it one step at a time but at the same time, we are really trying to make strides because we really want to be the best group. We like having a lot on our shoulders.”
Tight end figures to be one of the most heated battles for roster spots in this year’s training camp but Kendricks figures to be the team’s starter come opening day.
During the offseason program, Kendricks did a little bit of everything; lining up as a de facto fullback in the backfield, playing some on the line and detaching and splitting out wide.
The amount of work was a challenge that Kendricks took head on, drawing praise from Schottenheimer for his work throughout.
Although Kendricks suffered a slight ankle injury during the team’s final minicamp going up for a pass down the field (he missed just one practice), he will be at full strength and ready to go when training camp opens at the end of July.
By his own admission, Kendricks has something to prove in his second year in the league and he’s looking forward to the opportunity.
“I’m very excited,” Kendricks said. “From watching the film, we watched a lot of things from last year to see where we could improve and it’s almost like night and day. We love the coaches, they are awesome. I think that makes all the difference. Nothing against the (old coaches) but just being taught the right way and being in better shape and having a better mindset, I hope to be able to go out there and perform.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rams are getting the knack of their new defense

Rams practices are meticulously taped, with no moment going unrecorded for review and inspection by the coaching staff. Coach Jeff Fisher's assessment of how well his defensive unit is picking up its new schemes isn't based on anything he's seen, whether live or later. It's based on what he hears.
"When you stand out and watch practice and everyone on defense is talking," he said Wednesday, "then everyone understands the defense."
There's a fair amount to learn for the Rams, who were 22nd in total defense last season — allowing an average of 358.4 yards per game — and 31st against the run, allowing 152.1 yards per game. That added up to them allowing the seventh-most points per game, 25.4, which was ample reason for a 2-14 season.
One of the main points of emphasis for Fisher in these organized team activities, or OTAs, was to install his offensive and defensive plans. On the defensive side, the effort seems to have gone smoothly and the players like a system built on thinking less, reacting more.
"We're going to be very aggressive," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "There's a lot less thinking. There's still freedom to do things, but for the most part, it's simplified so you can play fast.
"There are multiple looks. You can do a lot of different things within those looks. You're repeating a lot of the fundamental ideas, but you're doing it with different looks so they don't know what you're doing. It allows you to just go."
"We're going to try to be disruptive and that's exciting," defensive end Chris Long said. "You get to let loose a little bit. It's a new thing, but in a way it's less thinking. The mind-set is more dictating the tempo of what we're doing."
The Rams are coming to the new defensive schemes from plenty of different places. The first unit on Wednesday had six players who weren't on the team last year, including top draft pick Michael Brockers, and who were going to get a new plan regardless of where they were. Then there are veterans such as Laurinaitis and Long, who have gone through enough coaching changes that learning a new defense is old hat.
"It's hard, though not necessarily as hard for a guy like me who's been through a couple systems," Long said. "But to scrap everything you know through repetition and start over can be tough. We're excited about it; it's a great system."
Laurinaitis, as the quarterback of the defense, has to know the specifics more than anyone. ("You don't want to be the guy making the mental error," he said.) While he still gets the playbook out to look at things, the OTAs have been a big help in letting him see those things at work. Meanwhile, he's doing mental translations in his head, knowing that what used to be X is now A.
The progress he has seen in the team's workouts has been in speed — not necessarily in how quick his teammates have picked it up but in how quickly they're playing on the field.
"The important thing when you put in a new defense is to make sure guys are still going fast and not thinking too much," he said. "Guys are still playing fast, which is good. The key now is just getting the final details down."
Those details will be sorted out in the practices ahead, in the upcoming minicamp and then in preseason camp.
"The veterans have done a real good job (picking it up)," Fisher said. "They're excited."
"We're still learning it," Long said. "It's a lot of volume, but as complex as it is, we've gotten a good start on it, and our guys are excited about it. When you're excited about it, it's easier to learn it. We're certainly working very hard to do so."
Rams notes
Second-round draft pick Isaiah Pead made his debut at Rams Park on Wednesday. Under NFL rules, Pead couldn't take part until final exams had ended at his school, Cincinnati, which runs later than most other schools.
• This is the last week of OTAs, with a three-day minicamp starting Tuesday. The team's veterans were given last week off while the rookies just lifted weights, and Fisher said that really helped as the youngsters closed the gap on the more experienced players. While the team can have four days of workouts this week, Fisher said he thinks four straight days is too much at this time of year, so the players have today off and will return Friday for a final session.
• Missing from workouts were tackle Jason Smith and free agent center Scott Wells. Fisher said they had the day off. Wells has also been absent from previous sessions.