ST. LOUIS (AP) — This time last year, diminutive Tavon Austin could brag about never missing a practice, let alone a game.
After a rookie season that featured a handful of brilliant highs mixed with stretches of low productivity and three weeks of downtime at the end with a high ankle sprain, the St. Louis Rams wide receiver came clean. Especially early on, the playbook had him bamboozled.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Austin said. “Everything looked like Spanish and sounded like Spanish to me.”
Entering Year 2, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 draft realizes there’s more to the job than simply outrunning defenders. He’s comfortable with a system that’s undergone only minor tweaks, and better prepared to bedevil opposing coordinators.
“I understand the plays, the depth, the routes, the splits and everything,” Austin said. “I just feel good that I can make some plays. Definitely, the game’s slowed down for me.”
Having Sam Bradford calling signals can only help, even if Austin’s memorable 310-yard, three-TD game at Indianapolis came on tosses from backup Kellen Clemens a couple weeks after Bradford’s season-ending knee injury.
Austin’s overall numbers were somewhat pedestrian: 40 catches with a 10.5-yard average and six total TDs.
Though the Rams (7-9) never envisioned the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Austin as an every-down threat, they know there’s plenty of untapped talent.
Here are some things to know about the Rams:
SAM’S TOWN: Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead deserve kudos for making the Rams the first NFL team to draft an openly gay player. And for not making it a big deal.
Michael Sam had an individual media session in addition to spending time on the podium with the rest of the later-round draft picks, but that’s the last time the Rams made a concession to celebrity status.
The Oprah Winfrey Network’s Sam documentary was shut down after collecting one day of footage. Players welcomed the former SEC co-defensive player of the year into the fold, many of them pointing out sexual orientation has never been a big deal.
Now, it’s up to Sam to win a roster spot as a lowly seventh-rounder on a team that has one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. Fisher had the guts to take him and also has the guts to cut him loose.
BRADFORD’S STAR: While the first overall pick of the 2010 draft rehabbed from knee surgery, job security was never a concern. Well before the draft, the Rams assured Bradford he was the unquestioned starter and that rumors they might take Johnny Manziel had no basis.
Bradford was eased back into the mix during OTAs and anticipates he’ll be ready for the preseason opener. He’s coming off a nice half-season, finishing with 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions, and at 26 is a seasoned hand counted on to guide one of the NFL’s youngest teams.
WILLIAMS FACTOR: Gregg Williams was Fisher’s original pick as defensive coordinator in 2012. Reunited with a long-time friend, the one-time villain of the Saints’ bounty program is appreciative of the second chance. He seems as feisty as ever and has relentlessly prodded a unit that has underachieved despite being loaded with top picks and free agents.
At least after the fact, players seem to appreciate the instantaneous feedback. Williams definitely made an impression on rookies during OTAs.
“If he gets on me, I’m obviously not doing my job,” said defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, a second-round pick who’ll provide immediate help for a secondary that struggled last season. “I need that. I don’t want this guy mad at me.”
JOB LISTING: Fifth-round pick Zac Stacy just missed 1,000 yards after cracking the lineup in Week 5. He’ll have to earn the carries again. Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist and third-rounder who ran behind Greg Robinson for Auburn’s national title runner-up team, will push for playing time.
“Oh, absolutely there’s going to be competition,” Stacy said.
Mason is far from content being a change-of-pace back, Fisher’s initial designation.
“Not sure how it starts out, and you never know what can happen,” Mason said. “I’m the type of guy who’s hands-on.”
THROWBACK TIME: Throughout the season, the Rams will recognize the 15-year anniversary of the “Greatest Show on Turf” Super Bowl title team that held off Fisher’s Titans, 23-16. Remembrances will be less bittersweet if Year 3 under Fisher can be that long-awaited breakthrough.
The Rams have a pair of seven-win seasons so far, a major step forward from the franchise’s darker days. They’ll try to honor that `99 team with their first winning record since 2003.