Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy, even Benny Cunningham ... during an offseason that saw the Rams add one skill position player after another, the name of holdover Chris Givens was barely mentioned in discussions about the offense.
After all, he had led the Rams in receiving yards last season (698), a total that ranked fourth in the NFL among rookie wide receivers.
But over the first 2½ weeks of training camp, no Rams receiver has been more consistent than Givens. As for Thursday night in Cleveland, well, Bernie Kosar must have had his head turned away every time the ball was thrown Givens’ way.
“He’s clearly picked up where he left off last year,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Obviously, he showed the other night (in Cleveland) that he can get down the field and make the big play.”
Nothing that Givens did at FirstEnergy Stadium would qualify as “horrible” — Kosar’s description of the Rams’ receivers corps during the Browns’ telecast of the preseason opener for both teams. In just 11 plays, Givens was targeted three times by quarterback Sam Bradford, and he had three catches for 82 yards and a touchdown.
In that brief snapshot, Givens displayed what he hopes to be throughout the 2013 season: namely, an all-around receiver who can strike from short, medium and long distance.
First came the “intermediate,” a 20-yard catch on a crisply run sideline route on third and 7. Two series later, Givens got behind Browns defensive back Trevin Wade for a 59-yard gain on a deep post pattern even though Wade was giving plenty of cushion.
The big play was Givens’ calling card as a rookie. Early in the 2012 season he set an NFL rookie record with a reception of 50 yards-plus in five consecutive games. He’s one of only two players — period — to accomplish that feat during the Super Bowl era.
But as much as he likes going deep, Givens is working to show he’s no one-trick pony. To wit, on the third play following that 59-yard grab, Givens shook free in the back middle area of the end zone to catch a 3-yard TD pass.
“We know he can go deep, but what we needed to work on is the intermediate stuff,” wide receivers coach Ray Sherman said. “Because people already know that he can run, but now we also want to be able to use his speed in those intermediate routes.”
If Givens excels on all levels of the route tree, opposing defenses won’t necessarily be able to adjust their coverage automatically to prevent the deep ball. After his big-play binge of a year ago, for example, defenses began shading a safety to Givens’ side of the field.
But with Cook running down the seam and the speedy Austin running all over the place, defenses may not have the luxury of giving extra attention to Givens, lest they get burned in another area.
“That’s exactly why we brought those guys in,” Givens said. “We’re all weapons, and we’re all good at what we do. So the better they play, the better I’m gonna play and vice versa. We’re out here to push each other and to work towards our common goal — and that’s to win.”
So rather than saying, “Hey, remember me?” when the Rams made all the offensive additions, Givens threw out the welcome mat.
“What I’ve learned over the years is football is a team game,” Givens said. “I can’t come out here and do it all by myself. As much as I like to think I can, the reality of the situation is I can’t. So when we brought those guys in I just approached it like I felt any other vet would. And that was to take those guys under your wing and realize that they’re here to help you just as much as you’re going to help them.”
Givens kept working on his game throughout the offseason. He tried to improve his short-area quickness, worked on being more explosive in and out of breaks, and built up his strength.
“I put on a few pounds of muscle,” Givens said. “That was another thing I wanted to really work on, just because the stronger I can be, the faster I can be, the most explosive I can be, the better.”
Added upper-body strength can help a receiver in a variety of ways, be it escaping press coverage on the line of scrimmage or avoiding getting bumped off routes down field. As Sherman pointed out, there was one other reason, one that’s often overlooked when it comes to wide receivers.
“You’re gonna have to be able to block, so I wanted him to be a little thicker,” Sherman said. “There are times when you may have to block a safety or a linebacker.”
Developing hand in hand with Givens’ personal development, the chemistry between Givens and Bradford has grown dating back to the latter stages of the 2012 season. It’s clear that Bradford trusts Givens as a route runner and pass-catcher, a necessary ingredient if a QB-wide receiver tandem is to flourish.
“The more we got to work together, the more things got better for me and Sam,” Givens said. “We’re both hard workers and we try to put our best foot forward every day. That started to pay off for us towards the end of the season up to now.”
And the best could be yet to come.
“I have big plans for this year and my career in the NFL,” Givens said. “So this year’s really a year for me to kind of make a mission statement for me.”