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Tight end picture changing for Rams

2013-08-27T04:05:00Z 2013-08-27T05:50:10Z Tight end picture changing for RamsBy Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

With the regular season fast closing in, the Rams got some good news and some “could’ve-been-worse” news at tight end. Meanwhile, a spirited competition for the sixth wide receiver spot is down to three candidates.

The good news at tight end is that Lance Kendricks is nearly ready for full practice participation and sounds confident that he will play in the Sept. 8 season opener against Arizona.

“I feel really good out there,” Kendricks said after Monday’s practice at Rams Paker. “Just trying to knock the rust off and trying to get back to playing shape.”

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Kendricks was full-go in individual drills Monday and did his first “team” (or 11-on-11) work since his offseason knee surgery.

Kendricks indicated that he won’t play in Thursday’s preseason finale against Baltimore but said he anticipates being a “go” against Arizona.

“Definitely,” Kendricks said. “We’ve got two weeks here (before Arizona), plenty of time to get acclimated to football and the other guys on the field.”

There are some new wrinkles in the Rams’ offense that he hasn’t had a chance to work on at practice because of his injury. In addition, his role will change somewhat with the acquisition of Jared Cook via free agency. Nonetheless, Kendricks says diligent film study will help make it a smooth transition back to the playing field.

“I’ve been watching a ton of film, and I think that’s helped overall on just the mental aspect of the game,” he said.

Kendricks’ return takes on even more importance because of the loss of Cory Harkey with a leg injury. Harkey, the Rams’ No. 3 tight end, has a slight fracture in the lower leg and could miss about a month of action. With one week left in the preseason, that means Harkey will miss perhaps two or three games to start the regular season.

Losing Harkey was a blow, but the Rams were concerned that it might be much more serious.

“We got good news on Harkey, that’s all I can say,” Fisher said.

In Kendricks’ absence, Harkey had gotten lots of work with the starting offense during the spring practice period and training camp. The extra work benefited Harkey, an undrafted free agent out of UCLA in 2012 who is known as a blocking specialist but has shown improvement as a pass receiver.

Although depth at the position may still be a concern at the start of the season, the return of Kendricks comes just in time to lessen the loss of Harkey. Kendricks said Harkey’s absence won’t affect his timetable, or put any pressure on him to return earlier.

“Not at all,” Kendricks said. “It’s still the preseason. Hopefully, Harkey gets back as soon as possible, but overall there’s no pressure.”

As of Monday, the Rams still have six tight ends on the roster: Jared Cook, Kendricks, Harkey, Mike McNeill, Zach Potter and Philip Lutzenkirchen. Harkey’s injury may force the team to carry an extra tight end into the regular season.

Of the group, Harkey and Potter are more blocking specialists. Cook, McNeill and Lutzenkirchen are more pass-catching TEs. Kendricks is an all-round tight end who can block, catch and run well.

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In 2012, the Rams began the season with three tight ends in Kendricks, McNeill and the since-departed Matt Mulligan, but finished with four after promoting Harkey from the practice squad at midseason.

Harkey’s injury also could affect the future of Eric Stevens, the undrafted rookie from California and the only true fullback on the roster. The Rams spent the final six games of the 2012 season without a fullback on the roster.

Kendricks and Harkey can both block out of the backfield, but with Harkey out and Kendricks just coming back, the Rams may be more inclined to open the season with Stevens.

At wide receiver, undrafted rookies Emory Blake and Justin Veltung plus 2012 Rams practice squad member Nick Johnson are left battling for the No. 6 spot on the 53-man roster following Monday’s roster cuts. That’s assuming the Rams keep six wideouts, that is.

Most teams keep six wide receivers on the 53-man roster. But because of the injury situation at tight end, the Rams could opt for another tight end at least at the start of the regular season and keep only the big five at wideout: Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey.

Veltung’s emergence has been impressive considering he didn’t join the Rams until July 31, nearly a week into training camp. But his 4.4 speed, leaping ability, balance and return ability have kept him around so far.

“It’s a blessing, I mean, just to be out here and pass these little cuts right now,” Veltung said, referring to the first round of cuts. “I feel like I’m a good fit here and just want to fit in wherever I can, wherever they need me.”

Veltung’s biggest challenge has been simply learning the playbook in his less than four weeks as a Ram. Even the other rookies, drafted and undrafted, seem like seasoned veterans in comparison because they’ve been around at least since the rookie minicamp in May.

“Coming in late, you’ve just got to buckle down and learn everything,” Veltung said. “Learn your position, plus other people’s positions (because) they can put you everywhere. It’s pretty hard, but do-able.”

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