THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams have a wide receiver problem. They've had one for nearly a decade. They've had one, perhaps, since Torry Holt's 1,189-yard season in 2007. For the next eight years, the Rams didn't have a single player who caught for 800 yards, let alone 1,000. The streak finally ended with Kenny Britt, who notched a career-high 1,002 receiving yards -- despite hauling in only 61.8 percent of his targets -- in 2016.
Britt is headed for free agency now, as is Brian Quick, the former No. 33 overall pick who hasn't quite panned out. And it's up to a new staff, led by the offensive-minded Sean McVay, to ameliorate the Rams' longtime problem area, both with the scheme and through free agency.
The only established receiver locked in for 2017 is Tavon Austin, who was given a four-year, $42 million extension weeks before the 2016 season. Behind him are Bradley Marquez, who has made most of his contributions on special teams, and five players coming off rookie seasons in which they barely played: Pharoh Cooper, Paul McRoberts, Marquez North, Nelson Spruce and Mike Thomas. But the Rams are expected to have about $40 million in salary-cap space, and several intriguing options will exist in free agency.
McVay seeks "guys that handle the ball in general."
"You can't have enough playmakers," McVay said. "Certainly, that's something that we're always looking to upgrade. That receiver position is very important. A lot of yards and offensive production goes through that room. We want to try to find a way to get the best players on the field."
But the most important work for the Rams could come in-house, in getting more out of the quick, elusive, 5-foot-8 Austin.
The Rams drafted Austin eighth overall in 2013 after a highly successful run at West Virginia, but he has totaled only 2,610 yards from scrimmage over the past four seasons, a mark topped by 85 players. Some of that might be on Austin, but the offense he's been a part of also shoulders plenty of blame. And the new staff is hopeful of tapping into more of his dynamic skill set, as a receiver, a punt returner and, occasionally, a running back.
McVay identified Austin as "a guy that you want to move all over the formation."
The Rams did that last season, but they probably didn't give him enough carries. Austin had a career year in 2015, with 473 yards through the air and another 434 on the ground. He caught for a career-high 509 yards in 2016, but he rushed for only 159 yards, his carries dropping from 52 to 28. Zac Taylor, the new assistant receivers coach who will work under Eric Yarber, called Austin an "explosive, dynamic receiver and tough runner."
"Any time you have a guy with that skill set, it's fun to look at what you can do creatively, utilize him in an offense," Taylor said. "I'm excited to work with him."
The Rams have a similar player in Cooper, a fourth-round pick out of South Carolina who can be very versatile and a real threat after the catch. Spruce, a heralded undrafted free agent who was never able to play last season, could become a solid possession receiver. And Thomas, a sixth-round pick, might eventually stretch the field vertically if he develops properly.
But they all have some growing to do.
“Watching footage on some of these guys, you have a wide variety of receivers," said Yarber, who spent the past five seasons coaching receivers at UCLA. "You’ve got guys that can play the slot, that can be option runners. You’ve got guys that can take the top off; you’ve got guys with size. I’m excited about working with this group and taking them to the next level.”