Halfway through St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers' rookie season he found himself wondering if he was going to be able to have the kind of impact expected of the 14th pick in the NFL draft.
The first half of the season had essentially been a wash as Brockers dealt with the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason finale. He returned in Week 4 but the ankle injury didn’t allow him to perform the way he’d hoped.
Things were so bad that Brockers doesn’t even like the mention of the first eight games of his career. He prefers not to watch the game film from his first five appearances.
“I can’t put it into words from my mouth because it was just really bad,” Brockers said. “When I look at myself toward the end of the season and look at myself toward the beginning of the season, my stance has changed, I’m coming off the ball different, I’m reading plays different, everything is different when you first get into the league because everything is going fast and I had the ankle so I’m playing tentative. It really was bad tape to watch. I hate watching it but now that we moved on to different games and later in the season, I am just trying to progress off of that really.”
Brockers’ breakthrough performance came right at the beginning of the second half of the season. Motivated by the opportunity to face San Francisco’s tough, physical offensive line, namely guard Mike Iupati, Brockers said it was in that Week 10 game that he finally put all thoughts about his ankle out of his mind.
“The game I like to play is smashmouth football,” Brockers said. “That game really put a lot of pressure on the ankle. After that, I was like ‘this ankle can hold up’ and I can go out and play. I think that was the turning point.”
Brockers never looked back in the second half of the season though he had his share of ups and downs, as rookies tend to do. He again gave San Francisco fits in Week 13, and put on another dominant performance against Buffalo the following week.
That late-season performance combined with an offseason in which he has reshaped his body has many observers believing that Brockers, on a team full of young potential, is the most likely to emerge into a full blown star in 2013.
“Mike did a great job coming back off the high ankle (injury), and really finished up strong toward the second half of the season,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s worked very hard. He’s changed his body, and we think he can be a dominating player inside.”
The changing of the body has seemed like something of a neverending process for Brockers, even dating to before he entered the league. Brockers arrived at the 2012 scouting combine around 322 pounds but dropped down to closer to 310 through the draining process of draft preparation.
Brockers put some of that weight back on as he dealt with the ankle injury, but it wasn’t the type of weight he’d hoped. After the season, Brockers wanted to make it a point to turn that weight into muscle and refine his already massive frame.
After having surgery to remove bone spurs from his other ankle, Brockers returned to LSU to work out and spent extra time with Rams strength coach Rock Gullickson.
Brockers said he didn’t do anything special in terms of altering his workouts and tweaking his diet a bit. Entering this season, Brockers checked in at 326 pounds, heavier than he played at any point last season but he says the majority of that is 9 pounds of muscle mass he added in the offseason.
“I’m heavier but I feel better,” Brockers said. “It’s all for the better and I think this weight hasn’t done anything but make me more explosive, make me better and more powerful.”
As with any second-year player, Brockers is still a work in progress. He was considered a bit raw coming out of LSU anyway, particularly as a pass-rusher, but he actually exceeded expectations in that regard with four sacks as a rookie.
Pro Football Focus gave Brockers a neutral cumulative grade of 0.0 for rushing the passer in 2012. Individual game grades were up and down so the onus falls on Brockers to find more consistency.
Brockers says he spent a lot of his offseason working on little details like hand placement, footwork and pad level. All of those things still require plenty of polish.
New defensive coordinator Tim Walton plans on using Brockers in a variety of ways, too.
“He’s a stud up front,” Walton said. “He’s a big athlete. He gives you a lot of flexibility. Also, being able to play a 2-technique, 1-technique, 3-technique, put him right over the center in the zero -- so he gives you a lot of flexibility because he’s athletic. He can run, you can widen him out a little bit and get him on the edge, so that’s a valuable option for him also.”
Fisher has often said that most players make their biggest improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. If that holds true for Brockers, big things are in store in 2013. But perhaps the real upside may not even come until his third year given the fact the first half of his first season was essentially a wash.
If Brockers can develop as he and the Rams hope, it would make for a potentially devastating defensive line. Ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long are more known commodities and that group led the way for a team that finished tied for first with Denver in sacks a year ago.
Still, a closer look at those sack numbers reveal a defense that occasionally got sacks in bunches (nine came in one game against Arizona) rather than consistent pass rush throughout the season. A big part of that inconsistency was a need for push up the middle.
Brockers’ continued development inside would only buoy the work on the edge by the likes of Quinn and Long, and allow them to finish more plays rather than watch quarterbacks step up into a more comfortable spot in the pocket.
Another step forward for Brockers would equal another step forward for the defense. It’s a step he says he’s ready to take.
“Definitely, if you are in this league and you don’t think that, there’s something wrong with you because you are playing against the top athletes in the world,” Brockers said. “And you have to feel like you are one of the best or can be one of the best. That’s an awesome feeling. Going into this season, that’s how I feel and if I come out to work every day and practice hard and play hard then the sky is the limit.”