Mike Thomas, Tyler Higbee look to move up Rams' depth chart

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Tavon Austin remained off to the side, running routes and catching tennis balls while wearing a guard on his surgically repaired left wrist, and Mike Thomas was on the field with his teammates, taking snaps with the Los Angeles Rams' first-team offense on Monday afternoon. The Rams have 17 pass-catchers on their roster, 14 of whom are heading into their first or second season in the NFL.

In other words, they're young at the position.

And while Austin and free-agent addition Robert Woods will serve as the two primary receivers, the Rams must still figure out how the second-year players will mix in with the rookies. It's an interesting dynamic because of the sheer volume, and it's fascinating because Sean McVay, the Rams' rookie coach, only hand-picked about half of them.

Suddenly a group that includes Pharoh Cooper, Tyler Higbee and Thomas, among others, is competing against Gerald Everett, Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, all of whom were acquired in this year's draft.

Kupp, like Cooper, profiles as a slot receiver.

Everett, like Higbee, is a pass-catching tight end.

Reynolds, like Thomas, is a deep threat.

"We're looking to find the best combination of guys that can make plays," McVay said after a recent practice. "We want to be an offense that gives the quarterback answers."

McVay, who will host a three-day, mandatory minicamp next week, mixed up the way he dispersed reps during organized team activities, with Woods seemingly the only mainstay. Sometimes it's Everett with Kupp and Reynolds; sometimes it's Higbee and Thomas with Nelson Spruce, a ballyhooed undrafted free agent from 2016 who never stepped on the field. Thomas has been the one getting most of Austin's reps.

He believes he has made "tremendous growth" since his rookie season.

"My rookie year, I was a little hesitant," Thomas said. "I wasn’t feeling myself as far as playing fast. But now, I know what to expect."

Thomas, a sixth-round pick out of Southern Mississippi, made critical mistakes in the scant playing time he received last season. Against the Falcons in Week 14, he fumbled the opening kickoff. Against the Seahawks in Week 15, he dropped a well-placed deep pass from Jared Goff while wide open. But the Rams badly need a deep threat. At 5 foot 8, Austin may be too small and Reynolds may be too raw. Thomas could emerge in that role this season.

"I feel like they see my potential in this offense, and Coach Bones [special teams coordinator John Fassel] sees my potential on special teams," Thomas said. "You can’t really define a player off his mistakes; you've just got to define him off how he comes back from those mistakes. I feel like I came back pretty well, and I didn’t let that get to me. Last year, my rookie year, I feel like I got all my mistakes in on the field. I got them out of the way."

Thomas is among 12 receivers; Higbee is among five pass-catching tight ends.

Higbee's primary competition is Everett, the 44th overall pick who built a name for himself as an athletic pass-catcher who can stretch the deep middle of the field. Higbee, a fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky in 2016, seemed destined for a primary role in Jeff Fisher's offense last summer. But the 6-foot-6, 257-pound Higbee was targeted only seven times in the first seven games and only 29 times all season.

"It was a coaching decision," Higbee said. "Whatever they thought was best, that’s what they did."

In the offseason, the Rams thought it best to let veteran Lance Kendricks leave via free agency and stay young at tight end. Temarrick Hemingway, a sixth-round pick in last year's draft, and Travis Wilson, the former Utah quarterback who recently made the transition to tight end, could factor into the mix. But it figures to be mainly Higbee and Everett at the position, and both could play a big role.

"You see what Coach McVay’s done in Washington with those tight ends," Higbee said, alluding to a 2016 Redskins team that led the NFL in tight end receiving yards. "He had two great guys with Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed over there. Not saying we have a Jordan Reed/Vernon Davis over here, but I think we’re going to be all right."