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Keeping Cory Harkey a key to Rams' offensive plans

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Lost in the mix of a busy offseason that saw the St. Louis Rams make sweeping changes to the offense from coordinator to quarterback to running back to three spots along the offensive line was a simple move to retain one of their own.

Cory Harkey, the team's resident fullback/tight end/tough guy, quietly signed his one-year restricted free-agent tender offer in March. It didn't move the needle much, especially compared to big-ticket deals like the team's quarterback swap with the Philadelphia Eagles, but it was no less important given the offensive identity the Rams are attempting to forge.

“It’s great to have ‘Hark’ back," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. "He really took on a leadership role in the special-teams room and really all over, for that matter. It’s just great to have him back. He’s one of those guys you trust. He’s out every day. He’s tough. He makes plays. It’s good that we got at least another year.”

The Rams don't have a true fullback on the roster, per se, but Harkey has admirably filled that role in addition to his tight end duties. But even with the Rams' efforts to have a power rushing attack as the focal point of the offense, they haven't made a move to get a traditional fullback on the roster. The reason? Harkey.

After entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Harkey has steadily earned a bigger role. In 2012, he played just 28 snaps in five games, but that total moved up to 361 snaps in 2013 and 349 last season. He probably would've set a new career high in 2014 were it not for an early season knee injury that Harkey managed to play through.

That injury led to Harkey's two worst games as a run blocker last season, according to Pro Football Focus, but as he got back to full strength, he became a key cog in the offense from week to week. He finished with a 1.3 grade in run blocking, which for what it's worth made him one of just three Rams to have a positive run-blocking grade from PFF. It also figures to be his primary focus moving forward.

According to PFF's snap breakdown, Harkey spent 239 of his 349 snaps run blocking in 2014. But that was for a team that didn't run the ball as successfully or as much as the Rams seem to plan to in 2015. The Rams were just 26th in the NFL in rushing attempts last season, handing it off 395 times with an average of 4.14 yards per carry, good for just 17th in the NFL.

This offseason represented a commitment to improving in that area as the Rams spent the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on running back Todd Gurley and four more selections on offensive linemen.

And though it wasn't as clear at the time the team extended Harkey his restricted free-agent offer, bringing him back was also an important part of that plan.