Rams still in need of top receiver

ST. LOUIS -- Less than 24 hours after the St. Louis Rams' 2013 season had come to an end with a blowout loss to Seattle, coach Jeff Fisher was asked how his team can catch up to the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC West.

The Seahawks’ dominant defense, much like Arizona’s and San Francisco’s before it, had stifled the Rams' offense. After spending another afternoon stuck in the mud with just 158 yards of total offense, Fisher pointed to the obvious solution.

“All three teams play really good defense, and we’ve got to play better offense and score more points to compete with them,” Fisher said.

As the Rams prepare for free agency and the NFL draft, those words should loom large in determining the direction they take. It should also yield an added emphasis on finding more playmakers at wide receiver.

St. Louis finished 30th in the league in total yards and 22nd in offensive points scored in 2013. In some sense those numbers were skewed by the absence of starting quarterback Sam Bradford, and some strange scenarios, such as the Houston game where the Rams jumped to such a big lead and got so many big plays from the defense and special teams that the offense wasn’t needed.

The Rams played nine games against the top seven defenses in the league in terms of total yards allowed. Clearly, that’s a big reason for the Rams’ lack of production. It’s also a big reason the Rams need to get better offensively, considering three of those defenses are in the NFC West and not going anywhere anytime soon.

After the offense’s aborted attempt to go to a more wide-open attack in the first four games, Fisher and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer returned to their run-heavy roots in Game 5 with rookie back Zac Stacy in the lead role.

That attack gave the Rams a chance week to week, but it was exposed by defenses capable of stopping the run. Never was that more evident than in the season finale against Seattle when the Seahawks shut down Stacy and forced Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens to try to beat them through the air.

Clemens, who had most of his success when the run game was working, simply wasn’t able to take advantage. Not all the blame for that should go on Clemens. Those struggles exposed a bigger issue that has remained a problem for the Rams since the heyday of Torry Holt: the lack of a top receiver capable of regularly creating separation against top cornerbacks on the outside.

Chris Givens led Rams receivers in yards with 569. For greater context, the Rams haven’t had a wideout reach even 700 receiving yards since Holt in 2008, nevermind 1,000 yards, which Holt hit in 2007. A total of 57 receivers -- not including tight ends and running backs -- finished with more yards than Givens in 2013.

Asked last week how he views a receiving corps with so little production, Rams general manager Les Snead said he still has faith in the team’s young group.

“Statistically, you’ve heard me say teams win, individuals don’t,” Snead said. “We’re in this fantasy football type age, and I think if you look at seven of the top 10 pass-catchers, seven of the top 10 didn’t make the playoffs. So there’s three of them who are in. So yes, those guys are really good individual players, had great seasons, it didn’t mean their teams made the playoffs.”

Actually, four of the top 10 receivers in terms of yards made the postseason, but it’s also worth noting that nine of the 12 teams making the playoffs had a 1,000-yard receiver. The three that didn’t -- Seattle, Carolina and Kansas City -- each had at least two pass-catchers more productive than the Rams’ leader regardless of position, tight end Jared Cook.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the Rams played the 2013 season with the youngest group of skill position players in the league, especially at receiver. Austin Pettis, in his third season, was the team’s most experienced wideout.

With that youth came plenty of growing pains, including a variety of dropped balls, route-running troubles and miscommunications. Bradford’s absence also has to be accounted for in looking at the numbers.

Still, the lack of production at wideout doesn’t seem to faze Snead, as evidenced by his response to the question on whether he believes the team still needs a No. 1 receiver.

“I go back to this and the answer is really 'no' on that,” Snead said. “I think our receivers right now, I truly believe as they progress and the oldest guy just finished his third year, we cannot have another receiver around here and we’re going to be a good football team.”

Rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey showed flashes of promise in their first season, and should figure prominently into the plans for 2014. The Rams seem prepared to remain patient with Brian Quick, and Givens certainly fills a role as a deep threat.

While Snead likes the progress of the receivers, it also doesn’t mean the team is necessarily averse to adding at the position. As is common at this time of year, Snead, Fisher and Co. are playing their cards close to the vest.

In the past two drafts, the Rams have used four picks on wideouts, including the No. 8 overall choice on Austin a year ago. But that doesn’t mean they should stand pat at the position.

Even if it means using a premium draft pick to add one, for the Rams to have a chance to overcome the elite defenses in the division they must find a way to add a consistent difference-maker at wide receiver.