TAMPA — As NFL teams go, the Bucs are a young one, with a dozen rookies on their roster, including impact players on both sides of the ball. That's still not as young as the Rams team they'll face Sunday, one with rookies galore and a full 29 players — more than half the team — in their first or second year in the league.
"Last year, we were the youngest team in the league, and this year we got younger," said coach Jeff Fisher, whose Rams have beaten the Colts, Bears and Saints — three likely playoff teams — in the past six weeks. "I'm excited about it because they're talented, they love to prepare, practice and have fun. They play hard, and we'll be able to keep this group together for years now as they mature and develop."
The Rams have rookies all over; their leading rusher with 854 yards, Zac Stacy, was a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt, and first-rounder Tavon Austin out of West Virginia has six touchdowns as an explosive receiver and returner. Another first-rounder, Alec Ogletree out of Georgia, leads the team with 102 tackles, and three other rookies have at least 10 tackles.
"We're pleased," Fisher said of his rookie contingent. "We still have quite a ways to go, but we're seeing and stressing improvement on a weekly basis. Alec is really having a good rookie year, seeing things still for the first time, but he's improving. (Austin) is making a lot of plays for us as well as (receiver) Stedman (Bailey) and (safety) T.J. (McDonald). Starting two rooks on defense in key positions of need, and we're pleased with them so far."
That youth movement will get another potential contributor in the spring when the Rams can use the final and most valuable pick acquired in the 2012 blockbuster deal that sent the Redskins the pick used on quarterback Robert Griffin III. Right now, that would be the draft's No. 2 overall pick, who will join five other current Rams drafted with picks gained in the Griffin trade. Those players include three defensive starters — second-year defensive tackle Michael Brockers (5½ sacks), second-year cornerback and one-time Gator Janoris Jenkins (three interceptions for TDs last year) and Ogletree, who was taken with the 30th overall pick this year.
The Bucs have had major contributions from rookies as well, from quarterback Mike Glennon (17 TD passes) and tight end Tim Wright on offense, to cornerback Johnthan Banks and defensive linemen Akeem Spence and William Gholston.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who has 22 players with one or two years of NFL experience, likes the upside that comes with such a young group.
"You're going to play your best players, whether they're rookies or second-year guys or veterans," Schiano said. "Some of it is because they're better than anybody else on the team, some of it is because of injuries. I think our young guys are doing a heck of a job. They're working hard trying to grasp all the information. As a coach, you try to speed that process up. Sometimes the only way they're going to learn is to go through the fire, but you try to see if you can't expose them to a little bit before they get into that fire."
The young Rams have gone 6-8 despite losing franchise quarterback Sam Bradford to a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game. St. Louis has as tough a division as any team this season, facing not only Seattle (12-2) and San Francisco (10-4) but Arizona (9-5) in the West — more nine-win teams than the other three NFC divisions combined. That makes for a difficult climb, but Fisher likes the youthful lineup he has for that challenge.
"We have a young team that's going to get better," Fisher said. "You get better by working hard during the offseason, by getting opportunities to play in games, and a lot of our players are doing that. We still have numerous needs that we'll address … but I think we're closing the gap in the division. I think we understand where we need to get to."