Rams rookie receivers could push second-year pros for playing time

Rams rookie receivers could push second-year pros for playing time
Rams quarterback Case Keenum (17) celebrates with Pharoh Cooper after the wide receiver's 11-yard touchdown catch against the Kansas City Chiefs last season. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It was not an over-the-top celebration, just a small exclamation point to a touchdown catch during offseason workouts.

Rams receiver Pharoh Cooper spun the ball like a top on the end zone turf. Then, with teammates hooting and hollering, he stepped back to admire his work.


A sign of things to come this season?

"Potentially," Cooper said, laughing. "In a game-time situation it will probably be a little different.

"Especially for the first time. I'll probably keep the ball and be a little hyped up."

Cooper, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, has not scored an NFL touchdown. Nor have Mike Thomas, a sixth-round pick last year, and Nelson Spruce, an undrafted free agent who scored in a preseason game before he was sidelined because of injuries.

The second-year pros could play larger roles in new coach Sean McVay's pass-oriented offense, or find themselves playing behind rookies.

The Rams in April selected Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington in the third round and Josh Reynolds of Texas A&M in the fourth.

Some NFL observers read that as a commentary on the sorry state of the Rams' receiving corps.

After the Rams ranked next to last in the NFL in passing offense last season, 1,000-yard receiver Kenny Britt and Brian Quick left as free agents, without resistance from the Rams.

Tavon Austin, who signed a four-year, $42-million extension last year, is back for his fifth season. Free agent Robert Woods received a five-year $34-million contract.

Neither Cooper nor Thomas said they took it as a slight when the Rams' drafted two receivers.

"I know the NFL is a business. … Them drafting more receivers is just going to make me work harder," Cooper said.

Said Thomas: "Of course it's motivation. But at the end of the day it's friendly competition. We're helping each other get better."

The 5-foot-11, 207-pound Cooper was a multipurpose standout at South Carolina but never really got a chance to get started last season.

His spectacular, leaping catch in a preseason game at Denver came with a cost: A shoulder injury that sidelined him for weeks.


Cooper played limited snaps when he returned, catching 14 passes for 106 yards.

"Fans want to see people make plays," he said. "They haven't seen me yet."

Cooper worked in the slot and also lined up wide during offseason workouts, which concluded with a minicamp last week. He made several impressive plays on both short and longer routes.

"He can find a hole in the defense and is smart," quarterback Jared Goff said.

Cooper also returns kickoffs and punts, and will compete for starting roles at both spots during training camp.

Thomas, 6-1 and 195 pounds, played on special teams and caught only three passes last season.

His most noteworthy play was not a highlight: He outran coverage in a Thursday night game at Seattle but dropped a long pass from Goff.

"You can't really define a player off his mistakes," said Thomas, who played in college at Southern Mississippi. "You've just got to define him off how he comes back from those mistakes. And I feel like I came back pretty well, I didn't let that get to me."

Thomas impressed during offseason workouts. He avoided drops and made several difficult catches.

"It's all about relaxing," he said, adding, "Last year, I was a little hesitant. … In Year 2, you got to step up."

Thomas has done that, Goff said.

"He's kind of found a role for himself," Goff said. "He's one of our faster receivers and can stretch the defense.

"I think he enjoys that role and understands that he's going to be an over-the-top guy. It's just a perfect role for him."

During training camp last year, Spruce showed the skills that helped him leave Colorado as the Pac-12 Conference's all-time leader in receptions.

He caught a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Sean Mannion in the first preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys before suffering a knee injury. That setback, followed by another injury on the eve of a possible return, kept him sidelined throughout the season.

The 6-2, 210-pound Spruce appears physically sound again and made several notable plays during OTAs and minicamps.

"You see a natural football player," McVay said. "He's got a good feel for the game. I think he's got good aggressive hands."

The second-year pros, while competing to increase their own playing time, have aided the rookies in their transition from college to the NFL, Reynolds said.

"If I'm struggling on a play or alignment, they'll get me corrected," he said. "It's not like a, 'Oh, you're-doing-this-wrong' type of thing.

"They're helpful."

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein