Tuesday, August 22, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

There are few scenarios in the NFL where a player can simultaneously be placed in a great and terrible situation.

For Dominique Thompson and the rest of the young, inexperienced receivers on the Rams’ depth chart, that is the exact circumstance they face as they pursue roster spots with the team.

On one hand, Thompson and the likes of Taylor Stubblefield, Jeremy Carter and Clinton Solomon have the immense benefit of learning the NFL receiving ropes from the likes of Pro Bowlers and potential Hall of Famers such as Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Further, players like Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis and Dane Looker have proved themselves in the league and provide even more insight to pass catching in the league.

The flip and down side to that is the fact that there are only 53 roster spots on an active NFL roster. Of those 53, few teams ever keep more than six receivers. In other words, players such as Thompson, Stubblefield, Carter, etal., are long shots to crack the Rams’ depth chart.

“We are solid,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “When we are a healthy team, I can’t imagine there being many teams that have a much deeper corps than we have at wide receiver and the talent we have. We are happy with their production throughout camp and we are happy with their effort.”

There is little doubt that the group of Holt, Bruce, Curtis, McDonald and Looker are safe in their positions. Holt and Bruce, of course, have been linchpins of the offense for years and have showed no signs of slowing.

Take Holt’s approach to the preseason as the perfect example of how he can simultaneously help and hurt the younger receivers.

“I take every single year…and try to earn myself a spot on this football team, try to be in shape, try to study the playbook, and take notes like I did as a rookie,” Holt said. “I am always looking to get better and I am always trying to earn a spot. Anything can happen. I always say I control my destiny if I go in and handle my business. Then I have an opportunity to get a spot.”

That approach does a couple of things. One, it sets an excellent example for the younger receivers on how to approach the job like a professional. But it also means that the bar is immediately going to be set high to make the squad as a receiver.

Olson, in his first year as offensive coordinator for the Rams, has been wowed by what he sees from the receiving corps on a daily basis.

“(They’re) unbelievable,” Olson said. “Every day they do something new. It’s fun to watch more than anything. You are in awe quite often. It’s one thing to see a receiver make a great play once a week, but when you are seeing it two or three times in a practice, it’s awesome.”

Curtis and McDonald have showed no signs of slowing as Curtis appears headed toward a breakout season. McDonald continues to be a quiet weapon as the team’s fourth receiver and potential punt returner.

Looker is the always overlooked and underrated option who seems to come up with big catches on third down to move the chains. He also serves as the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins.

With those five spots seemingly locked up, that leaves one spot to be claimed. It appears that position will come down to which of the remaining receivers can best prove himself a capable return man. Right now, that seems to be a two-horse race between fifth-round draft choice Marques Hagans and free agent Brad Pyatt.

“I think Brad and Marques have both done great,” coach Scott Linehan said. “They’re both great kids, hard workers, been very consistent catching it. Like all of us, yesterday was the only day we didn’t consistently catch balls as a team, and the returns were no exception, but they’ve been working very hard at it. They know it’s a big role on this team and it’s an open job so they’re competing just like a lot of these other guys are to win a job on this team.”

Pyatt, for one, might have helped his case with his performance against Houston. He appears to be the stronger of the two when it comes to kickoff returns, but doesn’t seem to have the ability of Hagans on punt return.

Pyatt has made some big plays in the receiving game, though, including a long touchdown catch in the first scrimmage and a 40-yard grab against Indianapolis in the preseason opener.

Although Pyatt is aware that he is in a heated competition to make the roster, he is making it a point to learn from the experienced guys in front of him much like he did when he was with the Colts.

“I have learned from them,” Pyatt said. “Usually when it gets tough about this time, you want to go home and take a nap, but they get in the weight room and get some extra whatever it is. You learn from those guys, they set the bar and the example and it’s easy to learn from them.”

After Pyatt and Hagans, there have been plenty of other impressive receivers in the Rams’ camp. Thompson has been impressive in the passing game, Solomon has good size, Stubblefield has sure hands and Carter has excellent speed.

Still, even with all of that talent, it’s going to be extremely difficult for any of those players to get a look other than a potential spot on the practice squad.

“That’s tough to say right now,” Olson said. “We won’t make any decisions until we are done with the preseason. It’s a battle. It’s going to be hard to break in to be honest with you.”

Even if none of those players crack the Rams’ final 53, Linehan believes the competition has been good for everyone.

“I think we’ve created a very competitive environment at most positions, and that certainly is not different (with the wide receivers),” Linehan said. “We’ve certainly got some frontline guys that are going to be Rams come the Broncos game. But that’s why you have training camp. In this day and age with the limited numbers, you get more opportunities to play and do things.”