Sunday, July 24, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

To hear the St. Louis coaching staff tell the reasons why they drafted receiver Dante Ridgeway in the sixth round of April’s NFL Draft is to wonder how it’s possible that Ridgeway lasted as long as he did.

For a guy who had 3,030 receiving yards, 238 catches and 22 touchdown grabs in his career at Ball State, it’s surprising enough that Ridgeway didn’t at least find a home on day one of the draft. But if you listen to some of the comparisons thrown around in reference to Ridgeway, the surprise of Ridgeway’s wait becomes that much more stunning.

“When I watched (Anquan) Boldin coming out of Florida State, he (Ridgeway) is that kind of player,” receivers coach Henry Ellard said. “Not quite the ability, but he has the capability to do some of the things that he did on the field. He is a big physical guy…very strong, very soft hands, very good feet.”

Boldin went to Arizona in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft and went on to post impressive numbers as a rookie. He is now one of the better receivers in the NFC. While the comparison to Boldin might seem like high praise, coach Mike Martz had a different star receiver in mind.

“He has a bigger physical presence than our guys have,” Martz said. “He is a guy who has a chance to make it on this team. I think I like him a little as a Hines Ward type of player where he doesn’t have great speed, but does have great body control and makes plays.”

Ward is widely-considered the best blocking receiver in the league and has made four Pro Bowls for Pittsburgh. The former Georgia quarterback made the successful transition to receiver in the NFL after the Steelers nabbed him in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft.

Of course those are some pretty hefty comparisons for Ridgeway. Though he had a lot of success in college, he did so at Ball State, a MAC school which isn’t exactly a football power. That alone was probably enough to drop him a round or two.

Further hampering Ridgeway’s draft status is his lack of top-end speed, a quality that most of the league’s best receivers possess. Ridgeway ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds at the scouting combine, a decent if unspectacular time.
Ridgeway definitely has his fair share of positive qualities, too.

So, as other, less proven receivers went off the board one by one on draft day, Ridgeway sat and watched. Finally, when the Rams’ turn to draft in the sixth round arrived, they decided to grab Ridgeway with the 192nd pick in the draft.
The player who was a Biletnikoff Award finalist as one of the top three receivers in the nation saw 191 players and 24 wide receivers went ahead of him. Instead of looking at what could have been, though, Ridgeway quickly turned to what is.

“I had high hopes of being drafted on the first day, but I guess it wasn’t in God’s plan,” Ridgeway said. “I believe I’m in the best situation I could be in.”

There is little doubt that if you are a receiver then St. Louis is not a bad destination. The Rams have earned a reputation as a breeding ground for talented and sometimes unknown quarterbacks and receivers. Often times, those positions will grow together, such as the budding relationship between quarterback Marc Bulger and receivers Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.

With that opportunity in mind, though, there is another, more negative aspect to being selected by the Rams. Ridgeway is entering a situation that is, at the same time, great and difficult.

Because of the amount of talent St. Louis has at receiver, including the likes of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Curtis, McDonald and Looker, it might be hard for Ridgeway to find his way on to the roster. Even if Ridgeway makes the final 53, it will probably be even more difficult to land on the active Sunday roster. Last year, the Rams rarely dressed Mike Furrey, the sixth receiver, and only did so because of special teams.

“Our situation with the receiver corps is pretty good right now, it was not a real issue with us,” Ellard said. “If we can find a guy out there that can help us down the line, that is what we were hoping for and I think we found that in Dante. He has his work cut out for him, but I think he is one of those guys that can live up to the responsibility.”

Ridgeway got some early help in his race to make the squad in the form of some player movement. While last year it was clear who would be the six receivers even at the beginning training camp, this year there is one less sure thing on the roster. Furrey moved to safety in an effort to ensure that he is on the field enough to help on special teams, creating an opening for the sixth receiver slot.

Heading into camp that makes Ridgeway the early favorite for the spot, but doesn’t guarantee him anything. Others on the roster who could compete are Michael Coleman, Jeremy Carter, Dominique Thompson and Dominic Robinson. Coleman, for one, has spent a pair of seasons on the team’s practice squad and could be Ridgeway’s tightest competition for the sixth spot.

It also isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibilities that Furrey could end up back on offense if, for some reason, he doesn’t make it in the secondary. Furrey was impressive in the mini-camps, but anything could happen during camp.
Ellard said the Rams wouldn’t have drafted Ridgeway if they didn’t believe he could make the team.

“We believe in his ability, that is why we drafted him, to bring him in and give him an opportunity,” Ellard said. “Now it is up to him to take advantage of the opportunity we have given him.”

Another possibility to help Ridgeway make the roster is his ability to help on special teams. Ridgeway says he is open to doing anything from returner to gunner if it will help his standing.

As training camp approaches, Ridgeway knows the opportunity that sits before him and he plans on taking full advantage.

“There’s nothing easy,” Ridgeway said. “I’m going to come in and work hard. I intend to make the roster.”