By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
In the immediate aftermath of the Rams' 24-10 victory over Baltimore, rookies Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton were nowhere to be found in the locker room Saturday night.
There's only so many locker stalls in the main room — not enough for the entire 80-man preseason roster. For now at least, the wide receiver tandem has been assigned to a smaller overflow locker room across the hall in the Edward Jones Dome.
"You know what? I love it back here," Burton said. "It puts things in perspective. You've got to fight for every inch. So I think that's exactly what we're doing."
Avery and Burton may not dress in the big room just yet, but over the previous 3½ hours Saturday they showed they could play in the big house. They combined for eight catches for 128 yards, with Burton scoring the game's first touchdown on a 4-yard reception from Marc Bulger.
Could this have been a tantalizing peek at the future?
"You know what? I hope so," Burton said. "We're both going to work hard and we're going to keep pushing each other, and I think we'll build a great relationship along the way."
"Oh yeah," Avery added. "Me and 14, we just have fun out there."
It sure looked that way Saturday night. Burton, who wears jersey No. 14, caught three passes for 63 yards, including a 40-yard reception from Brock Berlin in the third quarter that set up the Rams' final touchdown of the evening.
Avery, who wears jersey No. 17, caught five balls for 65 yards, including a 15-yard reception on the Rams' first TD drive, and catches of 26 and nine yards on their second TD drive.
"They played great," Bulger said. "They're still making some mistakes. Their eyes are still a little bit wide out there. But the good thing about them is if they make a mistake, they come right back and try to make a play. And they want to learn.
"It's not something where they get discouraged. So they're good kids first, and they have a heck of a lot of talent. I think you saw what both of them can do in different situations."
Even with his five catches, Avery could have had a bigger night. He got his hands on three other balls but couldn't come down with the catch. By his own admission, Avery was a bundle of nerves in his Rams debut.
He had missed the club's first two preseason games, and about half of training camp, with a stress fracture in his pelvic bone.
"I had a lot of first-game jitters," Avery said. "I had to calm myself down, and just tell myself just go have fun. This is just another practice."
Because of Avery's injury, and some minor leg problems for Burton earlier in camp, the pair hadn't even been on the practice field together all that much since training camp started July 25. So Saturday's game was a coming-out party for the duo, at least when it came to playing together for an extended period.
"I saw some flashes of really good football, and I saw some flashes of rookie mistakes," coach Scott Linehan said Sunday after reviewing game tape. "But what I was the most pleased with was the speed they played at. They played fast. They kind of changed the game in a lot of ways when they started to make plays and they were on the field together."
That's exactly why the Rams made Avery the first wide receiver taken in the draft — with the second pick of the second round at No. 33 overall. Ditto for Burton, chosen in the fourth round out of Kentucky. Linehan wanted fresh legs, speedy legs, to help revitalize an aging receiver corps.
Make no mistake, Torry Holt — he of the seven Pro Bowl berths — remains the go-to guy in the receiver corps. But it's not out of the realm of possibility to see Avery and Burton pushing No. 2 and No. 3 receivers Drew Bennett and Dante Hall for playing time as the season progresses.
"I think the sky's the limit for those young guys," Linehan said. "As long as they improve and work hard, they've got the ability to get more and more playing time."
But Linehan also knows that one game does not make a season — or a career.
"Right now, we're just pleased that they had a good outing," Linehan said. "Now they've got to show that they can back it up with another one, and another one."