Two Rams unknowns catch plenty of passes, attention
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

Every offseason, when the Rams flesh out their 80-man roster for training camp, one of the hardest positions to fill is wide receiver.

With the likes of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald on the depth chart, there are easier rosters to make. Before that, it was Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakim. Certainly, there are easier offenses in which to assimilate.

But as Brandon Middleton sees it, the glass is half full for wide receivers at Rams Park. If you're a young receiver trying to make it in the NFL, why not learn from the best?

"For a receiver, this is the offense," Middleton said. "This is where I want to be if I'm going to play receiver in the NFL and make my presence felt.

"You've got to bring your A-game every day. . . .You can't back down. The competition just elevates your game. Believe in yourself, believe in your skills, and everything will work out."

Who knows if things will work out? Middleton and another no-name receiver in training camp, Jeremy Carter, are doing their best to get noticed. Both have been catching the ball well in the first week of camp, and Carter's 4.3 speed has allowed him to get under deep passes that most receivers can't reach.

"They're both good enough to play in this league," Rams general manager Charley Armey said.

Middleton and Carter have taken divergent paths to get this far. At the University of Houston, Middleton was one of the most prolific pass-catchers in school history. As a senior in 2003, he caught 55 passes for what was then a Conference USA-record 1,250 yards. (The record since has been broken by Alabama-Birmingham's Roddy White, a first-round draft pick this spring by Atlanta.)

But Middleton's not the biggest wide receiver around at 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds, or the fastest. He went undrafted. "For me to come to draft day and not be drafted was a blow," Middleton said. "But it also motivated me to work harder and to prove all those people wrong."

The Rams were interested in signing Middleton as a rookie free agent after the 2004 draft, but he opted for the Dallas Cowboys. That proved to be a big mistake.

"I really wasn't given an opportunity," Middleton said. "I sat there for two preseason games. They released me."

The Rams, however, kept Middleton on their radar screen. They added him to the practice squad for the final four games of the 2004 regular season and re-signed him to the offseason roster within two weeks of their playoff loss to Atlanta.

Middleton has discovered fewer egos in St. Louis than he did in Dallas. Two of his top supporters here have been Bruce and Holt.

"Those are my two biggest guys who actually come to me and talk to me," Middleton said. "This offseason, I worked a lot with Isaac Bruce . . . before training camp."

Carter's path to Earth City was much more unconventional. Except for a stint with a semipro team in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., in 2004, Carter hasn't played in a football game since the 1999 college season at Western Carolina.

After transferring to East Carolina, Carter wanted to play football and run track. He was there on a track scholarship, but according to Carter, the track coach threatened to pull the scholarship if Carter went out for football. So Carter stuck with track and dropped football.

"I thought that was the end of the story," said Rams scout Tom Marino, who lives in North Carolina and had followed Carter's football career in high school and at Western Carolina.

But Carter couldn't get football out of his system. Last spring, he persuaded his next-door neighbor in Raleigh, Armand Denuzzio, to ask Marino for a tryout. Marino and Denuzzio are longtime friends.

Carter got his tryout and ran a sizzling 4.34 in the 40 for Marino. That was enough to get an invitation to training camp. So far, so good for Carter, who obviously is rough around the edges but has made some dazzling catches on deep passes.

"Once you see it in the air, that adrenaline starts pumping, and you just go get it," Carter said. "I'm not surprising myself. I knew I could do it. But I've got to keep on going, just keep on making plays."

Whether either Carter or Middleton is good enough to make the Rams' final roster remains to be seen. But coach Mike Martz says young players shouldn't be psyched out by what's ahead of them on the depth chart, even at the wide receiver position.

"What they don't understand is there's always room for a good player," Martz said. "We'll make room."