WRs Face Intense Battle for Roster Spots
Monday, August 2, 2004


By NICK WAGONER
Staff Writer


Battles for roster spots are perhaps the biggest staple of training camp life. Every year young hopefuls eye the spots of grizzled veterans with dreams of stardom on their mind.

Rewind one year to Macomb, Ill., the summer home of the St. Louis Rams and the battles were numerous. There was the jockeying for the quarterback job, among others, but none of the competitions was as heated as the one at wide receiver. By the end of camp, six receivers had emerged at the head of the class.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise, then, that this year there seems to be a solid wall around the chosen six, a wall that will be difficult for any of the ambitious youngsters to break through.

Kevin Curtis , one of the six who appears safe in his position, said the receiving corps looks great in the first week of camp.

“We are pretty solid for receiver,” Curtis said. “Obviously you have Ike (Bruce) and Torry (Holt) and Dane (Looker) that did their thing last year, but we also have me, Mike Furrey and Shaun (McDonald).

“I feel like all of us can contribute.”

At the top of the depth chart is one of the league’s best receiving duos. Isaac Bruce has established himself as “Mr. St. Louis Ram.” He is the only player who has been with the team since it moved to St. Louis and has posted some of the most astonishing numbers for any receiver, ever. Bruce enters 2004 with career totals of 688 catches, 10,461 yards and 68 touchdown, one of just 15 players to hold team records in all three categories.

Holt officially made “the leap” in 2003. The leap doesn’t refer to one of Holt’s acrobatic catches in traffic, but rather his move from Pro Bowl receiver to one of the league’s elite wideouts with Bruce. Holt led the league with 117 catches and 1,696 yards and was second in touchdowns with 12. Holt’s breakthrough was expected, but the timing of it was surprising because of the changing situation at quarterback.

A year ago, the picture was muddled after the Holt and Bruce combination. When the season ended, though, it was clear where everyone sat. Looker , who worked his way from the practice squad and through stops in NFL Europe to make the roster in training camp and moved into the vacant No. 3 spot. Looker provided a valuable set of hands and admirably replaced the departed Ricky Proehl as a go-to-guy in third-down situations.

“I think once you get playing time and have all that success, you don’t want to give that up,” Looker said. “I want to be the third receiver this year and I expect to be when this is all said and done.”

The Rams’ other pleasant surprise was the unknown and little-used Furrey. Furrey took a path similar to Looker, making his name in the Arena Football League before St. Louis signed him. Furrey finished with 20 catches for 189 yards and proved valuable as a kick returner. He figures into the mix in both roles again this season.

Furrey readily admits that it wasn’t so long ago he was in a similar position to the young receiver trying to catch on.

“Being in their shoes is hard, it is tough,” Furrey said. “Obviously nobody knows who you are reps are real limited. It’s tough.

“It’s something I would never want to do again, but I am still trying to grow and trying to get better.”

Although their roster spots might be relatively safe, that doesn’t mean that second-year receivers Curtis and McDonald don’t have something to prove. Both players impressed the coaches and fans in 2003’s training camp with blazing speed and sure hands. Curtis and McDonald seemed destined to make an impact right away, but then the injuries started piling up.

Curtis broke his leg in the preseason and didn’t return until the Rams’ sixth game against Green Bay. Curtis never made it back to full strength and had little impact. After some rigorous training to get back in shape, Curtis appears ready to make a difference.

He showed the quickness and catching ability that made him a top prospect entering 2003. He grabbed three touchdown passes during Sunday morning’s practice, including a pair of acrobatic catches in the corner of the end zone.

Curtis said he isn’t quite 100 percent, but he feels better on the field than he did at any time last season and is eager to show what he can do.

“I didn’t really get a chance to prove myself last year with the injury,” Curtis said. “I think coming in last year and being drafted I definitely feel like I have to show these guys I can play.”

Curtis wasn’t the only rookie receiver who battled injury problems in 2003. McDonald battled a left thumb injury for most of the season and saw limited action. Like Curtis, he appears healthy and has had some strong practices in the first week.

As for the guys trying to steal a roster spot, Michael Coleman, who spent time on the practice squad, joins a group that includes Kelvin Kight, Brian Sump and Derek McCoy hoping to unseat one of the six.

With quarterback Marc Bulger in control full-time, an offensive line that returns intact, and all six receivers with another year in coach Mike Martz’s wide-open passing attack, the St. Louis offense could improve on its 2003 ranking of third in the league in passing offense. From 1999-2001, the Rams' led the league in passing offense, and could retain the top spot once again with one the league's most talented and deepest receiving corps.