Young Receivers Relish Opportunity
Friday, May 29, 2009

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

In the moments following the first truly hot organized team activity of the early summer, most Rams players made a quick exit, heading to the cool confines of the Russell Training Facility.

Most Rams, that is, except for a hungry group of young wide receivers aching to run more routes, catch more balls and work on their return skills.

To most fans and even the coaches, this was a group of relatively anonymous players hoping to make an impression and find a way to land a roster spot come training camp.

Some of them are undrafted free agents such as Jarrett Byers and newly-added Sean Walker. Others are veterans only in the sense that they have bounced around the league and never found a permanent home, players like Horace Gant, Chad Lucas, Nate Jones and Travis Brown.

“Because we are a young receiver corps we have been out here working hard and you see guys out here getting extra work,” Jones said. “It’s just going to make everyone better.”

In years past, cracking the depth chart at the wide out spot has been nearly impossible for a young receiver as the Rams regularly pumped out productive players at the position.

For many years, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were the gold standard with plenty of help from players like Az Hakim, Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, Ricky Proehl and Dane Looker.

Opportunities for youngsters to hold a spot beyond the practice squad were few and far between.

But with a new era on the way under coach Steve Spagnuolo and a lack of experience at the receiver position, an intense competition appears to be brewing among a group of virtual unknowns.

That competition is adding an element of excitement in these workouts according to quarterback Marc Bulger, who believes the Rams have some intriguing possibilities to be his targets.

“I think we’re fine,” Bulger said. “Like Coach says, you always want more competition at every position. That makes us better. A lot of these kids I don’t know some of their names. I know their numbers right now. But we have some speed; we have some guys that can move. Obviously, the guys we had last year are doing a great job, but we have some sleepers in there I think that are going to surprise you guys.”

As it stands, it appears second-year men Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton are all but sure things to sit atop the depth chart when the smoke has cleared. Laurent Robinson, acquired from Atlanta via trade before the draft, is also right in the mix.

Beyond that trio, the Rams have Derek Stanley recovering from a serious knee injury and fifth-round draft pick Brooks Foster. Stanley’s return ability and Foster’s upside will have them right in the mix for spots on the depth chart but the fact remains that there could be as many as three spots up for grabs this summer.

That is a fact that isn’t lost on some of the lesser known competitors, either.

“It’s a big opportunity,” Jones said. “They had some guys back when they won the Super Bowl that made the Greatest Show on Turf and since they are gone, it gives us a chance to try to come in and (do our best). Everybody knows it’s a clean slate for everybody. It’s just coming out here and giving the best effort we can in practices and OTAs and getting better as a unit and making yourself better. You have to compete with these guys knowing there is a great opportunity for you.”

Opportunities for players like Jones have seemingly been given every season. For whatever reason, those players have not quite been able to stick.

Jones was the leading receiver for Texas on their 2005 national title team. After going undrafted, he signed with Minnesota as a free agent. He spent most of training camp with the Vikings before he was released.

Unlike most of his competition, though, Jones has a familiarity with St. Louis. He spent the final 12 weeks of last season on the team’s practice squad. Now, he’s doing whatever it takes, including handling some return duties, an area he believes could help set him apart.

“I am just out here getting a little extra work and trying to get better at it every day,” Jones said. “That’s the only way to make myself better.”

A player like Gant represents the immense potential of many young players coming into the league. An undrafted free agent out of tiny St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Gant is a 6’3, 218-pound physical specimen with raw tools but plenty of upside.

In his first collegiate game, Gant caught nine passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns in helping St. Olaf to the fourth-largest halftime comeback in NCAA history. A strong college career wasn’t enough to land him a draft spot either but signed with Washington and spent last season on the Redskins practice squad.

Coming from a spread offense in college, Gant is still adjusting to the route running, speed and physical line of scrimmage play that the NFL boasts.

“In Division 3, I was never checked at the line and now I am being checked every down,” Gant said. “That’s a big difference but I will always work as hard as I can to try to beat the next man out and do the best I can all the time.”

Although it’s a relative term with this group of receivers, the most experienced of the new faces battling for jobs is Lucas.

In 2004, Lucas went undrafted and signed with Tennessee. Since, he’s been something of a football vagabond, bouncing from the Arena Football League to Green Bay to NFL Europe and finally back to the league.

With a whopping three games played in the NFL (one with the Packers and two in Tampa Bay), Lucas is the elder statesman of the group and so far has been one of the most impressive.

“I see the opportunity,” Lucas said. “Everywhere I have been I see an opportunity. Some places might be better than others but anytime I am on the field I feel like I have an opportunity. I just think I have to come out here and work hard and prove to them every day that I can play. If I can do that, I can stay.”

Lucas says he has never been told exactly what it is that has kept him from sticking on a roster but believes he simply needs to be more consistent on a day to day, practice to practice basis.

In his previous stops, Lucas has had some experience in offenses similar to the ones the team is installing in St. Louis. That could give him at least a tiny bit of an advantage in a battle that could well come down to the details.

“I have a little bit of an edge but you have to make plays every day,” Lucas said. “If you can be consistent, you can play in this league for a long time. That’s what I am working on every day in being consistent in everything I do.”

While the battle at wide receiver has not yet begun to crystallize, there’s no doubting that it’s one position that is only beginning to heat up as the summer months approach.

“Any position on the roster, if we think we could supplement and improve the competition at that spot, we'd do it,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “Wide receiver is no different. But we're going to let the competition filter itself out. They do work hard. But it's still early. We've got a ways to go.

“It’s the land of opportunity and that’s what it is right now. Guys are fighting for positions and competing and that’s what I like about it right now.”