By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
04/16/2009

A year ago at this time, then-Rams coach Scott Linehan privately lamented the fact that there was no Calvin Johnson in the 2008 draft pool.

Linehan wanted a game-changer to freshen up his wide receiver corps. Johnson, now a budding star in Detroit, would have fit the bill nicely. Alas, Johnson turned pro early and was selected No. 2 overall by the Lions in '07. He already was one year into his NFL career when the Rams picked No. 2 overall in '08.

Last year was a lousy one for wide receivers, with none taken in the first round. Even so, the Rams may have hit on a promising talent by taking the University of Houston's Donnie Avery early in the second round at No. 33 overall.

Following last month's release of seven-time Pro Bowler Torry Holt, the Rams' needs at wide receiver are much greater than a year ago. No, there probably isn't a prospect worth taking at No. 2 overall this year — not with Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech still rehabbing from foot surgery.

But it shouldn't matter. This is a deep, talented draft pool at wide receiver.

"The receiver position is really intriguing," San Francisco coach Mike Singletary said. "A lot of speed, a lot of depth there — depending on what you're looking for. You've got some tall guys who can fly. Some smaller, well-built guys. The kid out of Florida (Percy Harvin). It's pretty stocked."

At the NFL Scouting Combine, held for the first time at the new Lucas Oil Stadium (in Indianapolis), the 40 times were eye-opening.

"I think we had 11 in the first group who were sub-4.5 (seconds) and had probably the same in the second group," Colts President Bill Polian said. "Some amazing times. ... We know two things: That's a fast track, and we've got a bunch of fast receivers. That's all for the good."

Last year, Avery was the first wideout taken in the draft. In this year's draft, April 25-26, there could be as many as a half-dozen wide receivers taken in the first round. And there should be good value in the second and third rounds as well.

In a telling sign that the Rams are looking to restock the position, six of the 24 confirmed pre-draft visitors to Rams Park this week are wide receivers. The prospects are all over the board in terms of where they might be taken.

Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin both could be top-10 picks, although Crabtree might slide some because of his injury. Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, who ran a scalding 4.25 at the combine, also looks like a sure first-rounder.

Also visiting Rams Park this week are:

— North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks, who might still be available at the top of the second round.

— Tar Heels teammate Brandon Tate, who projects as a mid-round pick following season-ending knee surgery last fall.

— Louisiana State's speedy Demetrius Byrd, who looks like a mid- to late-round pick following a subpar senior season.

Although not known to be on the Rams' visit list, Brian Robiskie of Ohio State and Kenny Britt of Rutgers could be second-round possibilities.

At least one NFL team has Crabtree off its board because of the injury, and maturity concerns. The Rams like Maclin a lot, not only for his receiving skills but also for his return ability. But the pride of Kirkwood High probably comes into play only in a trade-down scenario, and not as the second player chosen in the draft.

Heyward-Bey has exceptional straight-line speed.

"I do believe I'm a game-breaker," he said. "Made big plays at College Park and I think I'll continue to do that in the future."

But he never caught more than 51 passes — for more than 786 yards — in any of his three seasons at Maryland. Heyward-Bey has good size — a lean 210 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame. But he needs work on all aspects of his craft, including route-running.

Nicks didn't finish his combine workout because of a hamstring injury. A few weeks later, he raised eyebrows by showing up at his North Carolina pro day 14 pounds heavier than his combine weight.

"Good," joked one Rams scout. "Maybe that'll help him fall to us (in the second round)."

The extra weight supposedly was the result of trying to bulk up, and not the result of pounding down Big Macs.

Regardless, Nicks is one of the top playmakers in the draft. He doesn't have elite speed, but is fast enough. And he is a savvy route-runner with great hands. Before turning pro a year early, he set Tar Heels career marks for receptions (181), reception yards (2,840) and touchdown catches (21).

Nicks, 6-0, 212, said his favorite NFL receiver is Steve Smith of the nearby Carolina Panthers.

"But my game is similar to Anquan Boldin, in my opinion," Nicks said. "With how physical he is, the run after the catch, and how physical he is off the line of scrimmage."