INDIANAPOLIS – In the Rams’ ongoing pursuit of a bonafide No. 1 receiver capable of taking over a game, it seems luck hasn’t been on their side since drafting Torry Holt in the 1999 NFL Draft.
Despite picking near the top of the draft in almost every year since Holt and Isaac Bruce’s time in St. Louis came to a close, the Rams have either picked near the top of drafts devoid of those types of difference makers or actually performed well enough to take themselves out of the range of such players by being at least mediocre in those years.
Take the 2011 NFL Draft for instance. In the two years surrounding that draft, the Rams picked No. 1 overall in 2010 and held the No. 2 selection in 2012. But in 2011, Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones emerged as the best wideout prospects since Calvin Johnson in 2007.
Unfortunately for the Rams, they had their best season in terms of record since 2006 finishing 7-9 in 2011 and picked 14th in the draft where they landed emerging star defensive end
In 2007, the Rams picked 13th on the heels of an 8-8 season, well out of the range of Johnson. In the four other seasons outside of 2010 and 2012 since Johnson’s year, the Rams have finished with a combined record of 8-46 and held the second, second, first and second picks in those drafts.
But in each of those years they drafted that high, there hasn’t been a receiver the caliber of Johnson, Green or Jones available.
Which brings us to this year. The Rams enter this year’s NFL Draft holding the 16th and 22nd picks in the draft as they come off a promising 2012 season where they finished 7-8-1.
Unlike those previous years, though, there doesn’t appear to be that franchise-changing wideout available this year but it does seem to be a deep class from which the Rams could have their choice when they come on the clock.
"They are big and fast,” Kansas City general manager John Dorsey said. “It was amazing, I was at the weigh-ins here and I was looking at the receivers and I was just thinking to myself how much bigger these guys really are, I mean bigger in terms of weight. There were a lot of guys between the 210 and 220 range this year and you normally don't see that. That shows you how big that position is getting."
Of course, as Rams general manager Les Snead is quick to point out, weapons can come in all shapes and sizes and even at different positions.
Heading toward April’s Draft, the Rams still have plenty of faith in second-year wideout
“He made big gains for us during the year and I expect as of year two that he will ascend further,” Snead said. “When we took the player from App State, a smaller school, we knew it was going to be a tougher transition than if you were at a certain program that was larger and had a more traditional offense. We definitely are excited about Brian Quick coming back to our building, going through OTAs, getting to work with Sam and staying in the same offense and getting better.”
The early leader in the clubhouse among a cluster of closely rated receivers is Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson.
Patterson was one of college football’s most explosive players in 2012, posting 46 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns to go with 308 rushing yards and three more scores on 25 carries.
In addition to his receiving and rushing prowess, Patterson also brings his dynamic skills to the return game where he averaged 26.8 yards on 25 kick returns and 25.3 yards on four punt returns with a touchdown in each.
Asked what his strengths are, the confident Patterson made it simple.
“Speed, catching and scoring,” Patterson said.
Obviously those are desirable qualities in any wideout but Patterson doesn’t come without questions. He spent just one season at the Division I level and much of what the Volunteers did offensively got the ball quickly to Patterson on screens and such, leaving some to wonder how well he can run routes and catch passes down the field.
“From a height, width, speed, talent perspective, he might be one of the most talented physical specimens in this class,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think he's taking your breath away from the ability to make plays especially after he gets the ball in his hands. He's a special talent.
“The problem is he's got one year of Division 1 experience after two years at a [junior college]. That's a red flag for me, especially at the wide receiver position. There are a bunch of those guys that have failed over the past 20 years.”
Despite those questions, there’s a strong chance Patterson will be gone by the time the Rams pick anyway, leaving them to select from the rest of the group should they choose to go that way.
And that group provides a variety of options coming in all forms and functions.
California’s Keenan Allen is generally considered next in line behind Patterson on the strength of a sophomore season in which he posted 98 catches for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers dipped considerably in 2012 as he battled a knee injury and didn’t have much help at quarterback.
Despite that, Allen believes he can make a difference right away in the NFL.
“I feel like I'm a starter, self-motivated, a humble guy,” Allen said. “My work ethic is there. I'm a film junkie so I'm definitely doing that type of preparation for the game.”
Often compared to Baltimore’s Anquan Bolding because of his physical approach to the game and, to a lesser extent, his lack of top end speed, Allen also comes with inherent questions about how he’ll transition to the NFL.
Because of lingering knee issues, Allen won’t run the 40-yard dash until his pro day in mid-March. While that won’t make or break his draft status, it could have a major impact on whether he lands in the first round.
“I think with Keenan Allen, it's one word: speed,” Mayock said. “That is the only question scouts have on him. It's hard to view him on tape with the way they throw the football. So what is it? If he's a 4.4 guy, bang the table; he's a top 25 pick. If he runs 4.55, 4.58, there are going to be a lot of questions about him.”
Of course, the guy who might be the most lethal of all the skill position players in the draft is also the one who comes in the smallest package.
At 5’8, 174 pounds, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is a Swiss Army Knife come to life in a football uniform. For teams who covet a home run threat that can score a touchdown any time he touches the ball, Austin is the equivalent of Hank Aaron.
Austin’s primary job in his four years with the Mountaineers was as a slot receiver and he figures to work there in the pros. But he also worked as a kick returner, punt returner and even at running back.
All told, Austin posted 40 touchdowns in his time in Morgantown, 29 receiving, five returning and six rushing.
That versatility has the ultra-confident Austin believing he’s not just the best receiver in the draft but the best all around player available.
“I think teams are looking for players who can do multiple things on the field and I think I’m that guy,” Austin said.
In Austin’s case, of course, the questions center on his size or lack thereof. It’s a question that many teams ask but Austin is quick to point to players like Wes Welker and Percy Harvin as examples of players of similar stature who have become top-level play makers at the NFL level.
In fact, Austin doesn’t view his size as any kind of detriment.
“I don’t really get tired of it,” Austin said. “I just take it and put it on my back. I’ve been a little guy my whole life. I’m a little guy but I play big. I wish I was two more inches tall, but I’m not so I have got to use what I’ve got.”
Elsewhere in the cluster of wideouts looking to stand out in this class are Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, USC’s Robert Woods, Tennessee’s Justin Hunter, Tennessee Tech’s Da’Rick Rogers and Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton, among others.
From that group, it’s Hopkins who might hold the most intrigue.
“Hopkins, to me, is intriguing, very smooth, good hands,” Mayock said. “I've got him as a mid to late second‑round player. He made an awful lot of plays and he's good with the ball in his hands after the catch.”