A while back I took a look at the Rams' needs for the upcoming 2011 draft
and concluded that a top-line wide receiver should be their number one priority. Well, the Rams' draft position has been set and the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft has now come and gone, making the picture much clearer as to what the Rams might have to select from when they go on the clock.
The verdict: not so good.
Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State chose to return to school. He was widely ranked the third-best receiver among possible draftees. Ditto Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, except he generally fell in the fourth or fifth slot. Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma was a notch or two below that elite group, but had production and playmaking ability to spare. He's staying in college as well.
So what happens when two of the top five receivers in a given draft class choose school over turning pro? The pickings get awfully slim awfully fast, that's what.
Here's the problem: there are two really, really good wide receivers on the board for the draft this year. Two guys I think are pretty solid bets to turn into legitimate #1 receivers in the NFL. (That's not to say there aren't others who could,
it just isn't as likely.) A.J. Green
is the top guy, the undisputed best receiver in the draft. He's big, he's fast, he has great hands, and he'll be long gone at fourteen. Alabama's Julio Jones
is the second-best pass catcher in this class, and has some excellent attributes of his own. He lacks the explosive speed of Green, but his hands and size are both considered elite. There have been times in his college career he's struggled with dropping balls, however.
The chances of Jones being around when the Rams pick aren't particularly good, though they're certainly better than with Green. Of the thirteen teams picking ahead of the Rams, roughly five, maybe six of them look, to my untrained eye, like they have a definite need at wide receiver. Carolina (1), Cincinnati (4), Cleveland (6), Tennessee (8), and Washington (10), all have a serious need. There are a couple other teams in the top ten I think could use help at wideout, including Arizona if they can't figure out a deal with Steve Breaston, but most of those teams also have much bigger needs they'll probably worry about before receiver.
So let's say five teams in the top thirteen could be looking receiver. I have to believe at least two of those five will take a receiver, and since none of them are the Oakland Raiders the chances of a huge surprise pick nobody thought of are relatively slim. In all likelihood, when the Rams go on the clock the top two wide receivers will be off the board. If that's the case, there are two options they could go with: take a receiver who probably doesn't belong that high, or go another direction.
Personally, I'm hoping like hell they won't reach to try and fill a position if the player isn't there. Jonathan Baldwin from Pittsburgh will probably be the third receiver off the board with Blackmon and Floyd gone, and I just don't think Baldwin is worth a mid-first round pick. He's a solid player, with astounding size and strength (6'5", 225), but he lacks real separation skills. He makes tons of catches in traffic, which is good, but he never seems to be anywhere but in traffic, if you take my meaning. If you're looking for a pure possession receiver, Baldwin would be a tremendous get, a tight end playing at the wideout position. Given his limited speed and downfield ability, though, I don't know he's really the guy for the Rams. He'll almost surely go somewhere in the first round, but I think there will be players offering far better value the Rams could take.
So if there isn't a wide receiver available when the Rams pick, what direction should they go? The best player available philosophy is always valid, and the Rams still have enough areas of need they can draft just about any spot and be in good shape. (I'm secretly hoping to see Aldon Smith, the defensive lineman out of Mizzou, wearing the blue and gold one of these days, and fourteen sounds just about right for him.) Just mark off quarterback, middle linebacker, and offensive tackle, and draft anyone else who looks good.
That doesn't really do much to upgrade the Rams' biggest area of need, though, does it? It would be nice to see them go out and get, say, Sidney Rice in free agency, but that may not be realistic. So if it comes down to trying to draft a receiver with some intrigue after the first round, which players might fit the bill? Well, I'm glad you asked. Here are five receivers I think could be had with later picks and still offer serious upside.
1. Torrey Smith, Maryland -- Whereas several of the top receivers in this year's class are freakishly huge, Smith makes his mark with athleticism and agility. At 6'1", 205 Smith has adequate size and bulk to avoid being bullied by corners, but his elite speed is his calling card, allowing him to make plays downfield by simply running past the coverage.
Smith isn't limited to straight-line speed, either; he has very nimble feet and changes direction well. He served as a kick returner for Maryland throughout his college career, making him a potential plus on special teams right out of the box.
The only downside to Smith I've seen (in fairly limited exposure, I admit), is a habit of catching the ball against his body instead of with his hands. I'm honestly not entirely sure how coachable a weakness that is; it could just be a bad habit, or it could be masking a bigger problem of poor hands. I've seen reports which grade Smith down for his blocking ability, but I haven't seen nearly enough of him to make my own judgement one way or the other.
With his elite speed and athleticism, Smith could develop into the kind of downfield threat Sam Bradford needs to take his game to the next level. He'll likely never be a number one receiver, but could easily end up a home run threat number two.
2. Terrance Toliver, LSU -- Toliver is actually very much one of those physical freaks who tend to get drafted at the very top, but isn't getting as much attention as one might expect. The culprits for Toliver in keeping his stock somewhat depressed are inconsistent production throughout his college career and a lack of an elite first step.
Toliver presents a huge target at 6'5", and has good speed and leaping ability to complement that length. His speed is mostly of the downfield variety, though, where he can open up and use his long strides to eat up real estate on deep routes. On shallow and intermediate routes Toliver tends to struggle, as he isn't as nimble in cutting and direction-changing situations. He does boast solid yard after catch skills, though, which serve to partially make up for his inconsistencies underneath.
The other major concern with Toliver is his ability to produce consistently, which he hasn't done much at LSU. Dropped passes are an occasional bugaboo, as well as the aforementioned inability to separate on anything but long, slow-developing routes. There is some thought much of his struggles might have something to do with a lack of great QB talent throwing to him, but that's tough to quantify.
Toliver is a bit of an odd duck, honestly. He has the size and strength you would look for in an elite possession receiver, but he doesn't do a good enough job of getting open and securing the ball over the middle of the field. Where he does most of his damage is on vertical routes, where he can outstride the coverage and get open. As elite as his physical attributes are, there are still plenty of questions about Toliver's ultimate upside. Still, he has the size and speed to make an impact, even if his actual football skills are a little behind.
3. DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss -- Brown is, if anything, an even more freakish specimen of physicality than Terrance Toliver is. At 6'6" and 228 lbs, Brown looks more like a power forward than a wide receiver, and he runs a sub-4.50 40, remarkable for someone his size. He's a strong blocker and capable of making tough catches against less physical players with ease.
The problems with Brown are almost all upstairs. His makeup has been a constant question since his high school days, and the effort level he gives from game to game is never a guarantee. Brown prefers to simply let his talent take him as far as it can rather than putting in the work to become the player he should be. He's struggled to stay healthy as well, further throwing into question his ability to tap into that tremendous potential. Between the injury risk and the doubts about his motivation and effort, Brown's first-round talent looks like no more than a third-round grade at best to me.
It's possible the Rams could steer clear of Brown entirely based just on his makeup alone. The coaching staff has made it a priority to bring in high-character players, and Brown doesn't much fit the bill. On the other hand, a player like Mike Williams, who the Tampa Bay Bucs nabbed in the fourth round last year, shows what sort of upside a guy can have even when there are questions swirling around his character. If Brown were to get in the right environment, it just might be possible for a coach to help him unlock that huge potential he has inside, and the payoff would be tremendous.
4. Titus Young, Boise State -- The Rams haven't shied away from picking up smaller receivers over the years, from Az-Zahir Hakim to Donnie Avery, Mark Clayton, and Danny Amendola. Titus Young would fit right into that group just fine.
The speedy Young isn't big and would need to add bulk to be effective at the NFL level long-term, but there's no denying his athleticism and explosiveness. He's more than a little reminiscent of Mark Clayton, though Clayton's build is a bit sturdier. Young really needs to focus on getting stronger in order to move on to the next level and have success. There's nothing wrong with his legs, though, nor his route-running skills, which are elite. (Again, much like Clayton.)
Young doesn't have quite the athleticism of Torrey Smith, but what he lacks in pure speed he makes up for with precise cuts and a knack for getting open. Boise State has succeeded over the past decade by finding good players who aren't snatched up by the major conference schools and coaching those players up. Boise State players are smart and disciplined in addition to being talented, and that describes Titus Young almost perfectly. When he runs a twelve yard out it's a twelve yard out, executed perfectly and with just enough creativity to get the separation he needs to make a catch.
This is another player who isn't likely to ever be a number one receiver, but his speed and sharp routes should make him a productive players at the NFL level. Then again, I said much the same thing about Mardy Gilyard when the Rams selected him, and we have yet to see him make a real impact as a professional.
5. Greg Little, North Carolina -- A running back his first two seasons playing for North Carolina, Little moved to receiver full-time for his junior campaign. He showed plenty of promise and looked poised for a big senior season that would solidify him as a high-round draft pick. That didn't happen, however, as he was suspended for his entire senior season by the NCAA. (You'll notice that's a common theme with NC players this year.)
Missing his senior year was unfortunate for Little, but it might turn out for the best for whatever team ends up drafting him. Had he played he probably would have been a lock for the first two rounds considering how much talent and improvement he showed over the course of the 2009 season. As it stands now, though, he's much more likely to go somewhere in the round 4-5 range, and could make him a great bargain.
Little has all the physical attributes you could want in a receiver. He's big, at 6'2" and 215, he's fast, and he plays with a mean streak on the football field. He initiates contact as often as he shies away from it, a holdover from his days as a running back. While that might keep him from being quite as elusive as you might like to see, it also makes him fearless over the middle and a force gaining yards after the catch.
The downside with Little is his lack of experience at receiver. He has only a single season playing the position, and while he was certainly productive there are still plenty of questions about how good he could ultimately be there. A team selecting him will be taking on a project player, similar to what the Rams did in last year's draft with Fendi Onobun, the hyper-athletic tight end out of Houston. Onobun made great strides early in the season but was derailed by injury; would the Rams be interested in taking the long view again on a player just scratching the surface at his position?
There are plenty of other names in the draft that could be of interest to the Rams, of course, but I feel these five offer upside beyond what you often see with skill players in the middle rounds. If one of the top wide receivers isn't available when the Rams go on the clock in April it wouldn't surprise me a bit to see them take a shot at one of the receivers here as the draft plays out through the next six rounds.
For what it's worth, my money is on Torrey Smith. The upside could be huge, and he offers the best option in terms of a receiver capable of stretching the field vertically, something the Rams desperately need to find a way to do.