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Faceoff: The Rams Receivers

July 22nd

Clayton Gray: With Sam Bradford (and now Josh McDaniels as well), there is suddenly some excitement back in St. Louis. How does this fervor translate to the Rams receiving corps? Who will emerge? Is there a stud-in-waiting here?

Jason Wood: Given Sam Bradford's remarkable rookie season, clearly he only needs to stay healthy to be one of the better passers in the league for the next decade. With that in mind, and given Josh McDaniel's reputation as a QB guru and innovative play-caller, you can be sure that SOMEONE is going to have fantasy value in the Rams receiving corps. But determining who that will be prior to fantasy drafts may be a tall order. I would be very surprised if the Rams don't at least consider bringing in a veteran, in which case they would vault to the top of my list. Assuming the Rams will go with what they already have, I think rookie Greg Salas may end up with the best numbers on the season. Salas has the skill set well suited to eventually claim the WR1 role, and there's little question McDaniels will play whoever deserves it, having no favorites as a first year coordinator. A lot of people, including some of my fellow staffers, will sing the praises of Danny Amendola. While I can see him potentially catching a bunch of passes and having marginal PPR value, I think Amendola is "just a guy" and if he plays significant snaps it's because the Rams have failed in their attempt to improve the roster. Remember, Amendola is not Wes Welker. He's got virtually no ability to get downfield, and has almost no ability to create with the ball. His 8.1 yards per reception last year was among the worst by an NFL receiver with 50+ catches in the modern era. His "accomplishments" over the last two seasons have very little historical precedent to suggest greater things ahead.

Jene Bramel: In a Josh McDaniels offense, I want to target the outside receiver who can get open often enough to gain the trust of both McDaniels and the QB and, potentially, the underneath option(s) who get looks in the red zone. Those players will eventually identify themselves, but I think every potential candidate has big warts right now.

I think the ideal scenario would be Mark Clayton outside and Greg Salas as a dual outside/slot option, but neither is guaranteed that role. I still like Donnie Avery, too. Danny Amendola could be a PPR find if he starts in the slot, but he's not Wes Welker. Lance Kendricks could be in the discussion, but he'll have trouble getting consistent targets with the missed OTA reps and may only be a viable TE2 in non-PPR leagues. I don't think Danario Alexander's knees will hold up for more than a few weeks at a time and am avoiding him altogether. In mock drafts over the past month, I've been targeting one of the three WRs between the 7th and 11th rounds, with Clayton being the first target. I'm really hoping Clayton re-signs and looks in form; he'll be an easy WR3++ target for me if he does.

Sigmund Bloom: There are a lot of angles to play here, but with Josh McDaniels history of creating productive passing games and Sam Bradford's rookie year that portends big things in his future, you'd be smart to play at least one of them. A quick overview:

  • Mark Clayton - Clayton got off to a rousing start despite being traded to the Rams just before the season began. He was their clear #1 wideout, playing better than he had in his entire career in Baltimore. Clayton was producing at a WR1 pace of 88/1200/8 before suffering a catastrophic patella tendon injury that he has still not completely recovered from yet. Clayton is a free agent, but it makes sense for both parties to reunite and only his physical condition would keep him from performing like he did last year. The best gamble in nonPPR leagues.
  • Donnie Avery - The speedster flashed star potential in his rookie year with a couple of monster games, but languished with the Rams offense in his sophomore campaign. Avery's chance to work with Sam Bradford in 2010 ended before it began when he went down with an ACL tear before the regular season opened. Avery has been working out with Bradford at his college, the University of Houston, building timing and chemistry. No one should be surprised if he starts and puts up career best numbers. Also worth a late-round flier.
  • Danario Alexander - His knees held up long enough for him to make an impact in the deep passing game, and one assumes that if he can stay healthy, he will play a role in three and four-wide sets in 2011. He also showed good tenacity running after the catch. He's worth a late pick in deep leagues, but should be on the waiver wire watch list in all leagues.
  • Danny Amendola - Maybe the best pick in PPR league. Amendola is not quite as quick or crafty after the catch as fellow Texas Tech Red Raider Wes Welker, but he certainly can do a good Welker imitation in the field. Amendola's 85 catch total in 2010 might have been more about the injuries in the WR corps than his own skills (as his very poor 8.1 ypc would indicate), but the die has been cast and Amendola could lead the team in receptions again this season.
  • Greg Salas/Austin Pettis - Instead making a big splash with a Julio Jones trade-up or Greg Little pick in the second round, the Rams chose role playing wideouts in the 3rd and 4th round of the draft. Pettis is a somewhat slow-footed wideout with a big catch radius who could get work in the red zone. Salas was prolific at Hawaii and is an Austin Collie type who could usurp Amendola's slot role if he comes along quickly. Neither is worth a redraft pick, but Salas especially deserves a pickup if he can overcome the lack of OTAs and time needed to get up to speed in McDaniels system.
  • Lance Kendricks/Michael Hoomanawanui - McDaniels is still trying to do things the Patriots way, and he took notice of the splash that Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski made in the New England passing game last year. Kendricks was a McDaniels target in the draft this year, and the use of a second round pick on him means that he'll moved around the formation and used as a weapon in the passing game. "Uh-oh" will be the in-line TE who could get more calls at the goal line. Neither is worth a redraft pick, but both could have at least fantasy backup value if they click with Bradford in McDaniels offense.

It might seem too crowded for a reliable fantasy option to emerge in St. Louis, but McDaniels and Bradford are both bright and they will lean on whatever is working. Perhaps the real takeaway here is that Bradford has enough weapons and schematic creativity around him to become a top 10 fantasy QB this year. Either way, even if I'm not rostering a Rams receiver this season, I'll be watching this passing game closely simply out of curiosity.

Matt Waldman: I'll be discussing this topic in more length in a forthcoming column, but I agree that Amendola is probably the PPR find here. He doesn't have to be as talented as Welker. I'd argue Welker is very good, but not nearly as talented as people like to label him. He's a smart receiver paired with a smart quarterback. I think Davone Bess, Mike Thomas, and Austin Collie would do as well as Welker if placed in New England with Brady. Bess was a monster on third down last year with Chad Henne, who I think is at best and average NFL talent at the quarterback position. Amendola and Bradford have a chance to do similar things if they establish the kind of connection the should now have in Year Two.

  • Mark Clayton and Bradford have an excellent rapport due to the time they've spend working out together as OU alumni. Josh McDaniels is going to take advantage of this the same way he took the rapport Brandon Lloyd and Kyle Orton in Chicago, transferred it to Denver, and worked to Lloyd's strengths against zone or off-man coverage on the perimeter. Clayton is a similar receiver.
  • Donnie Avery is a player I simply don't trust. He can't say healthy and I thought he was drafted significantly higher than his skills warranted. While Clayton hasn't demonstrated a full range of route skills to be effective all over the field, I think Avery is even more limited as a route runner.
  • Danario Alexander has starter talent, but until he can last an entire season I can't get too excited about him as more than a low-risk, late-round flier. Big, fast, good runner, can take a hit and come down with the football. Love all of those skills and he's bound to have some big games early in the year if he can make it through camp healthy, but counting on him before the late rounds is too risky for me.
  • Greg Salas has talent to be far more than a slot option. he actually reminds me a little more of Michael Irvin than Austin Collie. He's more powerful after the catch than Collie, fights for the ball in traffic He's an eventual outside threat and if he performs well in traffic far better than Collie, and he's not as fast or route refined as Collie. He's more physical and less technician than the Colts receiver and I think he'll need some time to grow into an NFL role. If he has a great camp then he's worth considering as a mid-to-late round sleeper. However, I think he's the No.3 option at best this year unless he just blows people away. I don't think he will until late in the year for the reasons I discussed. He's not the technician that Collie was and that will slow his ascent a little bit Next year is the time to get more excited about him.
  • Austin Pettis has great hands and works zones well. However, he has a lot of difficulty getting off press coverage and running timing routes against man or off-man coverage. He's a good zone receiver prospect, but that means McDaniels can only use him in certain packages this year. I'm not counting on Pettis unless Avery, Clayton, Alexander, Robinson, and Gibson get hurt.
  • Lance Kendricks will contribute in two tight end sets, but he's no Aaron Hernandez and "Uh-oh" is not Gronkowski. Wait a year or two.

I like the offense to take a step forward with McDaniels doing what he does well and using Bradford, Clayton and Amendola as the most consistently productive players to get there. Put Steven Jackson's receiving skills into the mix and I think the Rams can out produce the more vaunted Falcons offense that is too excited about Julio Jones as a rookie.

Jeff Pasquino: The Ram's wide receiver projections (not Wood's and Dodds') for many fantasy football fans and experts are all over the map. From what I can tell, Sam Bradford is expected to complete 750 passes for 6,000 yards and 40 TDs based on the collective hype of Mark Clayton, Danario "DX" Alexander, Donnie Avery, Danny Amendola, Greg Salas, Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard and even tight ends Lance Kendricks, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Fendi Onobun. Seriously, that's a ton of names, and no one really knows who is going to start. The best guesses prior to the NFL draft were that Mark Clayton would be back, Donnie Avery and/or DX would play the other side and Amendola would be the slot receiver. With the draft picks of Salas and Pettis (and TE Kendricks) the water became much murkier. Throw in a new offensive coordinator (Josh McDaniels from Denver) and even the experts get stymied. Plenty of quotes and rosy projections are out there for most of these guys, so educated guesses have to be made as to who will see more (or less) work.

The answers to these questions are tough, but it is pretty clear that they are important from a fantasy perspective since St. Louis and Bradford should put up good numbers this year - and beyond. McDaniels had some great fantasy studs last year, so if you can correctly guess who the top targets for the Rams will be you might get the next Brandon Lloyd. I tend to think that Clayton will re-sign, and either Avery or Alexander will start on the other side (as expected before the draft) while Salas and Pettis will see limited action in their first years. The lockout definitely clarified that for me, as it will be tough for both rookies to really get on the same page with both Bradford and McDaniels in Year One for them. TE Kendricks is supposed to be a big factor this year as McDaniels tries to copy the New England model (which some have taken to mean the TE2 will also be a factor), but odds are that Kendricks and Amendola in the slot will be the third and fourth pieces to the passing game. How the targets get split out remain to be seen, but those 4-5 guys will be late draft targets for me, especially if Avery looks healthy before the season starts and Clayton re-signs.

Mark Wimer: There are a lot of injury concerns with this squad of players, so I thought it might be helpful to post the injury history of the players in this stable and the latest information on their 2011 status, if available:

  • WR Danario Alexander said on May 24th that his knee is doing very well since undergoing surgery during the season and is working out this offseason. 'I've been working out and training throughout this whole offseason to be a hundred percent for the season,' Alexander said. 'It's a lot better than it was during the season. Everything's coming back like it's supposed to.' QB Sam Bradford said Alexander has looked quicker and more explosive during offseason workouts than he did during the season. However, Alexander seemed to be having trouble with his left leg during player workouts on May 31st, according to local reports. The left knee has been surgically repaired five times and may be a concern for Alexander again during 2011. The early indications on his status for 2011 are a mixture of good and bad news, as you can see. Alexander reportedly attended a workout with Philadelphia Eagles QB Mike Kafka and WR Jeremy Maclin Thursday, June 2nd - he continues to work at beginning the season healthy.
  • WR Donnie Avery suffered a torn ACL in his right knee on Friday, August 27th, 2010, and was placed on IR. He is reportedly progressing well in his rehabilitation: "Donnie Avery looks great," head coach Steve Spagnuolo said on March 27th, 2011. Spagnuolo added that Avery has really taken a step forward to get his body ready to play. However, local reports on May first indicated that Avery may not be in the team's plans under new OC Josh McDaniels. Avery said on May 26th, 2011 that he is 'a good 92-93 percent' recovered from surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. A local report on May 31st stated that Avery appears to have his speed back after the rehab for his torn ACL. Avery posted on his official Twitter page that he finished the week Friday, June 17, with a track workout. He said he clocked a 22 in the 200-meter, and a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash.
  • WR Mark Clayton suffered a season-ending torn right patella tendon in his knee on Sunday, October 10th, 2010. As of March 26th, Clayton was reportedly not fully healed from the injury, but he is expected to be ready to play by the start of regular season - the team is expected to re-sign him if possible. Clayton said on June 29th that his knee feels wonderful at this point and noted that he had recently worked out with QB Sam Bradford.
  • WR Dominique Curry suffered a season-ending torn right ACL on September 27th, 2010. He was mainly a special teams player last season - his status for 2011 is unknown as of late June, 2011.
  • WR Brandon McRae suffered a broken fibula during practice on November fourth, 2010.

Bob Magaw: The Rams receiving projections are as inscrutable as that of any other team across the entire NFL landscape (less than distinguished cast of vets, almost all returning from serious knee injuries, a second round TE as well as an influx of rookie WRs, plus a new OC in Josh McDaniels), but correctly deciphering them could be well worth the effort. A positional group laughing stock for several years after the gaping void left by the decline of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, compounded by harrowing QB and related OL issues, they could be poised to make a breakthrough in 2011... at least in aggregate. QB Sam Bradford was compared by some scouts to Peyton Manning for his quick release, arm strength, accuracy and intangibles, and his 2010 Rookie of the Year season was positively Manning-like and one of the most auspicious QB debuts since the merger. Fellow 2010 rookie, brilliant second round LT Roger Saffold instantly stabilized the OL, and RB Steven Jackson commands the kind of respect to keep secondaries honest.

If there is a sea change in the Rams passing game, all boats could rise. This doesn't necessarily preclude an overall projection in which the ball is evenly distributed, but even if a go to weapon fails to emerge, there is enough tantalizing potential in the suddenly vastly improved QB situation to thrust several candidates into far greater prominence. The Rams face a harsh first half schedule (PHI, NYG, BAL, WAS, GB, DAL, NO & ARI) in which they may be favored in only one or two games, and could be involved in some shootouts. Also, the NFC West isn't known as a powerful defensive division (though the Cards appear to have the makings of a strong secondary).

Bob Magaw: The Veterans

  • Mark Clayton - Health permitting (returning from a torn patellar tendon), Clayton looks the most promising on the surface. He possesses the first round pedigree and experience found nowhere else among the position group. A more complete WR than Donnie Avery, he was always overshadowed by Derrick Mason (one of the most underrated WR in the league) and also impacted adversely by less than stellar QB play and a conservative passing game during his Baltimore tenure. His career high water marks were set a half decade ago in 2006 (67-939-5). As Matt noted, Clayton could be conferred an important edge through Bradford's greater familiarity with him as fellow Oklahoma alum workout buddies. They did flash instant chemistry in the first quarter of the season, which if extrapolated to 16 games, could have yielded an approximately top 10 season. He just turned 29 and is still in his relative prime. One of the few concerns, in addition to the state of his knee rehab, is his smurf-like stature (with leading returning vets Avery and Amendola). After suffering monumental problems in the red zone, the Rams made systemic changes in the size of their positional group in the 2011 draft, and rookies Pettis and Salas (not to mention TE Kendricks) could severely curtail his red zone touches and scoring opportunities. Despite this, Clayton is a better looking PPR option than the more commonly cited Amendola, for the above reasons. Technically a free agent, all signs from both camps point to his being re-signed.
  • Donnie Avery - Returning from a knee injury (torn ACL wrecked his entire season) like Clayton and DX (serial), Avery also brings something to the table no other WR in the Rams stable is capable of... the fear-inducing speed to blow the top off of secondaries. Of course the threat is only useful if it is regularly employed. The threat of a deep passing capability could have obvious benefits for opening up the St. Louis running game, as well as their intermediate passing attack. Avery could still be one of the fastest WRs in the league if he has retained most of his speed post-injury. While a limited route runner, Bradford's deserved wide praise for his accuracy extends to uncanny deep touch, which could weaponize Avery. A fourth year player with just two seasons of actual experience, that is still two years more than Pettis and Salas. Seemingly underrated and possibly unfairly judged guilty by association with a putrid passing game in his first two years of service in the NFL, nobody really knows what he might be capable of with a QB as talented as Bradford. I completely agree with Bloom it shouldn't come as a shock if he vastly exceeds expectations going forward. Barring injury, Clayton and Avery should be the best redraft options at the WR position.
  • Danny Amendola - He was featured last season not out of design but by necessity, as the Rams were decimated at the position. Jason has been banging the table to raise attention to how pitifully productive he was with his 85 receptions. With the return of Clayton and Avery and the influx of rookie receiving talent, he may quickly find himself far lower in the reception pecking order than last year. His best chance at surprising is if the Rams suffer more positional injury attrition, or several of the rookies develop slowly, neither of which I expect. Even if Amendola begins the season as the primary slot receiver, if Pettis and or Salas come along quickly, there is a real risk that they increasingly encroach on his snaps as the season progresses.
  • Danario Alexander - Has one of the highest ceilings, but also an out of the league floor. Physically imposing (6'5" 220 lbs.), he is nearly as big as Plaxico Burress and Malcolm Floyd. Alexander led the nation in receiving in 2009, but his knees are the love child of Mark Schlereth and Yatil Green.

Bob Magaw: The Rookies

  • Lance Kendricks - A testament to how important the Rams front office, coaching staff and scouting department think Kendricks could be to their offense is that they left WRs like Greg Little and Randall Cobb on the board in the second round, as well as talented RBs Shane Vereen, Mikel Leshoure and Daniel Thomas, any of which would have filled critical positional needs. In fact a sizeable contingent of Rams nation expressed varying levels of disappointment and frustration that a TE was taken ahead of one of the above higher profile WRs, but if he catches the ball, what difference does positional designation make? His size, hands, blocking ability, multi-faceted skill set and scheme diversity are destined to help in both the pass and run games. Just as Avery's speed could add a new dimension to the offense compared to Bradford's rookie season, Kendricks could offer different but comparable impact, with his ability to split the seam of zones, help flood one side of the field with receiving weapons and open up the run game with better downfield blocking in two TE sets. Expect him to line up all over the field, and he will certainly be split out wide like a receiver at times. A consensus top two TE from the class of 2011 (with Vikings second rounder Kyle Rudolph), St. Louis has not had a TE as athletic or talented in recent memory. Writer Jim Thomas noted that McDaniels reportedly thought Kendricks had the second best hands in the entire class, after A.J. Green (he has the hands of the former WR he was, before blowing up into TE size). While he will never be a devastating in-line blocker, he learned well enough while at run first Wisconsin to be a functional move blocker. That versatility should help him to see the field quickly, and stay there often. On the bonus plan, talented Bengals 2011 first rounder and former Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham was a favorite target of Bradford in college, a precedent that could portend an expanding role in the passing game in future seasons.
  • Austin Pettis - I'll leave it to the resident rookie experts to better parse the prospects of Pettis and Salas, but would add that despite being generally characterized as slow of foot, a 4.55-4.6 40 time is similar to Brandon Lloyd. Also, his 20 yard shuttle time was one of the quickest for a WR in the past decade. The Rams were Dr. Jekyll getting to the red zone (only five teams better) and Mr. Hyde converting (around bottom five in scoring conversion), and Pettis has good size (6'2" 210 lbs.) and exceptional hands. He also combines durability and the positional flexibility to play any WR position, both no doubt attractive traits to a franchise which witnessed such calamitous attrition last year. The somewhat pedestrian 40 time (though shared by many quality NFL wideouts past and present) has elicited some uninspiring comp players for the 2011 third rounder. A more generous example might be the similar size/speed WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who achieved a high level of success despite the stigma of being a "possession WR". Due to Bradford's pinpoint accuracy and ability to throw to the right spot between and through constricted windows, the rookie WR/TE weapons (none run a 4.4) won't need to separate by a few car lengths to receive the ball in position to make plays, and they have the savvy to get position and the size to get their bodies between the ball and smaller DBs. What he lacks in verticality, he can make up for with the reliable hands to sustain drives, and by adding a larger catching radius dimension in the red zone. While far from a burner, Pettis didn't become Boise State's career reception leader and amass 39 TDs without serious ball skills and deceptive open field running ability.

Bob Magaw:

  • Greg Salas - Led the nation in receiving yards in 2010 (like DX in '09). Even by the standards of a pinball passing attack like Hawaii, Salas put up mind boggling numbers the past two years (nearly 3,500 receiving yards), despite also running in the Pettis-like 4.55-4.6 range, likely contributing to his falling to the fourth round in 2011. Also like Pettis (and Kendricks), he has good size (6'1" 210 lbs.), Dyson-like hands (as in the futuristic vacuum cleaner, not former Titans WR Kevin) and the scheme-diversity conferring skill flexibility to line up inside or outside... though he looks like he came from central casting as a slot WR. What separates him is the fact that he runs angry after the catch, with the ability to punish DBs, like a more compact version of Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall. Despite an absence of blazing speed, his tackle breaking power and open field elusiveness could still translate into explosive plays. Again like Kendricks and Pettis, he was a team captain with the maturity and work ethic to collapse the learning curve, expedite understanding the intricacies of the NFL passing game and potentially enabling him to make a contribution faster than some expect. Depending on the uncertain health of the knees of Clayton, Avery and DX, one or both of the rookie WRs could be pressed into action sooner than later. As noted above, and to emphasize the point, even if the roles of Clayton and Avery coalesce into that of nominal starters, the rookie TE/WRs were purpose-drafted to provide help in the red zone, and could see at least heavy situational use in that capacity, which could give one or several of them surprising upside. Longer term, Salas could have the higher upside among the rookie WRs, due to his borderline psychotic, hair-on-fire intensity and crazed RAC skills.