St. Louis Rams: Is Stedman Bailey Hidden Gold?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In an NFL training camp, the competition can be fierce to earn a starting spot, let alone make the final roster. The St. Louis Rams have had one of the best training camp I can remember, so finding any kind of separation between skill position players has been relatively hard. The wide receiver battle has been among the most interesting, and Stedman Bailey is one of the reasons why...

The Costello to his Abbott, the Hardy to his Laurel, the rookie out of West Virginia University has shown pure class as he rests in the shadow of first round draft pick Tavon Austin. But are the Rams making a mistake here? Let me explain, and let's see what you think...

Bailey has had a great training camp, like virtually everyone else currently on the Rams' 90 man roster. Watching his few opportunities to catch a pass in the preseason games (two receptions) thus far, I've been more impressed than most. NFL scouts decried his lack of elite speed as the draft approached, but to a man they all agreed Bailey has great hands and an excellent catch radius. So far, I've seen something a bit different, but I'll explain later.

Taking all the stats in from his recent college days, his 2012 numbers were just shy of other-worldly. You've seen them before: 113 catches, 1,627 yards (14.4 Yards per catch - YPC) and 25 touchdowns(TDs). Yet, if you look just a tad further back, you see something I find more remarkable as you forward project this young man's NFL career path. In 2010, he caught 24 passes for 324 yards (13.5 YPC) and 4 TDs. The following season, his 12 TDs came on 74 receptions and 1,279 receiving yards (17.8 YPC). I'd call his college performance a severe upward trend, and if Bailey were a stock, he'd be a "Buy Now!", even before the NFL Draft. Don't kid yourselves into thinking there weren't other NFL teams licking their chops at this young man prior to the NFL Draft. At the WVU pro-day, 28 NFL teams were present. Yes, many were there to watch Tavon Austin, but draft position realities took most of these teams out of the Tavon sweepstakes. So why were they there? I'm betting Bailey was the center of their attention, and one day we'll learn just how many teams who were present swore like a Singapore sailor when the St. Louis Rams doubled up on WVU receivers. I can guarantee most of these teams slotted Bailey as a "We can wait and get him in a late round" player, banking on Austin blinding their competitors to who they coveted. Can you say "Oops!"?

Last year, as the 2012 training camps began, I dropped into the Seahawks site here at SBNation. In the comment threads, there was a spirited exchange going on, with the vast majority of those present decrying head coach Pete Carroll's fascination for a short little quarterback named Russell Wilson. Seahawks fans were screaming for Matt Flynn to get the starting job. But I'd watched some footage of Wilson, and I came away with a different opinion of the former Wisconsin Badger. He had something about his playing style; a smoothness that's hard to define. I pried my way into the comment thread discourse to offer the observation Wilson reminded me of Joe Montana. My words fell on deaf ears, and the Flynn shouts continued. I mention this, because I see the same "smoothness" in Bailey. Who does he remind me of, you may wonder? There's this guy named Isaac Bruce, who had a pretty decent career, if I'm not mistaken?

I just can't put my finger on why I think so much of Stedman Bailey's potential. Sometimes I think it's the way he positions his hands just as the ball arrives, or it could be how I see him run routes and almost demand position on a defender like a more experienced veteran. I'll give you the point he isn't really all that fast, but neither was Isaac Bruce. His game was about skill and position, not blinding speed. I see the same traits in Bailey. How about you?

So if I'm right, why isn't Bailey perceived to be higher on the wide receiver depth chart by Jeff Fisher and his staff? Personally, I'm not convince Brian Quick will be anything more than a #3 receiver, like Robert Meachem was in his New Orleans days. I think he'll catch a few passes, score a couple touchdown in key moments, but never be the guy Fisher hoped he'd be. Austin Pettis is a serviceable guy - tough, with good hands - but he struggles to see the seams in pass coverage, and lacks that situational creativity the very best receivers seem to have in the array of skills.

Some of you may be thinking: "How can this bubble head think so much of Stedman Bailey based on TWO preseason catches against the Cleveland Browns!" First, "bubble head" is a bit harsh, and it brings back memories of my childhood I'd rather not think about, so thanks for bringing it up! Second, there are times when each of us sees something unique, and it causes a bit of electricity to travel down our spines. It's these moments which cause us to lean closer to the TV screen when a player does something eye catching, then slowly lean back and whisper a quiet "Damn..." It happen for me when I saw Stedman Bailey run a little in-route. He was set wide to Sam Bradford's left, in close coverage. The ball was thrown just a tad behind and high, and it was a rifle shot too. The ball whizzed through the air, and Bailey smoothly transitioned both hands up, and caught the ball just behind his left ear; never breaking stride. He added four or five yards to a five yard pass. That's right, something so small on the great NFL stage made an impression on me. Yet, it was this single moment that caused me to whisper "Damn...", and I have a feeling it won't be the last time as I watch Bailey mature into the player I think he'll be. He doesn't have the versatile skill set of Tavon Austin, or the Mach 1 speed of Chris Givens. What he has is hard to put your finger on, but you just know it when you see it...

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