Surprising everyone with a 4-4 record, the St. Louis Rams enjoyed a solid first half to the 2010 season. Nobody thought that this team, with a rookie quarterback and major needs in key areas of the roster, would be vying for the NFC West title. And here they are. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo has the Rams playing well but still needing to pass some tests. Over the next few days, TST is going to take a look at each personnel unit at the halfway point, looking at how each group is performing, their strengths and weaknesses and an outlook for the second half of the season.
Wide receivers...after the jump.
Steve Spagnuolo's Rams had plenty of question marks when training camp began back in July, rookies at key positions, players returning from injury...all those paled in comparison to the question of whether or not the Rams had a group of wide receivers capable of competing.
It was a young group, long on potential with little in the way of results. The most experienced of the bunch was Laurent Robinson, entering his second year with the Rams after missing all but two and a half games with them in 2009. One of the biggest criticisms heaped on the front office in the offseason was the failure to add another wide receiver, be it via free agency or the draft. GM Billy Devaney did draft an intriguing Mardy Gilyard with the first pick of the fourth round, but that was the most significant upgrade the team made at receiver prior to the season.
In hindsight, that may have not have been enough, but the team had plenty of other needs to address and no way of covering all the bases with a handful of draft picks and small class of free agents. The Rams made the decision to go with a youth movement, letting guys like third-year man Donnie Avery spread their wings a fly with a super talented rookie QB and a solid offensive line. Then Avery was lost for the season...before the season even began, leaving the Rams in a lurch. They quickly added veteran Mark Clayton, in a trade of late round draft picks with the Ravens.
It proved to be a smart move as Clayton developed an instant chemistry with young Sam Bradford. Then they lost Clayton for the season.
Danario Alexander, another talented kid with a knee only a surgeon could love, was activated from the practice squad and quickly made an impression...before he had to have another knee surgery, his fifth. Fortunately for the Rams, he should at least be back in a week or two.
So far, it's been a rough season for the Rams at receiver as injuries have felled their most talented and/or established players at the position. And it shows. WIde receiver is by far the Rams weakest spot on the roster.
It's not as though the Rams don't have anyone who can catch the ball. Bradford and his Tomahawk missile accuracy makes it much easier. The most glaring weakness is the lack of a receiver who can stretch the field. And what exactly does that cliche mean? It means that they don't have one guy who can consistently get downfield on a sharp route, get separation from opposing corners and make the catches he needs to make to give the Rams a multi-faceted passing game. Avery was supposed to be that guy. Clayton was that guy for awhile. Alexander was that guy in a limited role and needs to be again once he returns.
The receivers filling the void now are doing an admirable job, but they're mostly role players whose effectiveness is at least partially compromised without at least another role player to add that dimension to the offense. That's the biggest weakness, but not the only one.
Mardy Gilyard had an impressive college career, and was an intriguing pick for the Rams. He has yet to do much, as a rookie, to make an impression. On the one hand, he gets some measure of forgiveness; he's a rookie at one of the more difficult positions to transition into in the NFL. On the other hand, that hasn't stopped some of his fellow rookies from stepping up on occasion, e.g. Alexander.
Dropped passes have been a problem until recently. The highlight reel has plenty of dropped passes that could have been big plays. To the Rams' credit, the receivers did a much better job with that in their last outing, with the top three targeted receivers each only missing one of a handful of balls thrown their way. Hopefully, that represents a trend, but it's one thing we'll be keeping a close eye out for in the coming weeks.
You have to give this group an A for effort. Together, they've tightened up their game, despite limitations, to make the most of the passing game. Yes, that involves lots of ho-hum "dink and dunk" passing, but it moves the chains, burns the clock and gives the defense a chance to shine.
Hats off to Danny Amendola. I know there's some debate about just what kind of role he should have, but he's played well, even without a guy like Mark Clayton to take the heat off of him. The others have shown some improvement in recent weeks, particularly against Carolina. Brandon Gibson has some nice YAC ability, and Laurent Robinson turned in his first strong effort of the season. They'll have to keep it up if the Rams are going to stay competitive.
Second half outlook
There's no room for error with this group, much less another injury. The Rams desperately need Danario Alexander back in the mix and playing at the same level, or better, as he did against San Diego. Even so, this group leaves the Rams needing more at the position. A lack of game-breaking talent makes those slow second halves that much harder to overcome, especially if they need points.
Hopefully, the exposure allows the most talented of the bunch to grow. Next season, when the Rams do bring in that quote-unquote #1 wide receiver, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola et al will be essential in rounding out that personnel group.