Clayton Making Instant Impact

Posted Oct 6, 2010

Well before the trade that sent him to St. Louis was ever consummated, receiver Mark Clayton had already begun the process of preparing himself for his exit from the only NFL home he’d ever known.

“It was time,” Clayton said. “I was ready to move out of Baltimore. I was actually getting ready to sell my house and get ready to be gone from Baltimore. It was crazy how that happened and I ended up here.”

Only days before the season opener, the Rams and Ravens finalized a trade that brought Clayton to St. Louis in exchange for a pittance of draft picks. Although the move was bittersweet in some ways for Clayton because he’d built so many strong relationships with the team that drafted him, it also gave him an opportunity to experience something different.

The deeply spiritual Clayton had long believed that he would be put in places for a reason. In Baltimore, his role was to be a part of the process, to fall in line with the rest of the receivers and contribute where he could.

But almost from the day he arrived in St. Louis as the team’s most seasoned veteran, Clayton was asked to take on a role that he’d never before attempted.

“It is a blessing,” Clayton said. “I am so appreciative and so glad about it. To be honest, it’s an uncomfortable position for me because I don’t talk much; I’m not a front runner or anything like that. I like sitting back and serving and helping people. Anything I can do, that’s me. Now I am called upon to be an elder amongst the group and be like ‘Look man, this is how it’s done’ or ‘Look man, this is the mentality of things.’ I have to be a lot more vocal than I have been pretty much my whole life. But it’s cool. It has taken me out of my box.”

Make no mistake; Clayton’s expanded role hasn’t been limited to taking on more leadership in a young wide receivers room. As the most accomplished wideout on the roster, Clayton jumped right in and started from week one. He’s since become the team’s top receiving option without missing a beat; a feat done in just four weeks and one that even draws surprise from coach Steve Spagnuolo.

“Wow, he’s a…call him a gamer or call him a clutch performer, whatever you want,” Spagnuolo said. “He runs great routes and the quarterback has a lot of confidence in him, so we’re glad we got him.”

Through four games, Clayton has emerged as quarterback Sam Bradford’s top target and with good reason. He leads the team with 22 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns and is on pace to put together his finest NFL season.

Not that Clayton was a disappointment in Baltimore after he was a first-round draft pick but he hadn’t quite lived up to the billing that went with his draft status, either.

In search of veteran receiver help after the season-ending knee injury to Donnie Avery, Spagnuolo recalled some encounters with Clayton from his time in New York. Spagnuolo spoke with close friend and Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh and received glowing recommendations of Clayton as a player and a person.

Still, Clayton has the unshakable confidence in himself and his faith that eventually he’d be put in a place to take his game to another level. That’s why, while there might be those that are surprised by his early success in St. Louis, he expected his time to come one way or another.

“Whatever happens, I expect,” Clayton said. “I expect to be successful every time I step on the field. I expect to win the game every time we step on the field. I expect to make crazy plays. I expect to make routine plays. I expect that to happen so when it does happen, there are no surprises. You are just doing what you are supposed to be doing anyway so no not at all.”

If anything has come as a surprise, it was Clayton’s immediate success despite having only a few days to practice and get familiar with the Rams system.

“I had jitters for the first game I was so nervous,” Clayton said. "But it was like I just wanted to perform at a level that would help us win the game. I didn’t want to be the reason why we don’t win the game.”

Clayton did nothing but help in his debut, posting a career-high 10 catches to go with 119 yards.

Since, Clayton’s production has only grown. He’s become a big-time play maker as he’s tied for fourth in the NFL in receptions of 25 yards or more with five. He’s also proved more than adept at moving the chains as 15 of his 22 grabs have gone for first downs.

Despite all of that production, the scariest thought for opponents might be that Clayton is just now starting to feel fully comfortable in the Rams offense.

“Now, it’s like I still want to perform at a level that helps us win the game but now I have the system. I am four weeks in now,” Clayton said. “There’s a level of confidence that comes from understanding the offense, understanding the scheme that initially was like ‘What if I forget my route or they call something and I run the wrong way?’ That’s in your mind. Now it’s just clear. I know what we are doing. I know the plan of attack. I know where we are going. With that, it’s much easier.”

FLETCHER’S FINE: Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher came up with an interception for the second consecutive week last week and continues to develop into one of the league’s best young corners.

That Fletcher is playing so well isn’t what is surprising to Spagnuolo. Rather, it’s the fact that Fletcher is playing at all after a gruesome knee injury that some thought might threaten his football career altogether.

“(He’s been) really good,” Spagnuolo said.  “And I will say this, I’m not so sure – he’d never tell you this – but I’m not so sure he is fully…it’s not even a year from an ACL surgery, so I think he’s giving you everything he’s got. He always does and I think he’s playing aggressive and all those things, but I think every once in a while I look at the tape and say, ‘I’m not sure he’s…maybe he’s 95 percent instead of a hundred.’  But he’s certainly developing well.  I would have loved to have seen him this year had he not had the injury last year and had a full rookie year.”

Still, Fletcher is finding ways to make plays and has been stingy in allowing opposing receivers to make catches. According to STATS, Inc., Fletcher already has six passes defended this year.

Fletcher’s recent penchant for the big play has been even more encouraging.

 “Yeah,” Spagnuolo said. “I’m hopeful that all of them have that, but I think he’s been…the good thing about Bradley is he’s been presented with those opportunities and he’s taken advantage of them.”

PRACTICE SQUAD SHUFFLE: The Rams made a series of moves to adjust their practice squad Wednesday morning.

Rookie cornerback Marquis Johnson was placed on injured reserve after having knee surgery and planning for shoulder surgery soon. He will miss the rest of the season.

“He has been battling both of those and was a real warrior going through,” Spagnuolo said. “But it was kind of wear and tear and it was just the smart thing to do.”

The Rams signed cornerback Terrail Lambert to takes Johnson’s place. Lambert signed with San Francisco in 2009 as an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame. He spent most of the year Indianapolis’ practice squad.

The Colts released Lambert at the end of the 2010 preseason. For the Irish, Lambert started 31 games with four interceptions.

The Rams also released fullback/tight end Jamie McCoy from the practice squad and brought in defensive tackle Jimmy Saddler-McQueen.

Saddler-McQueen played his college ball at Texas A&M-Kingsville before signing with the Bears as an undrafted free agent. He spent the preseason with Dallas before being released prior to the season.

INJURY REPORT: Slowly but surely, plenty of injured Rams are starting to make their way back to the practice field.

Running back Steven Jackson and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe took part in the bulk of the practice and are expected to be OK for this weekend.

“We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed,” Spagnuolo said. “What’s today, Wednesday? We don’t want to jinx anything.”

Tackle Rodger Saffold was hit on his left shin and was unable to complete the practice though he’s expected to be all right.

Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Billy Bajema, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, safety Darian Stewart and receiver Laurent Robinson all returned to the practice field in some capacity. Robinson was full participation and the rest were limited.

Defensive tackle Darell Scott (ankle), defensive tackle Clifton Ryan (migraines), cornerback Kevin Dockery (hamstring) were the only players not to participate. Punter Donnie Jones (calf) was limited.

There’s nothing new to update on Ryan, while the Rams continue to search for the root of his headache issues. Dockery is almost certain to miss this week as is Scott.

Jones is simply being preserved so he’ll be able to make it to the weekend.