NFL Draft Preview: Wide Receivers

Posted Apr 22, 2013

California WR Keenan Allen is a highly sought prospect but has some injury and off field questions that could impact his draft status. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

For the second consecutive year, the Rams are making no bones about their need to continue to upgrade the offensive weapons surrounding quarterback Sam Bradford in the NFL Draft.

While general manager Les Snead is quick to point out that a “weapon” can come in just about any form, he also acknowledges that the most obvious position people equate to the word is wide receiver.

And, for the second straight year, the Rams have done tireless work, spending countless hours breaking down this year’s crop of wideouts, watching a number of workouts and bringing in more than a half dozen for visits to St. Louis.

As it stands, the Rams have only three wideouts on the roster for the 2013 season. In terms of experience, Austin Pettis is the new elder statesman of the group as he enters just his third season in the league.

Pettis’ new standing in the receiver room is a result of the free agent defections of Danny Amendola (to New England), Brandon Gibson (to Miami) and Steve Smith (to Tampa Bay).

That trio, particularly Amendola and Gibson, formed the corps of the receiver group in 2012 and provided a large chunk of the production the Rams got from the position.

Amendola led the Rams in catches last year with 63 grabs, adding 666 yards and three touchdowns. Gibson led the Rams in touchdowns with five as he had 51 receptions for 691 yards. Smith had 14 catches for 131 yards.

All told, that is 128 receptions for 1,488 yards and eight touchdowns that must be replaced in the lineup. That seems like a lot on paper but considering it’s spread across three players, it’s not as much as it would have been back in the earlier part of the decade when Torry Holt was essentially posting those numbers by himself.

The Rams do have high hopes for the three wideouts – Pettis and second-year men Chris Givens and Brian Quick – returning to the roster. In fact, Givens led all Rams receivers in yards last year with 698 on just 42 catches, an impressive average of 16.6 yards per grab to go with three touchdowns.

Pettis provide a valuable piece in clutch situations, catching 30 balls for 261 yards with four touchdowns and a number of important first downs late in games.

Both Pettis and Givens are expected to take another step forward in 2013 but the biggest jump is expected from Quick. Taken with the first pick in the second round a year ago, Quick had his ups and downs in limited opportunities as he finished with 11 catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He flashed the size, speed and strength skill package he boasts on a few occasions but took time to adjust to the NFL route tree and playbook in his rookie season. Much more will be asked of him in 2013.

The other X factor for the receiver group is the addition of free agent Jared Cook. Technically listed at tight end, the former Titan spent the majority of his time in Tennessee playing as an oversized slot receiver and will likely do so in St. Louis as well.

Also returning to the mix is a pair of practice squad wideouts in Nick Johnson and Raymond Radway, both of whom could earn an extended offseason look.

Despite the presence of that group, the Rams are quite clearly looking to add more varied weapons to their arsenal in this year’s draft, perhaps as early as the first round. If for no other reason than the lack of bodies at the position, the Rams could very well double down on the position again this year.

While this draft doesn’t boast the sexy top pick at wideout like an A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson, it does provide plenty of options for teams depending on what it is they are looking for.

Headlining the class is West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. Although he’s listed at just a shade under 5’9 and 174 pounds, Austin brings blinding speed and change of direction to go with Swiss Army Knife versatility.

Austin’s production for the Mountaineers included dynamic work at receiver, running back and returner. His size and catch radius are the biggest question marks around him but many teams view his play making skills in a way that outweigh those negatives.

It’s unlikely Austin will last to the Rams’ first draft spot at No. 16 but if he does, he’d almost certainly be under strong consideration to be the guy to add to the Rams’ offensive arsenal.

Behind Austin is a group that provides so many pros and cons that you’d be hard pressed to find a consensus order among teams on which players fall in line where. The Rams have done their diligence on plenty of wideouts other than Austin.

Much like last year when they worked out and or brought in receivers like Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright, A.J. Jenkins, Givens, Quick and Rueben Randle, the Rams made the rounds again this year and welcomed plenty of wideouts to St. Louis.

Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, California’s Keenan Allen, Tennessee’s Justin Hunter, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey, Baylor’s Terrance Williams, Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton,  Southern Cal’s Robert Woods are just a few options that could be available to the Rams.

Patterson is, perhaps, this draft’s most polarizing prospect. He played just one season for the Volunteers and posted 46 catches for 778 yards with five touchdowns to go with 25 carries for 308 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He also returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.

But Patterson carries questions about his ability to translate to the NFL game and make an impact right away after reports indicated he didn’t interview well at the scouting combine in February. Despite those questions, Patterson brings world-class athleticism to the position. Depending on who you ask, he could go as high as the top 10 or slip to the bottom part of the first round. The Rams could give him strong consideration should he fall to either of their draft spots in the first round.

Offering more polished options are Allen, Hopkins, Woods, Williams and Patton.

Many draft pundits have Allen as the most ready to go NFL wideout of the group despite average speed, production and a healing knee injury. Still, Allen provides a physical approach that has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin and will almost certainly have his named called at some point in the first round.

Hopkins has a similarly polished game albeit with more speed and production on his resume. The Rams have showed increasing interest in him in the run up to the draft but he also has questions to answer after it was reported that his room was destroyed at the combine in February.

Woods, Williams and Patton are solid choices that would be nice finds in the second round. Each brings enough versatility to play any of the three positions.

Like his Tennessee teammate Patterson, Hunter offers a huge ceiling with his 6’4 frame and ridiculous athletic skills that include a victory in the long jump at the 2010 USA Outdoor Junior Track Championships.

Hunter’s production, particularly in the deep part of his game dipped in 2012 as he returned from a serious knee injury. It remains to be seen if he can return to the athlete that had scouts salivating the previous year, which could cause his stock to slip some.

Bailey is Austin’s less heralded teammate but brings a strong, polished resume that could make him a nice choice in the middle rounds. Players like Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills, Kansas State’s Chris Harper, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton, Washington State’s Marquess Wilson, Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope, Marshall’s Aaron Dobson and Texas’ Marquise Goodwin could also be available in the middle round range.

In the later rounds, someone like Ace Sanders could be an option to provide some pop to the return game. Missouri's T.J. Moe is another late-round option who also just so happens to be a local alternative. He tested extremely well at the combine in everything except the 40-yard dash. He didn’t have the production he’d hoped in his final two seasons at Mizzou but was slowed a bit by inconsistent quarterback play.

The reality may be that none of the wideouts in this year’s class can bring an instant impact to the Rams or any other team. Each may be able to contribute in his own way but expecting big time, immediate production from receivers is generally a futile exercise and it may be even more questionable in a year such as this.

From a Rams perspective, it’s entirely possible they do use a first-round choice on a wideout and they’ll almost certainly be taking one or two at some point in this draft but that doesn’t mean they’ll be expecting that player to make a huge difference right away. More likely, any receivers added to the mix will be asked to find ways to chip in where they can to complement what the Rams already have.

Top Five Wide Receivers

1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia – Perhaps the most exciting player in the draft. On the small side but can score anytime he touches the ball.
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee – A bit on the raw side but possesses the freakish athleticism and ability to be a No. 1 wideout down the road.
3. Keenan Allen, California – A strong, physical type who draws comparisons to Anquan Boldin. Won’t wow with speed but can win jump balls.
4. Justin Hunter, Tennessee – Had he been healthy all year he might be at the top of this list given his combination of size, speed and athleticism.
5. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson – Won’t blow anyone away athletically but is a gifted pass catcher who runs great routes and knows how to get open.

Sleeper: Da’rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech – Would probably be the third Tennessee receiver on this list were it not for off the field issues that got him kicked off the team. If he answers those issues, he could turn out to be one of the best in class at this position.