INDIANAPOLIS -- In 2012, the St. Louis Rams finally found themselves in position to draft the best wide receiver in his draft class.
They had the No. 2 pick in that draft and a clear shot at Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon before making a blockbuster trade with Washington. The move loaded them with picks but also cost them a shot at Blackmon.
It was a move the Rams could make because Blackmon wasn’t believed to be in the class of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. He was best in class but not necessarily considered a surefire No. 1 receiver type.
Two years later, it appears that trade has put the Rams in position to land a receiver who is far closer to the Green/Jones class than any receiver who has come out in the past three years.
His name is Sammy Watkins, and he spent the past three years dominating the ACC as a member of the Clemson Tigers. In that time, he posted 240 catches for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns.
And Watkins is a player who, assuming everything checks out in terms of interviews, health and off-the-field issues, should be at the top of the Rams’ wish list in May.
In talking to a handful of scouts this week at the scouting combine, I heard almost nothing negative about Watkins. Here’s a small sample:
“He’s the real deal -- explosive, physical, strong, gets off the line of scrimmage, makes you miss. … He’s not a big 6-5 type of guy but he plays plenty big and he gets separation easily. … He should be a dominant player in the league and has the makeup to be a No. 1 guy. … The thing I love most about him is how competitive he is; he has a lot of dog in him and it shows up on almost every snap.”
Watkins showed no hesitation in declaring his desire to match those rave reviews and furthered his cause with an impressive 4.43-second 40-yard dash Sunday afternoon.
“What I love doing is dominating defenses,” Watkins said. “I think that’s what I bring to the game and I think that’s going to turn over to the NFL. When I come into the NFL, I think I can be that dominant receiver.”
Bingo. This isn’t about the Rams needing to draft a receiver. This is about the Rams needing to draft THE receiver.
They’ve taken a receiver in each of the past nine years. They’ve selected wideouts in every round, alternately hoping for a diamond in the rough to pay off and betting on a highly touted prospect to pan out.
For those who have followed the team in the five years since Torry Holt’s time in St. Louis came to an end, the lack of a top threat has been glaring. Since Holt and Isaac Bruce departed, the Rams haven’t had one. They haven’t even had one who's come close. No Rams wideout has reached even 700 receiving yards since Holt in 2008, nevermind 1,000 yards, which Holt hit in 2007.
Along the way, the Rams have been unable to find a top receiver for many reasons, not least of which includes some poor player evaluations, a lack of emphasis on the position and a little bit of bad luck.
For most of the past decade, the Rams have been one of the worst teams in the league. They’ve logged a 15-loss season, two 14-loss seasons and a 13-loss season, not to mention a 10-loss year in 2005.
Despite the lofty draft picks that go with those seasons, the Rams have never had the good fortune of having a high pick that corresponds to a season in which something as close to a can’t-miss receiver prospect has been in the draft.
In the 2007 draft, Georgia Tech’s Johnson was clearly one of the two best players. Had the Rams had one of those awful seasons before then, perhaps they could have taken the man now regarded as the best wideout in the league. Instead, they managed to finish 8-8, the only .500 record they’ve had since 2004.
Entering the 2010 season, the Rams were in the midst of one of the worst losing runs in league history. They’d posted a total of three wins in the 2008 and 2009 seasons but managed to take advantage of one of the league’s worst schedules in 2010 and nearly won the NFC West division before losing to Seattle on the season’s final day.
Instead of having a top-six pick in the 2011 draft with a shot at highly touted wideouts Green and Jones, the Rams picked 14th. They did just fine landing end Robert Quinn but settled for Austin Pettis and Greg Salas in Rounds 3 and 4 at receiver.
Sitting with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, it appears the Rams are almost certain to have a shot at Watkins. The question is whether they’re willing to again spend a top-10 pick on the position, especially when they’ve consistently preached the need for patience with their young receiving corps.
While patience is a reasonable request given how young that group is, there’s nothing that says adding more competition and a potential true No. 1 wideout to the mix would do anything but help the cause.
General manager Les Snead, who in January said the Rams don’t “need” a No. 1 type of receiver, offered a little more flexibility when asked about it again on Friday.
“I'll say this: Any time in the draft, if you could add a really special player, that helps your team,” Snead said. “I think the biggest thing we need from the wide receiver group is experience, letting those guys get older. But, hey, it’s a deep wide receiver class. It seems like every time you get a pick, there may be a good wide receiver on the board.”
Players like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and USC’s Marqise Lee are also considered potential first-round picks. Some might even turn out to be as good or better than Watkins.
But if Watkins is indeed the clear-cut best receiver in a strong class, why risk it? Considering how hard the organization has made it look to replace Holt and Bruce, wouldn’t simply drafting Watkins narrow the margin for error in evaluation or player development?
Maybe the Rams would love to trade down and still snag Watkins with a couple of more picks in their pocket. But again, if he really is that type of player, why not just make sure he’s a Ram?
“I don’t think you can ever say no because if that player can help you then pick him,” Snead said. “And competition is not a bad thing either, and having as many weapons as possible is not a bad thing either.”
Especially if that weapon is the one that’s been missing from your arsenal the longest.