Mike Sando looks at possible replacements via free agency, and brings up a list of the usual suspects. The only receiver in the list he likes is also one that I’ve touted before as a low-cost option for the Rams: Ike Hilliard.
Now, he’s not a 1-for-1 replacement for Avery. In fact, he’s the opposite — old, slow, and a possession guy, not a deep threat. However, before you get all Drew Bennett on me, he was actually very good last season — at least by one metric being developed by Football Outsiders: Receiving plus/minus. Not only did he have an 81% catch rate (for comparison, superhanded Wes Welker’s catch rate was 80.6%), but according to the +/- rating, he pulled in a bunch of passes that other receivers would have dropped. On the downside, he sports an anemic 2.6 yards after catch. (So throwing him the ball short on a third-and-long is going to lead to a fourth-and-short, not a first down.)
Additionally, ProFootballFocus rates Hilliard as the second-best receiver on the Bucs in 2008 (though apparently he stunk in 2007). I’m new to the PFF site and their method of grading players, but it seems to jibe in this case.
Hilliard was cut by the Bucs as part of a massive roster purge, and is still a free agent. He recently worked out with the Falcons, but was not signed.
The complicating factor in this case is that Avery is expected to return by at least Week 2 of the regular season. Additionally, with the acquisitions of Ronald Curry and Tim Carter, the Rams have already worked the list of available veteran receivers and made their choices. Assuming the Rams keep six receivers on the roster, that means Avery (1), Burton (2), and Laurent Robinson (3) are in, plus possibly Brooks Foster (4), who has looked very good in camp. Carter is competing with the incumbent Derek Stanley for return duties, and the fifth roster spot.
That leaves Ronald Curry, the loser of the Carter/Stanley battle, and a spate of young guys like Sean Walker who are hoping to stick for that sixth spot. Curry has not shown a lot in camp yet, and presumably Hilliard could come in and compete. But his impact once Avery returns would likely be negligible.
Is it worth the investment to bring him in? In my opinion, if they do bring him in (or another veteran, like Marvin Harrison), it will be more of an indictment on Curry’s play than a panic move in reaction to Avery’s injury.