Scouting Reports and Pre-draft Crushes: Dexter McCluster

Pure speed, combined with an ethereal ability to float just above the turf, just out of gravity’s reach. In their glory days, the high-flying Rams had players who had it — Bruce, Holt, Az Zahir Hakim, and most notably the many gears and endless guile of Marshall Faulk. The genius of the Martz offense was bolstered by, and dependent on, the sheer unpredictability of what might happen after the playmaker got the ball.

Once it was the Rams’ offense that made opposing defenses look old and slow, but now it’s quite the reverse.

As the Rams have devolved, they’ve lost hold of their speedier gears. Members of the old guard grumbled that Torry Holt had lost a step and Bruce was too old, while buying up deadfooted Drew Bennett and the corpse of Dante Hall. The Linehan Rams consciously tried to run a grind-it-out offense, but it was like trying to drive a dump truck with the burnt-out engine of an ’83 Volvo. No power, and no speed.

Spagnuolo has much the same conservative philosophy on offense, but the team has at least gotten younger and faster with players like Donnie Avery and Danny Amendola. And we saw rare glimpses of when a play came together just right, and Avery, Amendola, or Jackson suddenly had the ball out in the open and they could finally engage those high gears.

Imagine a draft, an offseason, devoted to adding DANGER.

Well, there’s a player whose stock is rapidly rising, but who was once considered a lock to be available in the third round — all 5’7″ and 165 lbs of Ole Miss’s Dexter McCluster. He runs like a drop of mercury on a cast iron skillet, quick and determined to get downhill, but never following a predictable path.

AP Photo/ Butch Dill

The buzz

This quick take from Matt Miller at New Era Scouting from McCluster’s Senior Bowl play offers a nice synopsis of his pluses (emphasis mine):

Dexter McCluster (Ole Miss) is listed as a wide receiver on the roster sheet, but he spent a lot of time in the back field. The explosion he showed all over the field is going to get a lot of evaluators excited. He reaches top speed with just a few steps and his agility and balance in space is some thing to watch. While he is severely undersized, he plays tough and has no problem with putting his head down and trying to drive a pile forward.

Senior Bowl Day 2 South Report

If you want to see that agility and balance, Hetfield72 over at the TurfShowTimes posted some pretty incredible video footage of McCluster in a game against super-safety Eric Berry and his Tennessee Volunteers.

His balance is so good that even when he gets hit in space, he often seems to avoid direct punishment. He breezes away from arm tackles like a dollar bill in the wind (fwd to 4:40), but also has the strength and motor to absorb a hit and deflect off if the tackler hasn’t wrapped up (fwd to 5:14 to see him escape Eric Berry). But that’s assuming the neanderthals on defense lay a hand on him. Two eye-popping plays: a 32 yard TD run at 3:00, and a 71-yarder at 5:54 have to be seen to be believed.

The Twitterverse has been blazing over McCluster’s Senior Bowl showings so far, but scouts are still mixed.

DraftBreakdown Mccluster dominating again in 9-7 drills
J_morell Top 5 Winners so far at senior Bowl might be k. Wilson, b. Graham, D. Mccluster, Iupati, and V. Ducasse.
MoveTheSticks RT @bennetthipp: Opinion on Dexter McCluster?>> explosive little joker… 165 pounds is concern.. slot WR and returner is where I like him
NFLDraftTalk365 Dexter Mccluster needs to be involved either in route/run when he’s in game. Sharpton just rag dolled him in pass pro drill

Because of his diminutive size and darting speed, he is earning comparisons to Darren Sproles and Leon Washington… but in his game-breaking potential, the names of DeSean Jackson, Percy Harvin, and Chris Johnson are being bandied about. However, one comparison stuck out to me:

JHokanson Corey Chavous compared Dexter McCluster to former Auburn great Lionel James on NFL Network…not a bad comparison.

I had to look this guy up… Lionel “the little train” James had a short 5-year career with the Chargers as their proto-Sproles in the early 80s. He had a transcendent season in ’85, though, getting 191 combined carries and receptions with kick return duties as well, and setting the AFC record for all-purpose yardage.

Strategic Fit

As mentioned above, McCluster is a “DANGER” pick, in that he adds unpredictability and a close-field scoring threat to the offense. Pairing him with Michael Vick and Steven Jackson would create a true triple-threat attack that could drive defenses crazy. Even a defense that is stacked against the run works best against traditional running plays — cutbacks and play-fakes out of multiple formations would drive opposing D-coordinators crazy.

Like Vick’s Atlanta Falcons, a top grade receiver is more of a luxury than a necessity with this kind of offense. McCluster would not be an every down player, and thus not a threat to Steven Jackson’s #1 status, or his newfound leadership on the team.

Arguments Against

Clearly, injury risk is significant. At 165 lbs, McCluster has a feather-light frame that would not seem to hold up to punishment at the NFL level. Even Sproles weighed in at 185 in the pre-draft Combine.

And it’s worth noting that one season after James’ record-setting year, he played in only seven games. Three seasons later he was out of the league all together.

Finally, McCluster’s abilities in the return game might be significant, but they also overlap the excellent work that Danny Amendola has been doing. If both are key playmakers as slot receivers, the Rams would have to shift philosophies and run many more four-wide formations.

Still, though, the Rams’ needs for playmakers, and the setup of this draft, could make McCluster a great pick in the top of the 4th round, and even a good pick — if riskier — in the 3rd.