When the St. Louis Rams traded a sixth-round pick for Mark Clayton and a seventh-rounder shortly before the start of the 2010 regular season, there weren't many people bursting at the seams with excitement.
It wasn't that all of us fans believed he wasn't an improvement; the injury to starter Donnie Avery had set the talent level at receivers so far back that anyone who could produce at least average statistics would've been welcome with open arms.
To put it bluntly, Clayton brought no amount of excitement with him. He had already achieved the title of "bust" during his time in Baltimore, he didn't possess any skills that suggested room for improvement and he only had a single year remaining on his contract.
So while he would make the Rams' passing game a little better, he would be gone by season's end, and around 2013 we'd all forget he even really existed.
Then a funny thing happened.
Despite not being with the team at all in the preseason and having little more than a few practices with QB Sam Bradford under his belt, Clayton racked up 10 catches and 119 yards in Week 1. Although he looked the part of an effective downfield receiver, the most impressive point to take away from the game was the instant rapport he had with Bradford.
The following week against the Oakland Raiders he managed two catches, both of which went for touchdowns. He then followed that performance up with 85-yard and 72-yard outings against the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.
While he was still miles away from being considered a legitimate threat in the league, it appeared the Rams had pulled a rabbit out of their hat and found a crucial piece of their future.
So when Clayton went down with a knee injury in Detroit, it hurt all the more. Just a few weeks earlier, the Rams had seen their best receiver, Donnie Avery, go down to a torn ACL, and here they were in Week 5 looking on as Clayton suffered the same exact fate. It was brutal to take in, especially for Clayton himself, who finally appeared to be making something of himself in the NFL.
Now here we are, heading into the 2011 season with a big question lingering in the back of all of our minds: Was the beginning of 2010 just a small hot streak for Clayton, or will he actually continue to be an effective receiver moving forward?
There are a few factors that will go a long way in deciding Clayton's future.
Will he return full strength from a severe knee injury?
Knee injuries are among the most difficult and frustrating injuries an athlete can experience. The likeliness of a re-injury far exceeds that of most other ailments, and they tend to take a step or two off the injured.
There is no telling how Clayton will return from his surgery. While his Twitter account and reports show promising signs, there is a large difference between offseason rehab and full-on contact drills.
Can the Rams re-sign him?
For those who point out that Clayton is an unrestricted free agent, do not worry too much. Both sides have shown plenty of intention to have Clayton in horns next season. It will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets, however, given the fact that since he is coming off a major injury and only four games' worth of promise to go off.
Will he fit into Josh McDaniels' system?
Yes. McDaniels has developed an offense that utilizes many receivers and has led to the (re)emergence of players such as Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd. Clayton played in a spread offense in college and excelled.
McDaniels' offense also has so many moving pieces that it keeps the defense from being able to lock onto any specific target, which will allow Clayton more wiggle room than he had last season. With Clayton's reliable hands and big-play ability, he will be plenty of fun to watch in McDaniels' offense.
Although there are plenty of complications that will go into deciding the success of Clayton's return, I wouldn't bet against him. He appeared to be reignited by the change of scenery, and he fit in beautifully with the team last season.
If all goes to plan, Clayton should just be another pleasant piece of the puzzle for the young, rising Rams.