The Rams are off to a good start in the free-agent shopping mart.
First, they signed center Jason Brown away from Baltimore. The Rams seem to have the inside track on signing New York Giants strong safety James Butler.
The Rams also retained two of their top young players by putting the franchise tag on safety O.J. Atogwe and getting cornerback Ron Bartell to agree to a four-year contract.
I figured they'd lose Bartell once he hit the open market, so securing him with a four-year contract was a significant achievement and a mild upset.
Again, a team that went 5-27 over the last two seasons didn't reinvent itself with a couple of player signings, but the Rams are making progress.
Did they spend a lot of money on Brown and Bartell? Sure. And why not? Given their sorry state, should the Rams wallow as bottom feeders in personnel? I don't think so.
Pat Kirwan of NFL.com rated Jason Brown as No. 7 overall on his list of top free agents and ranked Brown as the best available offensive lineman. The Rams have been searching for a big, strong, heady center for years. And Brown has that combination. He seems to possess good competitive character, and that's an important addition.
Brown cost the Rams $37.5 million over five years, with $20 million guaranteed. That's a lot of cash, and a gamble. But the Rams have to take some chances. The new regime at Rams Park can't be meek. What they've done is lessen the risk by putting their money into a younger player who can get even better. Brown is 26, and the Rams are catching him at the most appealing time on his career arc. Brown isn't on the down side; they should receive the best years of his career.
Besides, have you forgotten about the last few seasons and all of the losing, feuding and chaos? Until general manager Billy Devaney and new head coach Steve Spagnuolo establish credibility by winning, the Rams won't be a destination franchise. They aren't going to have premier players lining up on Earth City Expressway to play here for discount contracts. The lure to pull free agents into Rams Park is money, and lots of it.
Bartell got a four-year, $28 million deal to stay. The deal contains incentives, so it will probably come in at less than $28 million. This was a smart deal for the Rams. And a necessary one, unless you felt comfortable lining up Tye Hill, Jonathan Wade and Justin King at cornerback in 2009.
There's been some dissent out there, some talk that you don't give that kind of money to a cornerback unless he's a "shutdown" corner. I'm not sure how one defines "shutdown" corner, but I do know this, courtesy of STATS:
Last season opponents targeted Bartell 105 times and completed 51 passes on him for a "burn rate" of 48.6 percent, and that's outstanding. Among the NFL cornerbacks who were targeted a minimum of 50 times last season, Bartell's burn rate was the 12th best in the league. He knocked down 19 passes, tied for the sixth-highest total among CBs. Bartell gave up only two touchdown passes, one of the lowest totals of any NFL cornerback.
Let's compare that 48.6 completion rate against Bartell, and his 19 pass defenses, to the numbers turned in by the other Rams cornerbacks. Combined, the other five Rams CBs were burned on 68 percent of the passes thrown at them and had only 20 pass defenses.
If Bartell isn't a "shutdown" cornerback, then he did a splendid job of impersonating one last season. The top-rated free agent cornerback, Pittsburgh's Bryant McFadden, was burned at a rate of 62.3 percent last season, not even close to Bartell. And Bartell, 27, is 6-1 and 205 pounds, the kind of size that teams covet in a cornerback. I'm puzzled that there's any debate over this.
The Rams secondary was brutal last season, but it's foolish to blame Bartell or Atogwe for the incompetent play of teammates. They were gems in 2008.
If the Rams can get a deal done with Butler, he would upgrade the secondary. He was a sure tackler for the Giants and a first-rate cover guy at strong safety. According to STATS, Butler gave up only 19 completions in 45 passes attempted against him in 2008, and only three full-time strong safeties did better against the pass. Butler's burn rate of 42.2 percent is right up there with the NFL's best strong safety, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (41.1 percent).
Someone at Rams Park obviously did some fine research on the underrated Butler. And the early evidence suggests that the new football guys at Rams Park have a pretty good idea of what they're doing.