Fells working without a net

BY JIM THOMAS
Friday, May 27, 2011

Establishing a foothold in the NFL has been an ongoing struggle for Daniel Fells ever since he entered the league in 2006 as an undrafted rookie with Atlanta.

And despite career highs for receptions (41) and reception yards (391) last season for the Rams, things appear as tenuous as ever on some levels for the big tight end. For one, he's without a contract. For another, like every NFL player, he's in the midst of a lockout.

Fells, 27, finally might be in a position to make some decent money, but that's all in limbo as long as the lockout drags on.

"It's very frustrating," Fells said. "Me and my wife are expecting our first child, so it's one of those things where it's kind of a blessing in disguise. I get to be around and take care of her and make sure everything's going great. She's expecting within the next few weeks. But the uncertainty of our future, it's a little rocky, you know?"

Even though he's technically not a part of the Rams because he's not under contract, Fells made the trip to St. Louis this week to take part in the team's player-organized informal workouts.

After practicing at Lindenwood University Monday through Wednesday, the venue was switched to Lutheran South High School, where former Rams strength coach Chuck Faucette is now head football coach. About three dozen Rams have participated in this week's practices at one time or another.

But heavy rains cancelled Thursday's session. Instead, quarterback Sam Bradford and about eight to 10 receivers spent 30 minutes doing classroom work and then worked for about 45 minutes in the gym at Lutheran South. Afterward, many of them stayed around and played a little basketball.

Many Rams players will reconvene June 8 in the Phoenix area for another series of workouts organized by cornerback Ron Bartell, linebacker James Laurinaitis and Bradford. Fells headed back to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area later Thursday.

"I had to come get some football work in, somehow, some way," Fells said. "It's always good just to get on the field and get running around and run some routes, catch some balls from a quarterback. Because you can't simulate football. You know, I can go in the weight room and I can do different workouts and what not, but the only way to get football trained is actually to do football."

Whether Fells "does football" in St. Louis in 2011 remains to be seen.

As a restricted free agent a year ago, the Rams didn't make a tender offer to Fells. It seemed an unusual strategy at the time, because it made Fells the equivalent of an unrestricted free agent, free to sign anywhere no strings attached. He made a free-agent trip to New England, but ended up signing a one-year deal to return to the Rams.

Fells didn't quite have the breakout year some had anticipated, finishing fourth on the team in receptions and third in reception yards. But it still represented a significant step forward considering his career totals prior to 2010 were 28 catches for 354 yards.

"I've always known that I could play in the league, and I could compete with the best of 'em," said Fells, who lost any chance of being drafted when he suffered a broken ankle midway through his senior season at California-Davis. "But I still have a lot to do. I always feel like I've got to grow; I always feel that I have to prove a lot more."

In a normal offseason, Fells would be an unrestricted free agent because he has four years of NFL experience. But in anticipation that the free-agent requirement might be six years of experience (as was the case a year ago), the Rams tendered him as a restricted free agent. The lockout has put all that on hold, with no player transactions allowed, much less negotiations.

"To be honest, I have no idea on anything right now," Fells said. "I want us to get back to negotiations, so that we can get everything figured out so that I have a little bit more certainty as to what's going to happen next year."

The Rams' tight end landscape has changed since Fells was tendered in early March, because of the drafting of second-rounder Lance Kendricks from Wisconsin.

"My mindset going into any situation is it's always competition, no matter what," Fells said. "Just my journey to where I'm at today, it's always been a grind. It's always been a competition. .... I've taken the long road."

He has spoken to new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels only briefly, during the 24-hour period (on Day 2 of the draft) when the lockout was lifted. So Fells doesn't really have a sense of his status with the team.

On the day that Kendricks was drafted (April 29), coach Steve Spagnuolo was noncommittal when asked if picking Kendricks made re-signing Fells any less of a priority.

"We haven't gone down that road," Spagnuolo said at the time. "We're adding good football players and we'll let the rest work itself out."

Fells wasn't the only Rams veteran practicing this week who is not under contract. Offensive lineman Adam Goldberg is an unrestricted free agent no matter what once the lockout ends. Wide receiver Laurent Robinson is restricted under a six-year system and unrestricted under a four-year system. Linebackers Chris Chamberlain and David Vobora are restricted, no matter what. For them, getting injured during the unofficial workouts could have been even more damaging to their careers than for players under contract. But Fells and the others were willing to risk it.

"You can't worry about injuries because that's when injuries tend to happen," Fells said. "You've just got to go out there and go hard, no matter what."