Friday, May 13, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

For the Rams to have a successful offseason, most everyone knew that they needed to give up some green, but often overlooked was their need to bring some green in.

St. Louis did both, handing out money to a number of players that have helped revamp its defense and special teams. To complete the changes, the Rams brought some green back to St. Louis, but this type of green wasn’t money. It was the FieldTurf for the Edward Jones Dome that the team has long coveted.

The Rams released a collective sigh of relief Tuesday when the team announced its plans to install the softer, more player-friendly playing surface in time for the 2005 season.

No matter the player, young or old, veteran or rookie, returning player or newly-signed free agent, every player is happy about the big green addition to the home of the Rams.

Tight end Roland Williams, who played on the AstroTurf in his first stint with the team, was thrilled to hear the news about the change.

“That was great,” Williams said. “We just smiled and all of the guys were just so happy. Thank you whoever got that done. Our playing surface now, the flubber or whatever you want to call it, is a lot better than the cement we were on before.”

It remains to be seen how much all of the changes made this offseason will help the Rams in 2005, but nobody can blame them for lack of trying. The new playing surface isn’t the only change to the product at the Edward Jones Dome.

In fact, the team added a number of new faces to play on said surface. The St. Louis shopping list looked something like this:

1. Get help at linebacker – Check. The Rams signed veterans Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne to fill two of the starting linebacker spots. Coakley and Claiborne instantly give a crew that was often labeled as soft and the weakness of the defense a certain amount of credibility, toughness and leadership.

Coakley has already been named a captain for this season and, in spite of his age, seems to have a chip on his shoulder after the Cowboys released him.

"Hopefully the guys won't ride me too hard for just coming aboard and already being a team captain," Coakley joked. "I want to show them my leadership, I want to show them my work ethic, I want to show them how to be a true professional. That's on the field, off the field (and) in all walks of life."

Claiborne came into the NFL with high expectations as a top 10 choice out of USC. He had not lived up to those expectations, but he says he had a legitimate reason for some of his struggles.
When the Lions used the ninth selection on Claiborne, they converted him to an outside linebacker. Claiborne was athletic enough to make the switch, but his size had him more suited to the inside. With the Rams, he will get that chance.

“I am finally back in the middle, which is where I want to be,” Claiborne said. “When you see my size in there, I like to bang, I like to hit. Outside, you are not allowed to be as aggressive. When I see a play come, I can go get it. If they want to run up the middle they are going to have problems with me in there.”

2. Bolster the offensive line – Check. First and foremost, the Rams had to finally reach a deal with Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace. The need at right tackle was huge, both literally and figuratively. Of course, getting some youngsters for the future and a veteran or two to compete at left guard also topped the wish list. Through some peaceful negotiations, the draft and a free agent addition, the Rams were able to do all that they needed in the trenches.

Pace signed a seven-year contract on March 16 that should allow him to retire as a Ram. After a few years of negotiations that never really came close to yielding a long-term deal, Pace was finally in the fold, leaving the other tackle spot as the next order of business.

St. Louis then used the 19th pick in the draft on Florida State tackle Alex Barron. It took all of about 20 minutes for coach Mike Martz to declare Barron the starter on the right side. After years of struggling on the side opposite Pace, Martz was thrilled to bring the revolving right tackle door to a complete stop.

“This was something that we have always gotten by in the last six years,” Martz said. “I didn’t realize how good I would feel after getting that question after all of these years and having these guys in and out. Not only do I think we have a very solid unit, but we have some very substantial players on that second line.”

When it became clear that Tom Nütten and Chris Dishman weren’t coming back, the need for a left guard became just as apparent. St. Louis moved quietly to sign Rex Tucker. Tucker had a reputation as a solid player, but has struggled with injury problems. He will immediately compete with the likes of Blaine Saipaia for the starting guard spot.
St. Louis also added Claude Terrell and Richie Incognito in the draft and signed undrafted free agent Zach Bray for depth.

3. Get help in the secondary – Check. The quality of the safeties and cornerbacks might be in question for some, but the quantity is certainly not lacking. Out of a huge group of additions to the defensive backfield, there are certain to be some players that emerge at the head of the class in training camp.

The Rams added Michael Stone, Michael Hawthorne, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ronald Bartell, Corey Ivy, Terry Fair, Mike Furrey, Jerome Carter and rookie free agent Duvol Thompson.

All of those new faces will have a chance to compete for a variety of spots. One starting spot at safety is open with perhaps another depending on Adam Archuleta’s recovery from a back injury. The nickel and dime cornerback spots are also up for grabs. These additions should lead to perhaps the most hotly contested battle of training camp.

“Obviously, the only guy we have back right now is Arch,” Furrey said. “We have a lot of guys that can play safety that are experienced and ready to go. It’s wide open. There is definitely a lot of competition for that spot, but you are going to have to compete at any position right now to play at this level.”

4. Find some relief for the special teams – Check. Like anything else on this list, the players still have to prove what they can do on the field, but the resumes speak for themselves. The Rams added a pair of coaches and a number of special teams specialists through free agency and the draft.

St. Louis hired Bob Ligashesky and Charles Bankins to coach the special teams early in the offseason, replacing Mike Stock and sending an instant message that teams had become a priority.

"That's a mistake I've made in the past when we've gone after defensive players," Martz said. "We've spent so much time looking for ability only on defense, but really didn't go into the next phase of that. You have to be equally significant on special teams. We made an issue of it this year in both free agency and the draft. So hopefully, we'll make a quantum leap."

The new commitment to special teams came in the form of the likes of Stone, Ivy, Fair, Coakley and a few others. All have excellent reputations for their work on special teams. The Rams needed any new blood they could get after finishing near the bottom of the NFL in every special teams category.

Bartell, Atogwe, Carter and Jerome Collins have extensive history on special teams and sixth-round choice Reggie Hodges is the only punter on the roster.

Martz also announced Furrey’s change from receiver to safety in an effort to ensure Furrey would be able to play special teams. Cornerback DeJuan Groce will also get the chance to return punts again.

5. Change the playing surface – Check. The Rams brought the offseason to its peak with the announcement Tuesday that the AstroTurf at the Edward Jones Dome would be replaced by FieldTurf.

A commonly heard excuse for injuries around the Rams is now gone. Without the AstroTurf, the careers of all skill positions will apparently last longer. Even if the new FieldTurf is more of a placebo effect, the Rams’ receivers and running backs will probably have an extra bounce in their step next season which could only help.

“I think this is important for a lot of reasons, primarily the health concerns of all the players,” Martz said. “This is exciting to be able to play on a more forgiving surface and that we’re now in sync with the rest of the NFL in terms of playing surfaces.”

So, where do the Rams go from here? There is still a possibility of a couple of June additions and it will be easier to get a read on how some of these competitions will pan out after June’s full-squad minicamp.
St. Louis could still use a couple of veterans to compete for defensive line spots and maybe even another safety if the right player lands on the waiver wire.

Regardless of what happens in the next month or so, the Rams have proven that they were willing to do what can be done to improve the team and the conditions in which the team plays. How that pans out remains to be seen, but at least the team appears to be moving in the right direction…

“To Motown!” Claiborne said, speaking of Super Bowl XL in Detroit.