Thursday, January 20, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

With championships yet to be won on the field, most of the NFL is searching for answers for how to be in the position of one of the four teams remaining in the playoffs at this time next year.

That mission entails various changes in organizations. Some of those changes will be wholesale makeovers such as a new head coach and staff, as well as new players. Others will be tweaking their rosters, looking for that one or two players that can put them over the top.

Until the season ends, though, most of those changes can’t be made. Coaching changes, of course, can and are happening around the league, but roster alterations won’t become official for awhile.

Before any team can focus on its draft or free agent targets, it must get an idea of who is going to return from this season’s roster. The Rams, of course, fall into the category of teams trying to figure out exactly what must happen to ensure they are still playing at this point next season.

Despite their 8-8 record, the Rams advanced to the NFC Divisional Playoffs before losing 47-17 to Atlanta. Rams coach Mike Martz said he was happy with the way the team ended the year, but would obviously like for the team to still be playing.

"We've come a long ways and yet there's a long ways to go," Martz said. "When we started the season we felt like we could develop into a pretty good team. With all of the things that happened to us, obviously we fell short of where we thought we'd be."

With that said, St. Louis is getting a head start on who will be lining up next year. The Rams have 14 unrestricted free agents this off-season, ranging from their All-Pro left tackle to a backup tight end who made one of the most important catches of the season.

The list of marquee players that St. Louis must re-sign begins with Orlando Pace. Pace has missed training camp each of the past two seasons because of a contract stalemate.

That has left the Rams forced to wait and designate him their franchise player. The franchise tag has hamstrung St. Louis in some ways when it comes to salary cap matters. If Pace’s price tag for next season remains unknown or has to be counted as highly as it would under the franchise tag, it might be hard for the team to be active in the free agent market.

For his part, Pace has shown some signs that he might be easier to sign than in recent off-seasons. Pace started by firing his agent, Carl Poston, who many thought was holding up Pace’s negotiations.

Pace said last week that he will begin searching for an agent, as early as this week.

"After the season, I'm going to attack that pretty good," Pace said. "Probably the first week after the season."

Pace is probably the most important piece to what the Rams do this off-season, but he is certainly not the only player they have to deal with.

Defensive end Bryce Fisher had a breakout season in many respects for St. Louis this season and is about to hit the open market. Fisher led the team with 8.5 sacks this season and even earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for his December performance.

Fisher probably earned himself a raise with that effort. He said after the Atlanta game, that he didn’t want to think about football much for a little while.

“I don’t care (about other games) and I won’t be watching any of it,” Fisher said. “I am going to go home and then whatever happens happens.”

Other starters on the defense that are eligible for free agency include safety Antuan Edwards and linebacker Tommy Polley. Edwards played well enough in his time with the team that he is a candidate to return.

Veteran safety Aeneas Williams is eligible for free agency also and his status is probably the most uncertain. Williams has an arthritis problem in his neck and could retire of he is unable to heal with a season of rest.

Safety Rich Coady is also a free agent, leaving the Rams with just one safety (Adam Archuleta) signed for next season.

Pace isn’t the only piece of the offensive line eligible for free agency. Two members of the left guard carousel are due to hit the market. Tom Nütten and Chris Dishman, who took the lion’s share of the starts next to Pace, could land in new places or retire also.

Both battled injuries all season and might not be physically able to return. Dishman tore his ACL while trying to return from an MCL injury and missed most of the year after starting five games.

Nütten became known as “Lazarus” for his ability to rise up and answer the bell every week despite a torn MCL and severe case of turf toe. Nütten’s courageous effort at the end of the season makes him a welcome face around Rams Park, but he is uncertain of where to go from here.

“My main concern is just getting healthy again,” Nütten said. “Right now, I just want to go home and rest. I don't want to make a decision yet.

Tight end Cameron Cleeland is also due for free agency. Cleeland made the game-winning touchdown catch against Seattle in the first round of the playoffs and has proven to be valuable as the backup tight end.

Guard Darnell Alford, defensive end Erik Flowers and receiver Dane Looker are also free to shop elsewhere.

In addition to the unrestricted free agents, who can sign anywhere without penalty, the Rams have three restricted free agents. Those players are free to sign elsewhere, but St. Louis has matching rights if it tenders a contract offer. Linebacker Trev Faulk, fullback Joey Goodspeed and long snapper Chris Massey are restricted.

The Rams have already begun evaluating all of these players and their decisions will be made soon on the future of many. When that is done, the first step of the all-important off-season will be complete.