Team is more than $20 million under the salary cap
BY STEVE KORTE
News-Democrat
ST. LOUIS - By the end of the first weekend of NFL free agency last year, the St. Louis Rams had already signed defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon and strong safety Corey Chavous.

Coach Scott Linehan doesn't foresee the Rams being as active in the early days of free agency this season.

"I really can't," Linehan said. "Not that we wouldn't consider anything. We'd consider a trade if something came up. Certainly we have some free agents that we have targeted, but we don't know what kind of market we are dealing with.

"I don't know if there is that Witherspoon or Chavous type of player out there."

The free-agency period opened late Thursday night in what promises to be a seller's market.

Most teams have plenty of cash to spend under the salary cap, including the Rams who are more than $20 million under the $109 spending limit for 2007.

However, there are few elite players available in free agency. The top two offensive players are Cincinnati offensive lineman Eric Steinbach and Indianapolis offensive lineman Kris Dielman, while the top two defensive players are Buffalo cornerback Nate Clements and Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas.

"The market is going to be pretty competitive for very few players who are marquee," Linehan said. "There are very few name players."

Bargains could be hard to find in a market where 12 or more teams are $20 million or more under the salary cap.

"The goal is to make the team better, so whatever they cost, they cost, I guess," Linehan said. "Ultimately, you would be lucky to sign a starter to your team anyway."

Linehan thinks the Rams' offseason already has gotten off to a good start due to the signing of defensive end Leonard Little and linebacker Pisa Tinoismoa to contract extensions during the 2006 season.

"I'd count them because we'd be in a world of hurt sitting here trying to figure out how we were going to re-sign them, and if we didn't re-sign them, how we were going to replace them," Linehan said.

Linehan said he'd still like to sign one impact defensive player during free agency.

"I think it's possible, but I don't how realistic," Linehan said. "We're going to find out real quick."

The problem is that the Rams' two greatest needs on defense -- defensive end and defensive tackle -- are two of the weakest positions in free agency.

The top three free-agent defensive ends -- Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, New Orleans' Charles Grant and Cincinnati's Justin Smith -- have been designated as franchise players.

That leaves Atlanta's Patrick Kerney, who had 4 1/2 sacks last season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle, and Tampa Bay's Dewayne White, who had five sacks last season, as the top players available in free agency.

There's even less talent available at defensive tackle, especially at the run-stuffing nose guard position that the Rams are hoping to fill.

Chicago's Alfonso Boone (6-foot-4, 318 pounds) and Ian Scott (6-foot-3, 302 pounds), Kansas City's Ron Edwards (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) and Denver's Michael Meyers (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) lead a less-than-steller group of potential nose guards.

There are rumors that the Rams are interested in trading for Detroit defensive end James Hall, 30, who has had five sacks each of the last two seasons after registering 12 sacks in 2004.

On the offensive side, the Rams will be looking for a wide receiver if both Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald leave via free agency.

Curtis, Tennessee's Drew Bennett and Philadelphia's Donte' Stallworth are generally considered the top three receivers available in free agency.

Linehan said the Rams would like to have Curtis back, but it's unlikely that he'd be willing to accept the continued role of No. 3 receiver behind Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

"I known Kevin is looking for a starting job," Linehan said. "It's hard to say right now that that's going to happen in the immediate future here, but looking down the road, he's the heir apparent when Isaac decides to retire.

"He got a taste of starting a couple of years ago when Isaac got hurt, and I might be wrong, but I think that is something that is going through his mind."

Linehan said the Rams also would like to bring back linebacker Dexter Coakley, who was cut earlier this week, as well as offensive tackle Todd Steussie and punter Matt Turk, who are both unrestricted free agents.

There are plenty of candidates to serve as backup running back to Rams starter Steve Jackson. The list includes Indianapolis' Dominic Rhodes, Pittsburgh's Najeh Davenport, Philadelphia's Correll Buckhalter, Tennessee's Chris Brown, Arizona's Marcel Shipp and Miami's Sammy Morris.

Linehan said the most difficult thing about free agency for him is staying patient.