Mix of players vying to replace departed Wistrom


R.B. FALLSTROM

Associated Press



MACOMB, Ill. - At this time last year, Anthony Hargrove was pushing airplanes around instead of offensive tackles.

After being declared academically ineligible at Georgia Tech, the St. Louis Rams' rookie defensive end got a taste of life in the real world. He worked as a ramp agent at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, squeezing himself into undersized work clothes, wheeling around in carts, toting baggage and supervising the parking.

Now, he's in a mix of players vying to replace Grant Wistrom at right defensive end. It's the only position vacancy on a team that went 12-4 and won the NFC West last year.

"I couldn't ask for anything better," Hargrove said. "It's a free battle on the right side and we've got a lot of guys competing, and I'm right in the mix."

There's an immediate opening for Hargrove, a third-round pick in this year's draft, after Wistrom was bowled over by a six-year, $33 million contract from the Seahawks that included a $14 million signing bonus. Bryce Fisher, a 1999 seventh-round pick of the Bills, entered camp first on the depth chart.

Other candidates in the group are Sean Moran and Erik Flowers. Coach Mike Martz said the Rams will be just fine with a no-name rotation opposite Leonard Little, who was among the league leaders with 12.5 sacks last year and went to his first Pro Bowl.

Veteran Tyoka Jackson is another backup end, but on the left side behind Little.

Martz thought Wistrom, a 1997 first-round pick of the Rams, would be with St. Louis his entire career. But he's moved on.

"There's six guys on the left and right side that you'd be happy with lining up and playing, I can safely say that," Martz said. "Whoever lines up on the right end, that's who he is, and I'm sure whoever that is will play very well."

Players also are confident there won't be a dropoff.

"We'll line up and play, that's the way it works," Jackson said. "Grant was a great player and a great friend and he's always going to be a friend, but he's on the wrong side of the ball now.

"We've got some guys; people may not know who they are, but we've got some guys."

Wistrom had 7 1/2 sacks last year and was a coaches' favorite because of his non-stop motor. Fisher, on the other hand, has made three career starts.

"We're really working our tails off to prove we can be out there," Fisher said. "Everybody adds a little bit something different. Tony is a phenomenal athlete, Erik has a great takeoff, Sean is a nine-year veteran and I use my hands well."

Unlike other members of the defensive line like tackle Ryan "Grease" Pickett and Jimmy "Bear" Kennedy, line coach Bill Kollar has not bestowed a nickname on Fisher. He just wants to capitalize on this opportunity.

"I'm going into my fourth year and right about now players have to prove themselves," Fisher said. "This is what the league will think of you the rest of your career."

The Rams already like Hargrove's high-energy approach. He's confident, modeling his playing style on a combination of Jevon Kearse and Warren Sapp.

"I try to play with Sapp's tenacity and meanness, but also be a skill and finesse player like Kearse, but still with the bull rush, and play the run real well," Hargrove said.

Of course, there's plenty of hunger after his airport job. He knows it's easier pushing Grant Williams, the stand-in starter at left tackle until holdout Orlando Pace signs, than a Delta 88.

"I knew I wanted to be back on the field," Hargrove said. "I knew that wasn't my life, working a 9-to-5.

"And I knew I'd do whatever it took."