By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Orlando Pace doesn’t remember where he was at this time last year. The one place he knows he wasn’t was Rams Park for the team’s veteran mini-camp.

“I probably was working out, just hanging out with my kids. I’m not much of a golfer, so I was probably just chillin’ at home,” Pace said.

For the first time since 2002, the Rams’ All-Pro left tackle is attending the team’s veteran mini-camp. Pace missed each of the past two mini-camps because of a contract stalemate.

Armed with a new seven-year, $52.9 million deal and the title of team captain, Pace seems rejuvenated. Soon after signing the long-term contract, Pace received a call from coach Mike Martz telling him that he was going to be a captain.

The decision to make Pace a captain was easy for Martz.

“Just the tempo of which he does things, he is just a great role model for the entire offensive line,” Martz said. “We have some guys that are first-time starters and first-time here. He’s a terrific role model (for them).”

Pace’s long and winding road from the first pick in the 1997 draft to six-time Pro Bowler has brought many achievements, but he has never been a team captain before. Pace left Ohio State a year early after winning the Lombardi Trophy as the best offensive lineman two years in a row. Because of his early departure, Pace never led the Buckeyes, as Ohio State reserves that honor for seniors.

Of course, Pace was not a captain in recent seasons because he wasn’t around. Without a long-term deal in place, the Rams placed the franchise tag on Pace in each of the past three seasons.

The past two years, Pace has not attended any of the mini-camps or training camps because of the franchise tag. In his efforts to get a long-term contract done, he chose to stay away.

The time missed didn’t hurt Pace’s performance much, as he still made the Pro Bowl both years. There was, however, a noticeable difference in Pace’s performance last season. Pace admitted on the day he signed his contract that he didn’t play up to his all-world potential last year and an offseason of normal training would probably rectify that.

Now, Pace knows he has a chance to be at his absolute best next year, a scary thought for opposing defenses.

“I think sometimes what gets lost in holding out is you don’t have a chance to work on your game as much,” Pace said. “I think just being here in the offseason gives you a chance to work on your game and really try to hone your skills.”

Last season was particularly difficult for Pace, not only because of his uncertain contract status, but also because of the revolving door next to him at left guard and on the other end at right tackle.

Both of those problems seem to be solved, though, as St. Louis signed Rex Tucker to operate next to Pace and drafted Alex Barron to take over as the other bookend. Tucker does have an injury history that has to be kept at bay and Barron has a ways to go in learning the right side. If all of that pans out, though, the offensive line has the potential to be much improved from last year.

As for his role as captain, Pace knows he has never been the type to lead with words. He said he intends to lead as a mentor, setting the model through his play.

“I’m not a real vocal guy as you guys know, it’s one of those things just lead by example,” Pace said. “I extended my hand to Alex if he needs anything. If he has any questions, he can communicate something he might not be getting on the field. I have taken a leadership role in that aspect of it, other than that I will just be leading by example.”

As hard as it might be to believe, Pace is entering his eighth year in the league. At 29, he isn’t exactly an old man, but looking around the locker room certainly doesn’t make him feel any younger.

“I was talking to some of the younger guys and they said they remembered me playing in college when they were in junior high so that really made me feel old,” Pace said.

Maybe Pace is feeling old, but a normal offseason workload might be enough to make him feel young again this season.