Rams Brain Trust Faces Early Test
By Barry Waller
The wheels are turning out at Rams Park, though on the surface, it appears to be as quiet as a church. This week, Mike Martz got the offseason started with a bang offering information that interrupted the usual ďnewsĒ this time of year that even the most avid fan finds humdrum. Hearing the news that the Rams are making two major changes in their starting lineup now is a welcome relief for impatient fans hardly satisfied with nondescript free agent signings and NFL Europe allocations.
Even knowing that Kurt Warnerís name was on one of those mostly ignored NFL press releases, that dominate late February every year, canít make most fans pay much attention to them. We amateur GMs have bigger fish to fry, as we start trying to figure out how to rebuild the roster for another run at the Super Bowl, and as the days until free agency approach, patience gets pretty thin for fans expecting big changes.
Several recent events have made some facets of this key off-season for the Rams easier to predict. First and foremost is the signing of Seattle tackle Walter Jones to a long-term deal, which should certainly make Orlando Paceís contract talks short and sweet. The Rams are barely under the cap after putting the franchise tag on Pace again, because doing so ate up $8.4 million of cap. Once Pace is inked, that cap number drops to about $3 million with a deal matching that of Jones.
Rams President Jay Zygmunt knows he canít go crazy spending money on top name free agents, but the cap space Pace saves by signing will free up enough to keep their own free agents, particularly defensive end Bryce Fisher. If Fisher, who finished the year strong, winning NFC defensive player of the month in December, gets too big an offer, the Rams may have to let him walk, however, signing Pace would also free up the transition tag, which the Rams could use to make Fisher less likely to leave, and more likely to sign a new deal with the Rams.
To apply that tag, however, the Rams would have to free up more cap space, which they are no doubt doing right now by redoing Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulkís deals. Thatís probably the reason Martz already announced that Steven Jackson would start long before it really matters on the practice field.
Itís possible the Rams could add $10 million of cap space in those efforts with the two veteran stars, which would give them the cap room to add real talent, not just starters, but also special teams studs. Rather than going after the top tier mercenaries, however, look for the Rams to add numbers to strengthen a whole unit, something ex-Rams coach Dick Vermeil and Rams GM Charley Armey believe in over spending huge bucks on one stud. The success of deep teams like the Patriots is proof that quantity can sometimes beat quality in the NFL.
Moving Pisa Tinoisamoa to strong safety is a very good move, especially if Adam Archuleta bounces back from his back woes. However, both Rams safeties will need a lot of work with the wide receiver group catching balls from the Juggs machine if they are to be effective in pass coverage. The Rams will have to overcome the side effect of the move, which is the further weakening of the linebacker unit.
Without question the Rams will need to add three linebackers who can start, unless part of the plan is to re-sign Tommy Polley, and move him back to the weak side, where he seemed to do better as a rookie. Polley is not physical enough to hold up on the strong side, and canít cover tight ends well enough either, but he is bigger, and taller, than Tinoisamoa, so keeping him would allow the defense to get bigger in two spots right now.
Polleyís subpar play the last year should lower his value considerably, but it should not cause the Rams to just let him walk away, especially now that the safety shift has been announced. Doing it now makes it less likely that the Rams will retain Antuan Edwards is he gets offers over the minimum, and maybe the announcement was made as much to take some of Edwards agentís leverage away before free agency starts. It certainly seems to spell the end of the line for Aeneas Williams, however, which means another great team leader may be absent in 2005.
This next two weeks, a couple of teams in cap hell will be releasing some starting players who have high cap numbers, especially the Titans, now over $20 million over the cap. Thatís great news for the Rams, because one of the players who will be cut is an old friend, tackle Fred Miller. Miller is 32 this year, which may mean he could be signed at a real bargain rate for a long time starter, one that knows the Rams offense already.
If the Rams can bring Miller back, it would relieve the line problem without breaking the bank, or locking up Miller for too long a deal. The Rams could then release Kyle Turley after June 1, and save some more cap room for June signings of some special team and backup types. If the Rams canít get Miller, they could have to pay a lot more for Ryan Diem, the top tackle in free agency, or any of the other lesser athletes on the short list of available pass blocking tackles.
If the Rams move fast and grab Miller following his expected release, even if they have to pay a premium to do it fast, they could solve any problem they face offensively, except maybe for finding someone to challenge Brandon Manumaleuna as the starting tight end. Thatís something the draft could possibly fill, but only if the Rams are willing to use one of their top three picks to fill the role.
There are exactly three college tight ends in the draft with starting potential early on, and two of them will be gone before the Rams draft in round two. Only the Miami Hurricaneís talented but raw Kevin Everett looks to be possibly available with the pick the Rams got from the Dolphins at the top of round three, and thatís a long shot. Hopefully, Armey will uncover an athlete that can be converted to tight end, like the Chargers did with Antonio Gates. Another possibility would be the Saints Ernie Conwell, who Mike Martz would love to have back, but the Saints are said to be keeping both Conwell, who hasnít been the player the Saints thought they were getting because of injuries, as well as Boo Williams on the roster.
If the Rams get Miller for a reasonable price, it allows them to spend most freely on linebackers, which is a position that appears to be plentiful in free agency, especially if Fisher can be signed to prevent a big hole at defensive end, with Leonard Little facing a possible suspension in 2005. The crop of defensive ends is very thin, as it always is, though the Cowboys are set to part ways with former Bill, and former Charger, Marcellus Wiley, a guy who could be another bargain for a team with a shot at winning. Wiley got his big buck deals, now he no doubt wants a ring.
My guess is that Armey and Martz are looking at the possible players the Rams could take with the 19th pick in round one this April, and seeing that the most likely position to be deep enough to have an impact player available is defensive end. A list that includes first round talent like Iowaís Matt Roth, a Grant Wistrom type, Oklahomaís Dan Cody, Georgia All-American David Pollack, Marcus Spears of LSU, Junior Justin Tuck of Notre Dame, and small college superstar sack master DeMarcus Ware of Troy St., could be on the board when the Rams pick in round one.
All those players are solid guys on and off the field who would be a good fit for the Rams locker room, and are also better bets than players at linebacker or safety that might fall to 19th overall. The depth at linebacker and safety might make a good one or two fall to the top of round three, especially if the Rams fill the starting roles with veteran free agents before draft day, so they can take players who may only play special teams as rookies, but have big time potential due to athletic ability.
The list of unrestricted free agents may not be the biggest names this year, but it contains players who are on the verge of being very good starters, and guys who fit what the Rams need in terms of physicality as well as speed. At the top of the list is the Ravens Ed Hartwell, who knows the team well, having starred at Western Illinois, site of the Rams training camp since 1996. He should be their #1 target the day free agency begins, because getting a deal done would finally give the Rams a physically dominating middle linebacker. The Rams better not dally though, because Hartwell will be hot commodity, even with his present club.
The Eagles Jeremiah Trotter is again a free agent, but he says he will stay in Philly out of loyalty and love for his team. That could change if the Eagles donít want to pay, however, and like Hartwell, Trotter can be a run stuffing force in the middle of a defense. A third option, a much cheaper one, would be Arizona team leader Ron McKinnon, who Rams defensive coordinator Larry Marmie know well.
As far as outside linebackers, the crop is not overflowing in free agency, but the Rams will look hard at signing players such as the Vikings Chris Claiborne, who the Rams looked at the last time he was a free agent, Steeler stud Kendrell Bell, Atlantaís versatile Matt Stewart, and the Polkís; Houstonís DeShon, and the Chargersí Carlos, to fill their linebacker depth chart heading to the draft.
Haste does not make waste for the Rams in pursuing Miller and the free agent linebackers, and the Rams must not sit on their hands as they have in recent years as the guys who could help them are signed from under their noses for only a bit more than they would pay. It all starts March 2nd, and the two or three weeks after that will determine the Rams ability to again dominate teams in 2005. Hopefully, those wheels turning at Rams Park will get them ready for a running start.