Rams Sign Witherspoon to be Man in the Middle
Sunday, March 12, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

A year ago, the Rams wasted little time dipping their toes in the free agent market by signing linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne within the first few days of free agency.

This year, St. Louis didn’t bother dipping its toes in anything, instead the Rams and new coach Scott Linehan jumped into the deep end head first. The Rams signed linebacker Will Witherspoon to a six-year deal believed to be worth about $33 million.

Witherspoon was perceived by many to be the top linebacker and one of the top defensive players available on the free agent market when the signing period began at 12:01 a.m Saturday.

The flurry of activity that took place between then and Witherspoon’s signing Sunday afternoon has created a market that requires teams getting visits to ensure that the player signs on the dotted line before he gets on the plane to return home.

“Well, they didn’t bar me in the room,” Witherspoon said.

They might as well have, though, considering how competitive the free agent market has become in the wake of the extension of the collective bargaining agreement. After identifying Witherspoon as the team's top target, they brought him in to town with no intention of letting him leave.

In fact, Witherspoon was greeted at the airport by Linehan, a rarity in the free agent game. After a day that Witherspoon would call "relaxing," the Rams and Witherspoon moved into negotiations. It didn't take long for Witherspoon to realize St. Louis is where he wants to be.

Witherspoon went to college at the University of Georgia, but his wife Rebecca is from Bloomington, Ill. Those ties combined with the chance to be the man in the middle of a revamped defense were enough to entice Witherspoon without his taking a trip anywhere else.

After spending the first four years of his career with the Panthers, Witherspoon earned a reputation as an athletic player best fit for the weak side. But Witherspoon will take over in the middle for Claiborne.

Although he’s a bit undersized at 6’1, 231 pounds, Witherspoon has showed the ability to slide into the middle and play on the outside with equal aplomb. The majority of his time in the league has been spent on the weak side.

As a rookie in 2002, he started seven games at middle linebacker followed by four in 2003. He hasn’t started there since, but that is mostly because Dan Morgan has been able to stay healthy.

Witherspoon has 421 tackles in his four seasons and had one of his best seasons in 2005. He finished the year with 109 stops, two interceptions, 2.5 sacks, 13 passes defended and a return for a touchdown.

Check back to stlouisrams.com for a complete story later this evening.