Rams Plans Hinge On Pace Negotiations

March 13th, 2005

by Barry Waller

Gridiron Gateway

Right now, the clock is ticking on an Orlando Pace deal, and though neither side has made a public statement that would lead to a conclusion on the progress, rumor has it that a deal is likely to get done before the March 15th deadline. Of course, like all rumors, for Rams fans this one could lead to a false sense of security in the end.

One thing is certain; the Rams are focusing their time and energy on getting Pace done over any other issue, because of that deadline staring them in the face, and also because the pickings in free agency are too slim to worry about right now. Their will be equal or better available talent hitting the market later, either from teams looking to trade a star player, or from veterans cut for cap reasons prior to the draft and after June 1.

The key for Rams President Jay Zygmunt right now is to clear the cap room necessary to be in position to make a quick move if and when the right guy is available. Whether or not the Rams feel they are in position to go out and get a guy like Jacksonville safety and franchise player Donovan Darius remains to be seen, but it would be a wiser move than paying any of the sorry lot of remaining safety help. Only acquiring a solid starting free safety would give the Rams the option of bailing out of the position switches they have planned for Pisa Tinoisamoa and Adam Archuleta.

The team had no interest in former Packer Pro-Bowler Darren Sharper after he was cut, possibly because their new defensive backs coach, Kurt Schottenheimer, was in Green Bay last year and knows that Sharper, like so many former star free safeties, is slipping fast as he loses a step or two. The Rams want to upgrade their physical play all through their defense, but not at the expense of speed in the back seven. Sharper is past his prime, and paying big bucks for a 30 year old safety would not be prudent.

The Rams signed a safety with some physical tools, and Michael Stone is still only 27. He also is a very good special teams player, and since he played for Rams defensive coordinator Larry Marmie in Arizona, he must be a guy Marmie wants on his unit for a good reason. He was a pretty good addition, especially considering that the free agent safety crop is so bad that Rich Coady already has a job.

This upcoming draft is not strong at safety, and only spending their top pick on Oklahoma free safety Brodney Pool, Marlin Jackson of Michigan, or Nebraska junior Josh Bullocks would add an athlete capable of challenging to start as a rookie. Those three are rated as early second round picks, but all will almost certainly be off the board in the top 49 picks, leaving the Rams with a difficult decision at pick 19. Should the Rams target a safety first due to need, they should first deal down to acquire another first day pick. If they stay put and go another direction, the remaining talent by the time they draft again would make taking a safety in round two, or even round three, a huge reach.

With added cap room from a Pace deal, the Rams can explore a trade, or even make a run at one of the restricted free agents out there whose present team may not have the cap room to match the Rams offer sheet. Without getting Pace done, the Rams canít go after any significant players without cutting somebody, though they would be in good shape heading to the draft, with the required cap space already there for the future rookie crop. They would add some space with a June 1 cut of Kyle Turley, and that could be used to add a veteran or two to fill holes left after the draft.

Any extra space the Rams have without a Pace deal will be best used to re-sign their own guys, especially DE Bryce Fisher. Fisher hasnít gotten much action thus far, possibly because of the number of pass rushers available in this draft. As many as eight defensive end/linebacker types with Fisherís attributes will go in the first 40 picks, and four or five more may come off the board in round two.

However, the Rams should not just ignore Fisher and hope heíll return for a low rate, because they have been burned doing that in the past, especially with tight end Ernie Conwell, who got a good deal late in free agency with the Saints, when the Rams could have gotten him done at a reasonable rate early on. If that happens with Fisher, the Rams might be forced to take one of those 8 guys in round one.

The Rams still need to add offensive line talent, especially at tackle, but the crop of available free agents was very very thin, and the guys that did move got way too much money based on their past performance. As usual in such situations, mediocrity had a high price tag. Eventually in free agency, the guys you can get arenít better than the guys you got, and they already know the play book. Fred Miller would have been a nice pick-up, but not with $6 million up front for a 32 year old guy whoís not a star, which is what the Bears payed Miller.

Itís pretty clear that barring a deal for a right tackle that isnít on the radar now, help will only come on draft day, and Mike Martz has been very public in making clear his plan to add young talent on the first day of the draft this year. The way the draft boards are shaping up, that could mean taking one at pick #19, something the Rams have not done in the recent past, other than taking Pace first overall in 1997.

The draft is very good for offensive linemen, with tackles and especially centers looking to be plentiful on draft day. However, there are just three tackles who grade out as top 50 picks, and itís a pretty good bet that only one, if that will fall to pick 19. If one of the trio of Florida Stateís Alex Barron, Khalif Barnes of Washington, or Oklahoma stud Jammal Brown, is available, the Rams may jump on him.

In round two, itís possible the Rams could still have a shot at one of the top three centers; junior entry Chris Spencer of Ole Miss, North Carolina star Jason Brown or LSUís Ben Wilkerson. The available guard could still include Fresno Stateís Logan Mankins, a former defensive lineman who has moved steadily up draft boards, who also projects to right tackle, or one of the two other guards with a second round grade; Alabamaís athletic Evan Mathis, whoís talents would fit the Rams offensive philosophy, and C.J. Brooks of Maryland.

Spencer will almost surely be gone, maybe even in round one, by the time the Rams make their second selection at pick 50, as would the top three tackles, and a guard duo consisting of Michiganís David Baas and Marcus Johnson of Ole Miss. Baas has the versatility to play the pivot, and Johnson could move outside to tackle, so they wonít last long into the second round.

There are a bunch of guys after those top linemen, but none stand out enough to take in round two, or even round three. There will be talent on day two at tackle, but those guys all have some risk, and few could be projected to start very soon.

So what does this mean for the line starved Rams? It pretty much means they have to do whatever it takes to get one of that top three tackle group in round one, even if it means a small move up at a low enough price, no more than a second day pick. If they donít get that done, and they go defense in round one, there is almost no doubt they will target Mankins, out of Mike Martz favorite college, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1972.

They may even have to reach a bit with a guy like Tennesseeís Mike Munoz Oregon Stateís Adam Snyder, or Florida State right tackle Ray Willis in round two, if Mankins is also off the board. With two third rounders, there is a chance the Rams will pass on reaching in the first two rounds and take two linemen in round three, where there will still be some value, especially at pick 66, where the Rams choose with a pick acquired from Miami for Lamar Gordon last fall.

Of course if Pace is dealt after not agreeing to a deal in time, itís a good bet the high first rounder they get would be used for one of that tackle trio, with another still looked at with their own pick of their #2.