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Rams rely on free agents like never before ..
BY JIM THOMAS
Tuesday, August 9, 2011 12:05 am
Rams general manager Billy Devaney was on the phone last week with his father, who had just undergone a heart procedure.
"They had to put a stent in and all that," Devaney said. "He's fine. He sounded great, and he said everything looks like it's good. I said, 'Who cares about your heart? Your heart's fine. We got a daggone running back. So get off my (rear end)."
Yes, Devaney's father had been among the legions of Rams fans yearning for a quality back up to Pro Bowler Steven Jackson. Actually, the Rams signed two backup running backs, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood, suddenly giving the team what looks to be very good depth at the position.
Those moves typified a free agency period unlike any since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. In a 10-day span since the lockout ended, they agreed to terms and then signed 11 veteran free agents from other teams.
Five of those new Rams are projected as starters, and it could be six if Brady Poppinga wins the job at strong side linebacker.
In most of the previous 16 offseasons for the Rams in St. Louis, the team would sign two or three starters in free agency and maybe a half-dozen free agents total. Sometimes, it was a lot less. For example, over a six-season stretch from 2000 through 2005, the Rams signed only six free agents who ended up as primary starters the year they signed.
In terms of adding starters, the only season that approached what has happened so far this year was 2006. With rookie head coach Scott Linehan taking over for Mike Martz, the Rams signed five starters that offseason: defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, linebacker Will Witherspoon, cornerback Fakhir Brown, safety Corey Chavous and offensive lineman Todd Steussie.
Although that free-agent class didn't have long-term success, it helped the Rams improve from a controversy filled 6-10 season in '05 to an 8-8 finish in '06 in which they nearly earned a playoff berth.
This year, right guard Harvey Dahl, wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, weakside linebacker Zac Diles and safety Quintin Mikell all figure to be starters, and Poppinga could make it six.
The rest of the 2011 free-agent class will provide depth and will get playing time in varying degrees. Obviously, what makes this year's class all the more eye-catching is that it was put together in little more than a week instead of the usual five months.
"It was busy, but it wasn't anything like a frenzy," Devaney said. "And I think that was true with most teams. For a short period of time you were busy but it was organized. ... It didn't go perfect, but all in all I think it went pretty good, and pretty much according to plan."
There wasn't the normal "courtship" ritual where players come in to visit, and then are wined, dined and signed. There wasn't enough time for that. There was strategy involved in signing players, but it was compressed strategy.
At safety, for example, the Rams went out quickly on Mikell because they thought he was one of the top two players at a position they thought wasn't very deep. Their concern was that if the other headliner at the position — Eric Weddle — signed first, suitors who didn't land him would turn to Mikell. So the Rams went out hard and quick on Mikell, with a four-year contract worth $27 million, according to figures filed with the NFL Players Association.
(Mikell gets a $4 million signing bonus this year, and has a base salary of $1 million. Next season, he gets an $8 million roster bonus, plus a $1 million base salary. All of that money in the first two seasons, which totals $14 million, is guaranteed. He gets a $6 million base in 2013 and a $7 million base in 2014.)
On the other hand, running back was a position with plenty of options. So the Rams could take their time there, relatively speaking.
"That's a good example of where we said, 'OK, we'll see where the market goes,'" Devaney said. "Because there were a lot of names. And there were even more names added to that because there were some (salary) cap casualties at running back."
But this year, "icing" a player to let the market settle and have the price go down didn't mean you could wait two months to make a move.
"You didn't have that luxury," Devaney said. "That's what made it interesting. ... We're talking about hours and days, so that was really unique."
Although the blueprint remains building primarily through the draft, Devaney said he was hopeful going into free agency that the team could be very active.
"We didn't know if we were going to be able to get all these guys," Devaney said. "Kevin (Demoff) did a tremendous job in massaging the cap, and finding ways to free up money as we went along, and we needed that with as many guys as we signed."
As executive vice president of football operations, Demoff handles most of the contract negotiations for the team.
Another interesting aspect of the Rams' free-agent strategy this year was that eight of the 11 free agents signed one-year deals. In some cases, that means the Rams and the player couldn't agree on value. If such a player has a good season, he potentially can cash in next offseason. But if a player underperforms, the Rams don't get stuck with a big contract and lots of "dead" money.
Besides Mikell, only Dahl and Bannan signed multi-year deals. Dahl's deal is worth $16 million over four years, according to league sources.
Bannan's deal is worth $8.5 million over three years according to figures filed with the NFL Players Association. Bannan gets a signing bonus of $2 million, and base salaries of $1 million (in 2011), $2.75 million (in 2012) and $2.25 million (in 2013). There's a $500,000 signing bonus due in 2013, and the contract also includes escalators that can raise the overall value of the deal.
No matter how you count the money, the Rams' level of activity is an early indication of Stan Kroenke's commitment to improving the team in his first free agency period since becoming controlling owner of the team.
"I think Stan answered the bell pretty good," Devaney said. "He never wavered. He was kept updated through the whole process, and he just kept giving his blessings. He said, 'Just keep me informed.' He was excited about it."
Rams to add player
Demarco Cosby, an H-back/tight end from Central Missouri State, has agreed to terms with the Rams after a good workout Monday. He's expected to sign today. The rookie free agent caught 110 passes for 1,483 yards and 15 touchdowns over his last two seasons at Central Missouri. He ran a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in the spring.
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