Tuesday, May 9, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

After an almost complete makeover of the coaching staff, the Rams turned their full attention to the next stage of the offseason, free agency.

Of course, that process took a bit longer than expected after delays in the beginning of the free agent season. A lack of an agreement on a collective bargaining agreement had the owners and the players at odds for a few weeks. That pushed the normal start of free agency back from the usual March 1 to March 11.

Before they could get to that, though, the Rams had to address the contract situation of receiver Isaac Bruce. Coach Scott Linehan made it clear from the day he arrived in St. Louis how important Bruce was to the team and the city.

“I said it the first day that the veteran leadership we have on this team is critical and you can’t replace it,” Linehan said. “If you lose it, it’s irreplaceable. A guy like Isaac, who has been such a big part of this franchise – he’s the only original Ram that started in Los Angeles, he has been part of this team all the way back to those days – and he really represents what we are trying to promote.”

Although Bruce was on the free agent market for a few days following his release, the Rams were never worried that he might not return. They were right as Bruce signed a three-year contract on March 10 that could keep him a Ram for the rest of his storied career.

With that key component to the offense in place, St. Louis turned its attention to where it needed the most help…defense. Soon after being released by Dallas, six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle La’Roi Glover was on a plane to St. Louis.

Because he was released, Glover was free to sign with any team he chose. Having built a strong relationship with new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett when Glover played in New Orleans (Haslett was Glover’s head coach in 2000-01) La’Roi’s choice was an easy one.

Glover signed a three-year deal on March 6, setting the tone for what would become a defensive intensive next couple of weeks.

“He’s going to fit a big part of what we’re trying to get done here, add some veteran leadership, as well as his obvious playing ability on the defensive front,” Linehan said. “It is one of those things where if you can get somebody that can help you play at a higher level and also bring key leadership to your team and get things done the way we want to get them done, it’s a big bonus.”

The Rams continued to pursue that combination of talent and leadership as the actual beginning of free agency hit. That pursuit paid off early and often as the Rams quickly targeted and acquired two of their top free agent targets.

On the first day of free agency, St. Louis signed veteran safety Corey Chavous to a five-year contract. Chavous was familiar with Linehan from their days in Minnesota together and instantly gives the Rams a boost in the secondary.

The day after, the Rams landed one of the biggest free agent prizes on the market in linebacker Will Witherspoon from Carolina. At 26, Witherspoon has been one of the most productive linebackers in the league and has his best football ahead of him.

Linehan promptly announced that Witherspoon would handle the middle linebacker spot. With Witherspoon in the middle at Chavous at strong safety, the Rams had addressed some question marks.

“They’re players that I think can help us because of their ability, but number two because of their leadership and knowledge and playing experience as well,” Linehan said. “(It’s) a little bit like in baseball, being strong up the middle… you got an inside guy, you got a middle linebacker, you got a safety. It’s a pretty good place to start when you’re trying to revamp, whether you’re doing it offensively or defensively. That’s where you want to start, I think.

Looking for another boost in the defensive backfield, the Rams went to New Orleans for another Haslett favorite, cornerback Fakhir Brown.

Brown signed a five-year contract on March 14. Brown earned a reputation for being a solid special teams player for the Saints and could have an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

Glover, Witherspoon, and Chavous helped the Rams counter the loss of safety Adam Archuleta (Washington), defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (Green Bay) and defensive tackle Damione Lewis (Carolina).

On March 23, the Rams turned their attention to offensive depth.. Veteran Gus Frerotte was brought on board as the backup quarterback and running back Tony Fisher signed on to help at running back.

Over the next two weeks, the Rams added more help at positions of needs, picking up punter Matt Turk, linebacker Raonall Smith and tackle Todd Steussie.

The Rams didn’t get to enjoy their hard work for long. The team signed Steussie on April 17. The NFL Draft was just 11 days away.

This is the second story in a series reviewing the offseason that was for the Rams. Come back tomorrow and Thursday for a look at what the team did in the NFL Draft.