Rams' talent upgrade is showing

BY JIM THOMAS
Monday, September 5, 2011

August 13, 2011 -- Rams quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is tackled by Indianapolis defensive tackle DeMario Pressley during a preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts. (Chris Lee / clee@post-dispatch.com)
It hasn't been the case for years, but suddenly Rams leftovers are appetizing to other NFL teams.

Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (Cleveland Browns), wide receiver Mardy Gilyard (New York Jets) and defensive end George Selvie (Carolina Panthers) were claimed on waivers by other teams Sunday after being released a day earlier by St. Louis.

In addition, two veterans who were knocked out of the Rams' heated linebacker competition also found new homes. Na'il Diggs, who was released Aug. 29, signed Saturday with San Diego. Zac Diles, who was released Saturday, signed Sunday with Tampa Bay.

Back in the days when the team was going 1-15, 2-14, etc., getting cut by the Rams might be a career dead-end. Apparently, times are changing and the talent level on the roster is increasing.

"Well, yeah, that is a little bit different, isn't it?" general manager Billy Devaney said. "I guess that is kind of an indication (of better talent). We wish that wasn't the case on a couple of those guys."

That was particularly true with Lewis, whom the Rams hoped to sneak onto their practice squad once he cleared waivers. But the Browns, coached by former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, had other ideas.

"We were hoping he wasn't claimed, but we fully understood that he played good enough in the preseason where I know he opened some people's eyes," Devaney said. "And Pat's certainly familiar with him in Cleveland."

After completing 23 of 32 passes, Lewis finished the preseason with a better completion percentage than starter Sam Bradford (71.9 percent to 57.4) and was only slightly behind Bradford in passer rating (96.6 to 97.1). Granted, Lewis was facing second- and third-stringers, but he did rally the Rams to a last-second victory against Tennessee and put 17 points on the board in the second half against Jacksonville.

The Browns liked Lewis enough that they decided to go with a third quarterback behind starter Colt McCoy and backup Seneca Wallace.

"We probably weren't going to go in that direction," Browns general manager Tom Heckert told reporters in Cleveland. "We probably were going to stick with two. Pat coached him. We talked about him last year. He's a very talented kid. He's very accurate."

It was never clear in St. Louis whether Lewis was competing with A.J. Feeley for the No. 2 spot or simply trying to convince the Rams through his play to keep three quarterbacks. But on a two-quarterback roster, Feeley's NFL experience obviously was a factor.

"There's so many factors that go into any of these decisions, and that was obviously a big advantage that A.J. had," Devaney said.

Granted, Feeley hasn't thrown a regular-season pass since 2007, but he has thrown 665 in his career and started 13 games. Meanwhile, Lewis' NFL résumé consists of only 60 preseason passes thrown over two preseasons.

As a rookie a year ago, Lewis was on the Rams' opening-day roster against Arizona as the third quarterback. But he was released after that game, was out of work in Week 2, then signed to the Rams' practice squad for the rest of 2010.

The new rule that allows a team to dress 46 players on game day— rather than 45 plus an emergency third quarterback — makes it even tougher to justify keeping a third QB.

"I'll be curious to see how many teams actually wind up keeping three," Devaney said. "That 46th guy on game day is usually (going to be) a special teams ace, and is a factor and plays and contributes, as opposed to carrying a third quarterback that, chances are, is not going to touch the field."

Overall, Devaney said this was the toughest roster cutdown he has experienced since joining the Rams in 2008.

"In many respect it was, yes," Devaney said. "Not even close. I think you all saw it, especially at certain positions where the competition was really, really close. And that's what you want. You preach that before training camp.

"You want competition at every position and we're getting to that point where we're putting a pretty good team together and I expect next year to be even tougher. I'd much rather have those decisions, those tough decisions, than be sitting there and say, 'What difference does it make? These guys aren't very good anyway.' At least now we have decisions to make on really good football players."

The Rams continued in the decision-making mode Sunday. After scanning the waiver wire, the Rams bolstered their offensive line depth by signing Tony Wragge. Wragge, 32, had spent the last six seasons with San Francisco, where he played center and both guard positions, mainly as a backup.

The ***** released Wragge after deciding to go with a couple of young backups on the interior, 2011 draft picks Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person. Wragge entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Arizona in 2002 out of New Mexico State and has appeared in 67 games with 15 starts. A 6-4, 310, Wragge is known as more of a physical, mauler type of blocker. To make room for Wragge, the Rams released veteran center and guard Hank Fraley.

Tight end and cornerback are other areas where the Rams are seeing what's out there. The Rams put in a waiver claim for rookie cornerback Josh Thomas after the fifth-round draft pick was released by Dallas. But Carolina also put in a claim and was awarded Thomas because it had a worse record in 2010 than St. Louis.

"We're looking at corners," Devaney said. "The problem is there's a lot of teams looking at corners and they're not out there. But we will keep looking, I promise you."

The Rams might consider signing cornerback Joselio Hanson, who was released by Philadelphia, if the price is right. But the team's interest in him isn't as high as some have portrayed.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Donnie Avery went unclaimed after his release by the Rams, thus becoming a street free agent. As a result, the Rams have to pay his $638,000 base salary for 2011 because it was guaranteed. Had he been claimed, Avery's new club would've picked up the contract.