Evaluating players is a top priority for new coach of Rams
BY STEVE KORTE - News-Democrat

ST. LOUIS -- Having filled out his coaching staff, new St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo has turned his attention to evaluating players in preparation for pending free agency and the 2009 NFL Draft in late April.

"The main issue was getting the staff together, and now I have to put my arms around a lot of other things and just kind of chip away as you go," Spagnuolo said. "There is so many elements -- free agency, college draft picks, trying to get your schemes together, learning the people in the building. I'm trying to meet face-to-face with everybody in the building. I'm trying to make sure my wife doesn't leave me."

Spagnuolo's wife, Maria, also has been busy searching for a home in St. Louis.

Spagnuolo admitted that the task of familiarizing himself with the 52 players on the Rams' roster as well as the hundreds of players who could become available when free agency starts Feb. 27 was daunting.

"A good overwhelming, one of those overwhelmings that you want to have happen to you," Spagnuolo said.

Spagnuolo has been with the Rams for 3 1/2 weeks. He said he has looked at a lot of film, but "not enough, in my opinion" to make some of the personnel decisions that the Rams need to make.

Spagnuolo said he'll turn to General Manager Billy Devaney to help him with those decisions.

"I think we're going to have to rely heavily on Billy," Spagnuolo said. "He's been here for a year. And the (three assistant) coaches that we retained, who have a feel (for the personnel).

"Because you can only see so much on film. But we'll use any and all of the resources that we have to get a bead on who we think can help us going forward."

The Rams have some tough decisions on the horizon. They're only $14 million under the salary cap for 2009, and if they end up placing the franchise tag on free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, it'll eat up $6.34 million or almost half of that cap space.

The Rams could clear a big chunk of cap space for free agency by cutting ties with two long-time fixtures, wide receiver Torry Holt or left tackle Orlando Pace. Holt counts $10.2 million against the salary cap, while Pace counts about $9 million.

Spagnuolo said he, Devaney and newly hired salary cap specialist Kevin Demoff were still formulating a plan for free agency.

"Don't have a clue on that right now," Spagnuolo said when asked how active the Rams would be in free agency. "When Kevin and myself and Billy get together and start to formulate a game plan, I'll have a better idea on that."

Spagnuolo said several players who are spending the offseason in St. Louis have come to Rams Park to meet him, including cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Justin King and offensive linemen Adam Goldberg.

"They probably just want to see how tall I am," joked Spagnuolo, who stands about 5-foot-7.

Spagnuolo said hiring a coaching staff was more of a chore than he imagined. He spent a week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., but he left his hotel suite only once. He spent the rest of his time interviewing coaches.

Spagnuolo said he interviewed all the coaches left from former Rams coach Scott Linehan's staff.

"In a perfect world, when I have a press conference on that Monday all those would have been still here in St. Louis, so I could have meet with them," Spagnuolo said. "They were all in Mobile. That's the main reason I went to Mobile."

Spagnuolo said he tried to hire coaches either he had worked with, or someone else on his staff had worked with.

"The model for the whole staff was getting great teachers with great character," Spagnuolo said. "The only way to really know how someone teaches is to see them in action. Thirty to forty percent of the guys that we've hired, I have actually worked with somewhere along the way. The other 60 (percent) or so somebody else on the staff had worked with."

Spagnuolo said four coaches have been given position assignments. Paul Ferraro will coach linebackers, Andre Curtis will coach safeties, Clayton Lopez will coach cornerbacks and Frank Leonard will coach tight ends.

Spagnuolo said the Rams will hold three minicamps. They'll have a mandatory minicamp before the 2009 NFL Draft on April 25-26. They'll also hold a minicamp for rookies and selected veterans soon after the draft and another mandatory minicamp about a month after the draft.

Spagnuolo said the Rams still haven't decided if they'll hold training camp at Rams Park or somewhere out of town.

"There are advantages to both," Spagnuolo said. "We've just got to weed through what works best for the team now, what works best in the first year, working the kinks out."