Friday, May 6, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Ask just about any of the Rams’ recent additions at safety why they decided to come to St. Louis, why they were excited to be drafted here or even why they were willing to change positions and the answer will inevitably be the same. Here’s just a small sampling.

"Obviously, the only guy we have back right now is Arch,” converted receiver Mike Furrey said. “We have a lot of guys that can play safety that are experienced and ready to go. It’s wide open. There is definitely a lot of competition for that spot, but you are going to have to compete at any position right now to play at this level.”

That explains why Furrey would move from receiver, a coveted position in the Rams offense. But what about a free agent defensive back, why would he sign with St. Louis?

“I saw the opportunity,” signee Michael Stone said. “It wasn’t about dollars and cents too much. Getting the opportunity to get my foot in and show what I can do and get that second chance. I was aware that there was I think one safety on the roster when I signed. So I see it as an opportunity. That’s what I played my last three years in Arizona is safety. I feel pretty comfortable there.”

That seems to make good sense. What about one of the new members of the defensive backfield acquired through the draft?

“All they had back there was Archuleta,” third-round safety Oshiomogho Atogwe said. “I was aware of the situation and I knew I would get a chance to come in and compete right away. It should be quite a competition.”

Therein lies the team’s philosophy heading into this offseason. As just about every new defensive back has alluded to, there are plenty of opportunities for a cornerback or safety to land a roster spot come the end of training camp.

Adam Archuleta is the only true safety under contract that is returning. Even he is coming off probably his most difficult season, a year in which he battled a serious back problem that limited his range and tackling ability.

Archuleta has spent his offseason shuttling between California and Arizona, going to California for weekend therapy on his back and doing his workout regimen near his home in Arizona.

Rams coach Mike Martz said at the draft that Archuleta is progressing well.

“He’s doing very well,” Martz said. “He’s gradually starting to pick up his workout. He’s not there yet, but he will be within a month or so. I think we’ll have him by the June minicamp, but I wouldn’t swear by it.”

The sooner Archuleta gets back, the better because there are a number of players ready to make a play for the spot next to, or even his spot at safety. Furrey, Stone, Atogwe, Michael Hawthorne, Jerome Carter, Corey Ivy and possibly Ronald Bartell have designs on landing a roster spot as a safety. Bartell, the second-round choice out of Howard, projects as a cornerback for now, but could find himself at safety. Hawthorne is another player that will likely alternate between corner and safety.

With all of those defensive backs ready to go to training camp, the competition will be nothing short of fierce. The possible combination of safeties is seemingly endless. Assuming Archuleta is healthy, he will probably retain his starting spot, but that is not necessarily a sure thing.

The rookie class of Carter and Atogwe has plenty of potential and either could easily land a starting spot with an impressive camp. Carter earned his reputation at Florida State as a big hitter, but the film evidence indicates that he is certainly capable in coverage. Atogwe was extremely productive at Stanford and is a cerebral player who always seems to be around the ball.

Stone is another player who can’t be overlooked in the competition. He was stuck behind Adrian Wilson in Arizona, which relegated him almost exclusively to special teams. Stone, though, is a frontrunner to land one of the starting positions.

Furrey can’t be counted out of the competition, either. As a former receiver, he has good working knowledge of how other receivers move and should be adept at playing the ball in the air. Furrey has added 20 pounds in an effort to pack more of a wallop in his move. His value on special teams also improves his chance to make the roster.

One thing that won’t be a determining factor in the battle for roster spots is the difference between free and strong safety. The Rams defense does not draw a distinction between the two. Generally, strong safeties are known as run stoppers who are more likely to play in the box while free safeties are traditionally used more in pass coverage.

“It is not one of those situations where you have a linebacker-type safety and a corner-type safety. ... We're not like that now,” Martz said. “We've got two safeties; you don't know what we're going to do with them."

That approach to evaluating safeties has made it necessary for the team to look for more versatile players such as Thomas Davis, who emerged as one of the team’s top targets for the draft because of his athleticism. Alas, Davis was not available when the Rams came on the board at No. 19, but the team went on to spend three of its first five picks on defensive backs.

“When you are looking at safeties you have to have all of it,” secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. “I don’t want a guy that is just a run defender. This game is obviously played in space and there is a lot of passing and running.”
When time comes for training camp, the Rams will probably spend a large amount of time sifting through those players and determining who best fits that description.

“We are looking for as much competition as we can find in that secondary,” Schottenheimer said. “We will probably go to camp with 14 players and I would like to believe that every one of those 14 players has a chance to play in the National Football League. We can only keep so many of them and I am not a believer in just having camp guys. I want guys who have a chance to play in the NFL and we are acquiring those types of players. We are trying to get as much competition in that area as we possibly can.”

While the competition at safety is going to be fierce, there are also some undecided spots to fill at cornerback. Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher will probably retain their jobs as the starting cornerbacks. That leaves Bartell, Hawthorne, Terry Fair, DeJuan Groce, Kevin Garrett and Dwight Anderson competing for the backup spots.

With all of these players fighting over a limited number of positions, it would be easy for there to be some hard feelings amongst the group. But Stone insists that everyone should expect to have to battle for a spot, regardless of position.

“There is always competition,” Stone said. “As long as everybody is on equal ground, I like it. Everybody can come in and work and whoever prevails at the end of camp prevails.”