Inside Slant

The Rams promised to move quickly in free agency and they did, making several moves to improve a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL last season.
The linchpin is expected to be linebacker Will Witherspoon, who was signed the day after free agency started and received an immediate ticket to play in the middle. That surprised some, but Rams coach Scott Linehan said it's a natural spot for Witherspoon, who had some experience there filling in for an injured Dan Morgan in Carolina.

"It's a good spot for a guy who runs around and makes all the tackles," Linehan said. "In the scheme we're going to run, both of them (weakside and middle linebackers) need to basically be mirror images of each other."

Witherspoon said he welcomes being in the middle of the action.

"My productivity stayed up," Witherspoon said of his time with the Panthers. "Nothing changed there. I had a great time playing in the middle in Carolina. I know exactly what it's going to take. I know you've got to just change your mind-set a little bit from week to week. That's all."

In a short period of time, during which where the Rams signed older players like safety Corey Chavous, Witherspoon has played only four seasons.

Speaking to that, Linehan said, "Now we have the opportunity to have a guy that has four years of NFL experience starting in this league under his belt, and will be 25 years old in his second contract. That's still a pretty young guy. That, obviously, bodes well for him as well, He's still a young guy in this business and that certainly will help him in his development as well.

"He makes a lot of plays. But he's very disciplined, can cover, doesn't get outmatched; tight ends and backs don't put him in a bad position. Not only is he getting his hands on balls in coverage, but he's getting there and making that quarterback claustrophobic when he (blitzes). So he's a pretty complete guy."

Witherspoon said he was attracted to the Rams because of "the caliber players that are already here, and I really saw how they were trying to put together a new system, how they were trying to put together a good group of guys to really carry their defense to the next level."

NOTES, QUOTES

—The Rams made two acquisitions for their secondary in the first week of free agency, signing Minnesota strong safety Corey Chavous and New Orleans cornerback Fakhir Brown.

While offensive coordinator for the Vikings, coach Scott Linehan spent three years with Chavous in Minnesota.

"Obviously, I'm pretty sold and convinced that the guy can do it," Linehan said. "And I think he felt the same way about coming to play for us. Having a prior relationship with these players is important. It certainly doesn't hurt."

Speaking of prior relationships, Brown played for new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett in New Orleans.

"He's a physical corner," Linehan said. "He matches up well in our division. We've got big receivers we've got to contend with at Arizona. ... You like to have those bigger corners that have long arms that are physical at the line of scrimmage and will be able to match up against those guys."

With Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler returning from injury, Brown will compete for a starting job. Fisher is entering the final year of his contract.

—New coach Scott Linehan was disappointed that NT Ryan Pickett left for Green Bay.

After announcing the signing of LB Will Witherspoon, Linehan was asked about the chances of Pickett re-signing. Linehan said, "We haven't closed the door on anybody. Obviously when you start making commitments at positions, it affects your overall budget, but I'm pretty high on that particular player. So if there was anything we could do to get him back, I would certainly entertain the idea."

Three days later, Pickett signed with the Packers, and Linehan said, "Obviously, they got a heck of a player. He did a real nice job improving every year that he played for the Rams."

For the time being, Jimmy Kennedy is penciled in as the starter at nose tackle.

"He's certainly got the build for it," Linehan said. "He's a big body that can be very explosive and play that position. I think our defensive coaches are creative enough to pull that off."

—O.J. Atogwe, a rookie last season, will be given a chance to win the starting job at free safety.

"He was a highly rated safety coming out last year," Linehan said. "I know Jim (Haslett) and his staff really held O.J. in high regard when they were evaluating him down at New Orleans. We just feel like he's a good young player that has a chance."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we've got to give a little benefit of the doubt to some of the players that are already here. In no way is this a reflection on guys that have played here before that may or may not be coming back, because for whatever reason the defense didn't have a lot of success last year or the year before. There are some guys here that are going to benefit from the addition of some of these players, not just because of their ability, but we're bringing in some great leadership and knowledge of the game that will help develop some of these players that are already here. So I'm excited to see those guys develop as well." - Coach Scott Linehan on players returning from the team's low-rated defense last season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Quarterback Gus Frerotte received a three-year deal from Miami to be the backup to Marc Bulger. Frerotte played for new coach Scott Linehan in both Minnesota and Miami.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Tight end: Brandon Manumaleuna's salary increases to $1.325 million this season and there is no other proven depth on the roster. Under former coach Mike Martz, the tight end was often an afterthought in the passing game, but new coach Scott Linehan appears to have a different philosophy. There is a need because a playmaker would help the offense, especially in the red zone.

2. Linebacker: The two free agents signed last season, Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, were disappointments. Claiborne has already been released, while Coakley might be back if he recovers from a broken leg, but probably as a backup. The Rams moved quickly and signed Will Witherspoon, saying he will play middle linebacker. A strong-side linebacker is still needed.

3. Guard: Adam Timmerman is getting up in years and while there is some hope for Blaine Saipaia, he is an unknown. Claude Terrell played as a rookie last season, and needs an off-season in the weight room to build strength and stamina. But some competitive depth is necessary, as well as a tackle behind Orlando Pace and Alex Barron.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: P Bryan Barker; RB Aveion Cason; CB Terry Fair; CB Corey Ivy; DE Tyoka Jackson; QB Jamie Martin; OG Tom Nutten; OL Rex Tucker; TE Roland Williams.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): S Mike Furrey; CB Chris Johnson; LB Jeremy Loyd; OT Matt Morgan.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Kevin Curtis; DE Brandon Green; CB DeJuan Groce; WR Shaun McDonald.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: CB Dwight Anderson; DT Jeremy Calahan; S Dwaine Carpenter; TE Jerome Collins; DE Clifford Dukes; LB Mike Goolsby.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR Isaac Bruce; LS Chris Massey; OG Blaine Saipaia; QB Jeff Smoker; LB Drew Wahlroos.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB Fakhir Brown; S Corey Chavous; QB Gus Frerotte; DT La'Roi Glover; LB Will Witherspoon.

PLAYERS LOST: S Adam Archuleta; LB Chris Claiborne; RB Arlen Harris; DT Damione Lewis; NT Ryan Pickett.