Rams to go shopping for safeties

13 minutes ago • By Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197

In 2012, Rams safeties Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl barely left the field. Out of a maximum of 2,044 defensive plays, the pair was on the field for a combined 1,950 — or 95.4 percent.

But with the release of Mikell, which became official Monday, and impending free agency for Dahl, the Rams have plenty of defensive plays to account for at safety in 2013. Oh, it’s possible that Mikell will re-sign with the team for a more cap-friendly deal. Or even that Dahl will return to the club.

Possible, but not likely. Much more likely is that the Rams will have a new starting safety tandem on the field next season.

Mikell’s release saves the Rams $3 million against the salary cap, giving the team about $13 million of space as free agency begins at 3 p.m. today.

A two-year starter, Mikell played every snap on defense in 13 of 16 games last season. Used in a better fashion by coach Jeff Fisher’s staff than under predecessor Steve Spagnuolo, Mikell played more in the box and was used effectively as a blitzer, thus minimizing any limitations in coverage. The coaching staff liked his toughness and leadership.

So Mikell’s release was more about finances than play on the field, plus a realization that at age 33 (next September) he wasn’t a long-term answer at strong safety.

Mikell took the high road Monday morning on his verified Twitter account, saying: “I want to say thanks to the Rams’ organization for bringing me in. It was a fun ride. I wish them all the luck in the world (in) the future. Time to move on and play some more ball! Got plenty left!”

Obviously, the Rams will consider bringing in safety help in free agency as well as the draft. But another very unlikely candidate has emerged in Darian Stewart.

Remember him? In 2011, Stewart ended up beating out Dahl for a starting job, recording 91 tackles with three sacks and a team-high 10 pass breakups. He returned his only interception 27 yards for a touchdown against New Orleans. But for every hard hit made by Stewart, he seemed to have a missed tackle.

Last season, he missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, was inactive for the first two games of the regular season, and all but fell off the depth chart.

All told, Stewart was inactive in four games last season and played special teams-only in seven games. In the five games in which he saw action on defense, Stewart was on the field for only 81 plays — the equivalent of about five quarters — and registered six tackles and one pass breakup.

Because of his almost nonexistent role, it was widely assumed that Stewart would not be back in 2013. But the team has decided to issue him a one-year qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. The Rams are still attempting to sign Stewart to a modest multiple-year deal — perhaps for two years — before the free agency period starts today.

If not, he will be retained with the one-year tender offer. The Rams are offering him the “low” tender of $1.3 million. At that level, the Rams get matching rights but no draft pick compensation if Stewart signs elsewhere and the Rams decline to match. (There’s no draft pick compensation because Stewart entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie.)

The Rams got another restricted free agent under contract Monday when defensive tackle Jermell Cudjo signed a two-year deal. Cudjo, 26, started four games last season and finished with 39 tackles and one sack. He originally joined the Rams as an undrafted rookie out of Central Oklahoma in 2010.

Meanwhile, running back Steven Jackson, wide receiver Danny Amendola, wide receiver Brandon Gibson, defensive end William Hayes, and center-guard Robert Turner all will hit the market at 3 p.m. barring an 11th-hour development.

League sources have indicated that Gibson won’t be back and will get a quick contract offer from another team. Jackson and Amendola look like they’re headed out the door to new teams as well. There were reports Monday out of Philadelphia that Amendola would receive a contract offer from the Eagles.

But there were optimistic signs Monday that Hayes could return to St. Louis. Turner’s status was uncertain.

As for outside free agents (from other teams), it has been difficult to get a read on the Rams’ intentions. Complicating matters is the fact that at two positions of need — offensive tackle and safety — there are multiple possibilities in free agency and in the draft.

It looks like the Rams are keeping their options open at those positions. One of the available offensive tackles, Miami’s Jake Long, has been linked to St. Louis via rumor. The parties have talked. But as of Monday evening, the Rams had not offered a contract.

New England’s Sebastian Vollmer, Atlanta’s Sam Baker, or even New Orleans’ Jermon Bushrod could be more realistic options at the position.

At linebacker, the Rams have expressed interest in Baltimore linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, but indications are that the Ravens are trying to re-sign him. Plus, he may prove to be too expensive for a strongside linebacker, which would be his likely role in St. Louis.

Some possible safety options are Detroit’s Louis Delmas, Houston’s Grover Quin and New England’s Patrick Chung. The Rams are expected to steer clear of San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson, who could end up costing $7 million to $8 million a year.