BY JIM THOMAS
February 12, 2012 12:00 am


The start of free agency is just a month away, and new coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams' revamped front office have a long list of their own free agents to wade through between now and then.

The Rams have 20 players from their 2011 roster scheduled for unrestricted free agency, which starts March 13, or almost two weeks later than usual.

But those 20 players combined for a modest 109 starts last season, and only six players in the group started 10 or more contests in 2011: linebackers Chris Chamberlain and Brady Poppinga (13 each); offensive guard Jacob Bell and cornerback Justin King (12 a piece); and tight end Billy Bajema and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (11 each). The list also includes Donnie Jones, the Rams' punter for the past five seasons.

On the scoring-impaired Rams, the first name that sticks out in the group is Lloyd, acquired for what turned out to be a fifth-round pick. Although he played in only 11 games after being obtained from Denver on Oct. 17, Lloyd led the Rams in catches (51), receiving yards (683) and touchdowns (five).

Lloyd told the Post-Dispatch at the end of the season that a big factor in where he play next season is where Josh McDaniels ended up. Lloyd's career took off after he joined McDaniels in Denver in 2009, and the pair reunited in St. Louis following the trade. But after one ill-fated season as Rams offensive coordinator, McDaniels now has the coordinator's title in New England.

The Patriots could be a desirable landing spot for Lloyd for a couple of reasons. For one, the Patriots win and win at a high level. For another, the Patriots need help at wide receiver. Other than Wes Welker and Deion Branch, New England didn't have a wideout catch more than 15 passes. Branch caught 51 for 702 yards and five TDs, but he turns 33 in July and is an unrestricted free agent. Welker, who led the league with 122 receptions, also is scheduled for unrestricted free agency, although it's hard to see the Patriots letting him walk.

Under the old regime at Rams Park, the Rams were interested in re-signing Lloyd. But it's unclear at this point what the new regime thinks of him. There's also a different face on the other side of the negotiating table, because Lloyd recently signed with a new agent, St. Louis-based Tom Condon of CAA.

At the moment, there are several enticing names that are prospective free agents at wide receiver: Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City, Marques Colston of New Orleans, Pierre Garcon of Indianapolis, DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, Vincent Jackson of San Diego, Stevie Johnson of Buffalo, Mario Manningham of the New York Giants, Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis, and Welker.

Keep in mind, many if not most of those names might be off the market by the time free agency starts, either by re-signing with their current club or by getting tagged as franchise players.

Bell, Hood connections

Among the Rams' other free agents, Bell began his career with Fisher in Tennessee as a fifth-round draft pick in 2004. Bell spent his first four NFL seasons with Fisher, starting 46 games for the Titans before signing with the Rams as a free agent in 2008.

Bell would love to hook up with Fisher again, although it's unclear how Fisher feels about re-signing Bell. That wouldn't have been the case had coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney returned in 2012. Not after Bell had his 2011 pay sliced nearly in half in a renegotiation last July from $6 million to $3.1 million. Bell also had the last two seasons of his Rams contract deleted by the renegotiation, and would've made a base salary of $6 million in 2012 and '13.

Another Rams free agent, cornerback Rod Hood, also has a history with Fisher but just a brief one. Hood played in six games with four starts after signing with the Titans on Oct. 15, 2009. He had an impact in those games with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a TD. But Hood missed the entire 2010 season, Fisher's last in Tennessee, because of a knee injury.

Hood didn't sign with the Rams until the end of September, and didn't play much until the second half of the season. But he had four late-season starts, and played pretty well, maybe well enough to show that he can still play at age 30.

"I hope I did," Hood said at the end of the season. "This league is a right-now league. Every week you have to prove yourself. ... You know, when you have a knee injury in year eight (of your career), a lot of times people kind of count you out. I'm glad I was able to come and get nine (years) in."

Focus on the ground

At running back, the Rams might be back in the hunt for a backup to Steven Jackson because Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are back on the market after signing one-year deals with the Rams last summer. Williams and Norwood were slowed by injuries, and Norwood was primarily a kickoff return man when he played.

Williams gained 361 yards on 81 carries, averaging 4.1 yards, but had a couple of costly gaffes as a receiver and turns 30 in July.

"I still have a lot left in the tank," Williams said. "Hopefully, I put some stuff on film and guys will be interested."

Be it the Rams or someone else.

Fisher obviously likes running the football. Depending on how heavily the Rams want to invest in the position, there are some intriguing running backs scheduled for free agency, including Cedric Benson of Cincinnati, Matt Forte of Chicago, Ryan Grant of Green Bay, BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England, Peyton Hillis of Cleveland, Marshawn Lynch of Seattle and Ray Rice of Baltimore.

Again, many of those players could be re-signed or franchised and off the market by March 13.

Backup qBs free agents

At quarterback, the two main backups behind Sam Bradford in 2011 are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. If past association means anything, Kellen Clemens has a much better chance to return than A.J. Feeley. Before joining the Rams late last season, Clemens spent five seasons (2006-10) with the New York Jets and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who's now with the Rams.