Rams figure to be busy as free agency begins today
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

With Pisa Tinoisamoa (50) moving to strong safety, the Rams are in the market for linebacker help.

By design and financial necessity, the Rams usually are little more than interested spectators this time of year. With rare exception, St. Louis sits out the feeding-frenzy stage of free agency, and has done so ever since the 1999 Super Bowl championship season.

Let the other teams overpay and throw greenbacks around like Monopoly money. In most instances, the Rams had little to spend and used most of it trying to re-sign their own players.

Last year, for example, the Rams re-signed guard Adam Timmerman and quarterback Marc Bulger and matched outside offers on restricted free agents Jerametrius Butler (cornerback) and Brandon Manumaleuna (tight end). But they couldn't afford to keep defensive end Grant Wistrom and defensive tackle Brian Young.

This year promises to be different. The Rams could be active early players in the free agency period, which begins today. The team enters free agency with about $7 million in salary cap room, a figure that could swell to more than $10 million if left tackle Orlando Pace - and his new agents - can strike a multi-year deal. That would remove the burden of Pace's $8.4 million franchise tag from the team's salary cap.

And unlike most recent offseasons, the Rams don't have much in the way of priorities on their own free-agent list, which numbers 13 unrestricted free agents.

Among that group, the Rams are resigned to losing defensive end Bryce Fisher. They have had conversations with his agent, but Fisher's strong final month of the season and team-high sack total (8 1/2) almost certainly have priced him out of the Rams' market.

The Rams appear to have little to no interest in re-signing linebacker Tommy Polley, whose much-improved play over the final third of the season only made one wonder what the problem was during the first two-thirds of 2004.

Safety Antuan Edwards seems intent on shopping the market, so the Rams rescinded what's believed to be a three-year offer Tuesday and will look elsewhere.

Injured guards Chris Dishman (knee) and Tom Nutten (toe) are expected to head back to retirement. The team isn't expected to offer safety-cornerback Aeneas Williams a contract, either. He's 37 and ended the season on injured reserve with an arthritic shoulder.

The only other unrestricted free agents who saw much playing time for the Rams were tight end Cam Cleeland - who caught only seven passes in the regular season - and safety Rich Coady, who had several rough moments in coverage.

So the Rams are expected to use most of their money on outside free agents, and for a change will try to spend at least some of it early. The Rams haven't made much early noise in free agency since the 1998-99 offseason, when they signed Timmerman and quarterback Trent Green in the first week of the signing period.

This year, the Rams need linebacker help in the worst way, particularly at middle linebacker. As fate would have it, the linebacker crop is as strong as any position in free agency this year - especially at middle linebacker, where the Rams want to get bigger and more physical.

As the final hours wound down Tuesday night before free agency, Washington was making every effort to re-sign Antonio Pierce, and Philadelphia was doing the same with Jeremiah Trotter. But even if those two players re-sign, there are other options.

At the top of that list is Baltimore inside linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, but early indications are that he will be the most coveted linebacker in this year's free-agent class, possibly commanding a signing bonus in excess of $10 million.

If the Rams don't want to get into a bidding war for Hartwell, there's always Pittsburgh's Kendrell Bell and Minnesota's Chris Claiborne. Both are talented but figure to come cheaper because of a recent history of injuries.

The Rams could also be in for some early shopping on the offensive line and at safety. Team officials have had conversations with offensive tackle Fred Miller and his agent. But Miller - a cap casualty last week in Tennessee - is drawing interest from several teams. If the Rams feel they can sign Pace to a long-term contract, that probably lessens their interest in spending a lot of money on Miller.

But the Rams may look around on the guard market, where both Green Bay starters - three-time Pro Bowler Marco Rivera and cap casualty Mike Wahle - are on the market. Rivera plays right guard; Wahle plays left guard.

The free safety position is tougher to cipher. It's a slim free-agent crop to begin with. Most of the best safeties available - Denver's Kenoy Kennedy, Cleveland's Robert Griffith and Miami's Sammy Knight - are strong safeties. The Rams are converting linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa to strong safety, and strong safety Adam Archuleta to free safety. But there's no guarantee either switch will work, hence the need for help at free safety.

Instead of a pure free safety, the Rams could look for a modestly priced player such as Arizona cornerback Renaldo Hill or Green Bay safety-cornerback Bhawoh Jue to come in as a nickel back.

There are a lot of variables to the Rams' puzzle, but it will began to take shape today.