Rams prepare their lists for free agency

BY JIM THOMAS
Sunday, May 15, 2011

After a draft that went heavy on pass catchers in the early and middle rounds, the Rams have plenty of unchecked items left on their personnel shopping list. Perhaps they'll find a hidden gem among undrafted rookies. Maybe there's a meaningful trade in the works. But most likely, if the Rams are going to fill any remaining holes on their roster, it must come via free agency.

As the lockout drags on, it remains to be seen when free agency finally begins, and what form it takes. But the Rams have had a couple of lists ready since late February — one if unrestricted free agency is available to players with four years of NFL experience, another if it takes six years' experience to be unrestricted. A third list might be needed because, according to recent reports, the NFL is also considering alternative rules in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement.

But whether it's running back, offensive guard, defensive tackle, weakside linebacker or even cornerback and safety, there are options available in free agency. Obviously, the pool of players is much greater under four-year free agency as opposed to six years.

At running back, a crater-size hole remains on the depth chart behind Steven Jackson. There are some interesting names on this list, including Joseph Addai of Indianapolis, Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants and DeAngelo Williams of Carolina. But none of those three would be unrestricted if six-year free agency is in place.

However, Cedric Benson of Cincinnati, Ronnie Brown of Miami, Darren Sproles of San Diego and Cadillac Williams of Tampa will be unrestricted whether the required experience level for free agency is four years or six.

As the Bengals went to more of a passing game last season, Benson's productivity declined and he had some uncharacteristic fumbles. Benson isn't what you'd call a nifty runner — he's a grinder, a pounder who gets better as the game goes along.

But like Brown of the Dolphins, who has had injury issues, Benson will seek a place where he can be the feature back — and that wouldn't be the situation in St. Louis.

Sproles and Cadillac Williams could be good fits in St. Louis. With the emergence of LeGarrette Blount, Williams' days as the lead back are over in Tampa Bay at age 29. He showed last season that he's well suited to a role as a third-down specialist. As his career has progressed, Williams has developed into a good pass catcher and pass blocker. He has a reputation in Tampa as a great locker room presence and might want to try to stay with the Buccaneers.

Sproles, who turns 28 in June, is one of the game's best screen-pass receivers. Despite his diminutive size (5 feet 6, 185), he's a fearless pass blocker. If the Rams are looking for a change-of-pace back, there's not a more proven one on the market this offseason. Sproles can run between the tackles, but it's not what he does best.. He hasn't broken off a long one in a while but remains an effective kickoff and punt returner.

Some possibilities from the discount rack include Pittsburgh's Mewelde Moore, speedy but injury-prone Jerious Norwood of Atlanta, Julius Jones of New Orleans and Dominic Rhodes of Indianapolis. And yes, flaky but still productive Ricky Williams is available regardless of whether it's four-year or six-year free agency.

Another name to keep in mind: Reggie Bush of New Orleans. Bush is under contract but isn't expected to stay that way. He's due to make $11.8 million this season, and if he doesn't accept a revised deal for a lot less, the Saints may release him, particularly since the team snagged Mark Ingram in the draft.

Bush's post-draft tweets indicate he doesn't expect to be back. On one level, Bush would be a great fit in the Rams' backfield as a player with 10-15 touches a game. He still has value as a punt returner. Imagine how many passes he might catch out of the backfield in the Josh McDaniels offense.

Bush has matured over the years, but his ego hasn't disappeared. Could he accept a role playing second-fiddle to Jackson? Would Jackson feel threatened by Bush's presence? And how much money is Bush looking for if he hits the market?

A quick survey of some other Rams positions of need:

Offensive Guard

Most of the top names here — and there are some good ones — are unrestricted only under a four-year system: Green Bay's Daryn Colledge, Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl of Atlanta, and Marshal Yanda of Baltimore.

Kyle Kosier of Dallas is unrestricted whether it's four-year or six-year free agency. Predominantly a left guard, he can also play center and right guard. He made the line calls for the Cowboys, so he's very smart. Another name to keep an eye on is Davis Baas of San Francisco, who's available in either a four-year or six-year system. He started at center last year for the first time in his career and flourished, but has most of his experience at guard.

Defensive Tackle

There's quality but not much quantity. Cullen Jenkins of Green Bay played end the past couple of seasons after the Packers switched to a 3-4 front, but he has plenty of prior experience as a 4-3 tackle. He's had some durability issues in the past and could be looking for a big payday.

Like Jenkins, Aubrayo Franklin of San Francisco will be unrestricted in either a four-year or six-year system. The ***** thought highly enough of Franklin to give him the franchise tag a year ago, but he wasn't tagged this offseason.

The player to keep an eye on — with a "Spags alert" — is Barry Cofield of the New York Giants. Cofield is a five-year player, meaning he's unrestricted under a four-year system but restricted under a six-year system. He doesn't want to play under a one-year tender again — as he did in 2010 — and says he will take a hard stance on that issue this time around. The Giants drafted a defensive tackle in the second round for the second year in a row, so Cofield could rejoin his former defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo.

Weakside Linebacker

Spagnuolo makes no apologies for the fact that he likes adding free agents who have either played for him or played for a member of his staff. While linebackers coach in Carolina, Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole tutored James Anderson and Thomas Davis. Anderson will be unrestricted only under a four-year system; he played the strong side in Carolina and is best as a blitzer and pass rusher, but might be able to handle the weak side. Davis is very athletic but is coming off two knee operations and hasn't played since November 2009.

At one time or another, be it in Philadelphia or the Giants, Spagnuolo has been part of defenses that included Chase Blackburn (Giants), Omar Gaither (Philadelphia) and Kawika Mitchell (most recently with New Orleans).

And don't forget Ben Leber of Minnesota, who has been a productive starter for several seasons. Although he didn't coach linebackers at the time, Rams LB coach Paul Ferraro was on the Minnesota staff during Leber's first three seasons with the Vikings.

Secondary

The Rams drafted a safety in the fifth round (Jermale Hines) and seventh round (Jonathan Nelson), and took a cornerback in the seventh (Mikail Baker), so it's uncertain how much more help they'll seek.

At cornerback, Phillip Buchanan (Washington), Chris Carr (Baltimore), Carlos Rogers (Washington), Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh) and Fabian Washington (Baltimore) are available whether it's four-year or six-year free agency. Corey Graham (Chicago), Johnathan Joseph (Cincinnati), Richard Marshall (Carolina) and Josh Wilson (Baltimore) are unrestricted only under four-year rules.

At safety, there are a couple of former Spagnuolo players in Gibril Wilson (most recently with Cincinnati) and Quintin Mikell (Philadelphia). Wilson, a former Giant, missed all of last season with a preseason knee injury. Mikell, who turns 31 in September, may have a couple of good years left. He has been the Eagles' starting strong safety for several years, and Spagnuolo knows him well.