Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The first wave is over in the free agent frenzy. With a few exceptions, most of the top-flight talent has been scooped off the shelves. Even Peyton Manning has a new home.

On to the second wave, which usually means more patience by teams and fewer dollars offered. It was an active first week for the Rams, with the team bringing in 11 players in the first four days of free agency and signing three.

Of the 11 players who were on campus last week at Rams Park, 10 of them already have new contracts. The only exception is free-agent wide receiver Steve Smith, most recently with Philadelphia, who came in for a physical and ran pass routes for the Rams last Thursday.


At quarterback, Shaun Hill re-signed with Detroit and Brady Quinn went to Kansas City. Hill seemed poised to sign with St. Louis, particularly because of his past association with Rams quarterback coach Frank Cignetti, but the Lions made a better offer.

At offensive guard, Nate Livings signed with Dallas and Travelle Wharton went to Cincinnati. Both agreed to terms with their new teams while in the midst of their visits to Rams Park.

At defensive tackle, Jason Jones signed with Seattle and Andre Fluellen re-signed with Detroit. Jones apparently wanted to sign only a one-year deal, and his contract with the Seahawks could earn him $5 million a year, more than the Rams were willing to pay, particularly for someone with knee issues.

At wide receiver, Mario Manningham signed with San Francisco. The Rams were interested in signing Manningham, but only if the price was right.

The three free agents the Rams signed didn't come cheaply. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan's deal averages $10 million a year; the deals signed by center Scott Wells and defensive tackle Kendall Langford both average $6 million a year. Together the three contracts represent a potential allocation of $98 million.

Wells and Finnegan both have a Pro Bowl to their names, while Langford is considered an ascending player. The Rams consider them all "blue" or top-tier players, but signing them means they have replaced only three of the five starters released last week.

Finnegan replaces Ron Bartell, Wells replaces Jason Brown, and Langford replaces either Fred Robbins or Justin Bannan take your pick. Meanwhile, it looks like last year's first-round pick, Robert Quinn, will replace the fifth released starter (James Hall) at defensive end.

But the Rams still need a starting defensive tackle. Currently, the only other DTs on the roster are:

Darell Scott, who has been slowed by injury and hasn't done much since showing flashes as a rookie in 2009.

Jermelle Cudjo, who spent the entire 2011 season on injured reserve because of back issues.

2011 practice squad members John Henderson and Cornell Banks.

The ranks are even thinner at defensive end, where the Rams have only Eugene Sims under contract behind starters Quinn and Chris Long.

So there's plenty of work to be done on the roster, especially at wide receiver, where the Rams have swung and missed despite what may have been the deepest and most talented class of wideouts in the 20-year history of free agency.

Listed alphabetically, Harry Douglas, Early Doucet, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, Laurent Robinson, Eddie Royal, Donte Stallworth, and Reggie Wayne all either signed with new teams or re-signed with their current team.

There's next to nothing left on the wide receiver market: Deion Branch, who turns 33 in July; Plaxico Burress, who turns 35 in August and may not be worth the trouble; Braylon Edwards, who washed out in San Francisco; Ted Ginn, who's more return man than receiver; and Smith, who has been slowed by knee problems the past two years.

So barring a trade, it's looking more and more like the Rams must come out of the draft with two starting-caliber wide receivers. Former Rams general manager Billy Devaney frequently said that you can always find wide receivers. Former defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jim Haslett used to say the same thing.

If that's the case, why has it been so difficult since the departure of Rams greats Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt?

And there's work to be done at other positions, such as linebacker, where the Rams have only James Laurinaitis, Josh Hull and Justin Cole under contract. Linebacker is one of the few positions in free agency where there hasn't been a ton of action. Players such as Erin Henderson, Manny Lawson, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are still available, although Lofton and Hawthorne are inside linebackers, and Lofton probably will command a big payday.

At quarterback, only Sam Bradford is under contract for the Rams. Josh Johnson and Billy Volek could be possibilities in free agency, but Johnson is currently visiting Washington and doesn't seem interested in the Rams, and Volek turns 36 next month. When all is said and done, the Rams may turn back to one of their backups from last season in Kellen Clemens and A.J. Feeley, who are both free agents.

So the pace may slow, as the team turns more of its attention to the draft, but the Rams still need to add bodies in the second phase of free agency. They can't fill every need in the draft. Even with the extra picks from Washington in the trading of the No. 2 overall pick, the Rams have only seven picks in 2012 at this point. (Only two of the four picks acquired from Washington are for the 2012 draft.)