By Nick Wagoner
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth #93 rushes in on Jason Brown #60 during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
In a whirlwind first day of free agency, the Rams have turned their attention to three priorities in the form of center Jason Brown, safety James Butler and one of their own, cornerback Ron Bartell.
Brown and Butler arrived in St. Louis on Friday morning and afternoon, respectively, and though they have not agreed to any deal with the team yet, negotiations with both are expected to heat up this evening.
Bartell, meanwhile, took a free agent visit to New Orleans on Friday afternoon. Although he is in the Big Easy, the Rams have been in constant contact with him in hopes of nailing down a deal.
As it stands, getting those three players in the fold is at the top of the team’s objectives. Of the trio, Brown appeared to be the closest to striking a deal.
“Talks are continuing,” general manager Billy Devaney said Friday afternoon. “Jason Brown’s agents were already here for a couple hours this afternoon. We have taken a break. We are going to meet again later on tonight. I guess that’s why I say the talks are ongoing. I don’t know how you categorize it whether it’s encouraging, hopeful but they are moving forward. Hopefully we can work something out tonight or tomorrow morning before he is scheduled to leave.”
Butler arrived in the afternoon, well after Brown had already taken his tour of the Russell Training Center with agents Harold Lewis and Kevin Omell in tow. Butler is represented by Kevin Poston, talks that had only just begun early Friday evening according to Devaney.
It comes as little surprise that the Rams have targeted Brown and Butler as top free agents on the market. Both players fit the description of exactly what the Rams are looking for moving forward.
At 6’3, 320 pounds, Brown would represent a massive upgrade both literally and figuratively at the center position, the place where the Rams envision him taking over.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Brown became a starter at guard for the Ravens in 2006 and stayed at the left guard spot for all 16 games in 2007.
When Baltimore parted ways with Mike Flynn last offseason, Brown moved in as the center and started all 16 games there last year.
Because of his size and ability, Devaney said Brown fits the bill of exactly what the team is trying to build up front.
“We stressed, even when the season was going on, about getting bigger on the offensive line and being more physical,” Devaney said. “He fits everything. He’s almost 315 pounds, 320 pounds, extremely smart, 25 years old, all of those things. He’s a strong character guy. In scouts’ lingo, the arrow is still going up on him; he’s still an ascending player so that to us, there are a lot of good traits about him.”
Like Brown, Butler is considered a rising player who is just scratching the surface on his potential. He finished 2008 with 76 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.
In his four-year career, Butler has played in 58 games after he was an undrafted free agent out of Georgia Tech. It was there in the ACC that Butler became friends with current Rams cornerback Tye Hill.
Butler and Hill are friends and have worked together on a business venture or two. More important, the Rams envision Butler as a strong safety where his 6’3, 215-pound frame should make him a good fit next to free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.
It also doesn’t hurt that Butler played for Spagnuolo for two seasons in New York and has a good understanding of the defense already.
“He’s in the prime of his career,” Devaney said. “He’s a good player. If he’s here we think we have a good mix between him and OJ size wise. They would complement each other. As an added bonus, he knows this defense inside and out. He knows the lingo, he’d be able to help out on the field and translate things early on to the other players. It would be a good fit with him also.”
All sides took a short break late Friday afternoon but will reconvene at dinner this evening. When that dinner is over, Devaney said negotiations will resume and the Rams will do what they can to get Butler and Brown under contract before they are scheduled to leave town Saturday afternoon.
Until those deals are completed, though, Devaney doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“We try not to read into it good or bad,” Devaney said. “I don’t take it as positive or negative. Until it’s done, even if it looks encouraging, strange things happen at this time of year.”
Bartell’s situation is a bit more complicated, though. The Rams and Bartell’s agent, Jeff Griffin, have been in negotiations for the better part of the past few weeks but were unable to come to an accord before the start of free agency.
So as the market opened, Bartell opted to explore other options. The first option was a trip to visit with the Saints. In addition to New Orleans, Detroit is believed to have interest in Bartell as well.
Still, the Rams are holding out hope to have Bartell back in the mix, potentially even by the end of the night.
“We have been in communication with him all through today,” Devaney said. “Talks are still going on with Ron and we expect to talk with his people later on tonight after he finishes his visit with New Orleans.”
As players around the league, cornerbacks in particular, continue to rack up big money, Devaney says the value of Bartell is still evaluated on its own. But that doesn’t mean Devaney wouldn’t have liked to have had Bartell signed long ago.
“We have been talking now for a couple of weeks,” Devaney said. “It’s been a slow process. Once a player gets close to free agency, once a deal is not done over the summer, that passes and the player is into the season, especially when you get halfway through the season, now they are getting closer to free agency. That’s a player’s goal, is to get to free agency. Do I wish we had done something with Bartell? Yeah, sure. We would have been better off to do something this past summer but like I said we are still kind of making progress with Ron also. They are at a point, we are at a point and we are kind of moving where hopefully we can get somewhere in the middle where we are both comfortable.”
For those worried about salary cap space, Devaney said the Rams should be able to get Brown, Butler and Bartell done without having to make any addition cap clearing moves.
“If that works out and we can get all three guys, we don’t necessarily have to make any moves,” Devaney said.
As for any potential moves made on that front, nothing appears imminent.
“I don’t know,” Devaney said. “It’s the same. It’s probably; the easiest thing to say is it is still to be determined. If we think there are better players to come in and make us a better team. If we think it is a sound football decision, that’s what would dictate those moves.”