Rams Hit the Ground Running in Free AgencyRams Nation's Barry Waller
Mike Martz "open door" policy this offseason continued as he told the St. Louis media that the Rams had started early in their plan to fill the holes in the 2003 roster created by so many of their own free agents not signing before free agent shopping officially began today.
Martz said he had hoped to "surprise" the media who came out to Rams Park for his second official off-season press conference with the announcement that the team had inked ex-Browns center Dave Wohlabaugh to a four year deal Thursday worth $6 million that includes a $2 million signing bonus. The surprise was gone though, because Jim Thomas, the talented, hard working beat writer for the Post Dispatch, who Martz nicknamed "Super Scoop" today, had gotten the story Thursday from a player agent.
The Rams didn't have to wait till today to get their new center signed, because the Browns had released the 6'2, 290lb pivot man because his 2003 cap number of $4.5 million was too steep for their sticky cap situation. Wohlabaugh was a third round pick of the Patriots in 1995, and was scouted by Rams GM Charlie Armey, who was with New England back then. Martz likes what he has seen of the eight veteran out of Syracuse, who has started all of the 119 games he has appeared in as a pro, calling the acquisition "a terrific signing for us".
Martz described Wohlabaugh a "little more stout and a little bit more physical than what we have had here the last 4-5 years." Mike also explained that, " Dave fits into the system of what we do, as we say, he can "reach a shaded nose" and deal with the one technique and yet we can also pull him. He is also very stout in pass protection."
Despite the signing of a new starter at center, Martz does not rule out bringing Andy McCollum back as a candidate to play left guard. When asked whether they would welcome McCollum back, Martz quickly said, "Absolutely, Andy could play very well for us at guard, and this signing is not a reflection on Andy or his ability to play. But Andy has had a contract offer on the table since October and it's still there, and we had to take care of this and move on." The fact that Wohlabaugh is at least McCollum's equal, but is two years younger than Andy makes the move a definite upgrade.
Martz may have gotten scooped on the Wohlabaugh deal, but he still did have a big surprise for the media and Rams fans anyway, when he announced that the Rams had traded their top draft pick in 2000, running back Trung Canidate, to the Washington Redskins for starting guard David Loverne and the Redskins fourth round pick in the upcoming draft, which is the tenth overall in the round, giving St. Louis back to back fourth rounders, as they already were set to draft 9th on the second day of the draft.
Martz called it a "hard decision" to trade Trung, but felt, "We had to make a decision between the two young backs, and we felt it would be best to do it now. Lamar (Gordon) fits better with what we do and he is a bigger back. Here was an opportunity to pick up a possible starter, at least a good backup at guard, along with a fourth round draft pick."
Loverne, 26, a 6'3, 293 pounder out of San Jose State, was a third round pick of the Jets in 1999, who was acquired in 2002 by the Redskins for a draft pick. Loverne is another player who is known to play a physical game, and is a better run blocker than pass blocker so far in his career.
The two moves made it clear that the offensive line was the top priority for Martz and the Rams this off-season, after that unit struggled so much in 2002, mainly due to a lack of veteran depth. It appears that Martz won't let that situation happen again in 2003 if at all possible. " Everything starts with the offensive line, and it's the most critical area so we had to fortify that," explained Martz, who added that, " We were starting to pick up a little age, and had to mix in some younger guys and let them come to the forefront a little bit."
Martz still feels the two youngest offensive linemen still on the roster, 2002 fourth rounder Travis Scott and 2002 rookie free agent Andy King, "Have got good futures", as well, though Martz wants to make sure they are not counted on in 2003 to blossom after next to no playing time as rookies, especially Scott, who was injured in training camp and put on I.R., missing the whole season after surgery.
Martz included veteran OT Grant Williams, who will remain with the team after signing a three-year deal last week, in his comments about the rebuilding of the offensive line. The Rams are pleased with his work in the weight room this off-season; as he rehabbed the broken leg he suffered near mid-season in 2002. Martz loves the fact that Williams can play either tackle, and believes he will compete for a starting job in 2003.
Martz also said the Rams had tendered restricted free agent John St. Clair, who will in his words "Have a tremendous opportunity to compete for a starting job this season. We aren't sure if it will be inside or outside, but we will real competitive on the o-line and on the rest of the team." Nor does today's roster moves signal the end of the offensive line off-season plan. " We aren't done by a long shot, and will continue to shop (for O-line help)."
Martz indicated that the Rams are in "deep negotiations" with their own unrestricted free agent players; CB Dre Bly, TE Ernie Conwell, G Heath Irwin, DT Tyoka Jackson, DT Jeff Zgonina and McCollum, with Conwell probably being the closest to being signed. Martz also was asked about the ongoing Orlando Pace situation. Martz said the talks indicate that, "There hasn't been much progress," between Rams President Jay Zygmunt and Pace's agent Carl Poston. The Rams have not given up on bringing back former starting guard Tom Nutten either, according to Martz.
With only a couple weeks till the date that a long term deal must be done for the team to retain the franchise tag afterward, there is undoubtedly no way the Rams can get close enough to get an agreement with Poston, who has made a career out of creating long holdouts for his clients that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, including Pace himself in 1997, who didn't sign till mid August, which ruined his rookie season. That means a deal can't be done until after June 15th if that March 15th deadline passes, as it almost surely will unless Pace himself takes charge.
Though Martz would not confirm or deny that they are considering trading their star LT and former top overall pick in the draft, he did say that " Jay would always consider trading anyone of the price were right." Though Martz has immense power in the Rams organization, it is clear that Zygmunt, his boss, is the guy who has the plan for this offseason, at least when it comes to free agency.
Zygmunt, according to Martz, " Has as difficult a job this off season as he has ever had with the Rams. Jay has a plan, though, and we are attacking that plan. I feel confidant we can fill the holes (in the roster)." It's clear from this off-season's moves this far, as well as in past cap strapped season, that Zygmunt has a limit that he will pay for a certain position or player, and if that guy balks at that salary, he won't be stopped from playing elsewhere, and it is a plan that has worked well the past few years as the Rams have avoided the cap hell other top teams face year after year.
One player who found out Zygmunt's method today was starting fullback James Hodgins, who the Rams brought back last season after matching a big offer from Denver for the "Hammer". The $750,000 "poison pill" roster bonus that was put in that deal to keep the Rams from matching in 2002, came due today, and the Rams cut Hodgins rather than write that check and also pay Hodgins $600,000 for the season, after he missed half of 2002 with a broken foot.
Even though Martz called Hodgins a "terrific player", in describing the move to let Hodgins go, he explained that the Rams, " Had great interest in bringing James back, but we simply could not afford the luxury", of a FB with a $1.35 million cap number. According to Martz, " The FB in our system only plays about 35-40% of the time, and that position doesn't carry the ball or catch many passes. We don't use lead blockers much, and Hodgins would fit better in system that does that more."
So who will the Rams look at to replace Hodgins? It appears that Martz had his heart set on the Dolphin's Rob Konrad, who was also a free agent, as the Rams coach went on and on about him, but the multi dimensional Konrad re-signed a four-year deal today with Miami. It could be that Hodgins may still have a shot, albeit a slim one, to stay a Ram if he doesn't get a big deal from Denver again, who still covets him. Another FA fullback, Lorenzo Neal, also was signed, by the Chargers, today.
Martz listed the free agents scheduled to visit next week, and it's clear that defense won't be ignored in free agency either. Among the prospective Rams coming to town are linebackers Mike Peterson late of the Colts; Shawn Barber, who played for the Eagles in 2002; and MLB Earl Holmes, who spent his first 8 seasons starring for the Steelers until defecting to their arch rival Browns in 2002, where he led the team in tackles.
All three of those linebackers would be a great fit for Lovie Smith's defense, and possess the one ingredient that Martz feels is absolutely essential in a linebacker in the Rams defensive system. " Everything we do at linebacker is about speed, so we are always trying to get faster at linebacker, explained Martz, who continued by saying, "We have got to be able to cover sideline to sideline in this defense." Size is nowhere near the importance of speed for Rams linebackers, because according to Martz, "Our front four does a good job of keeping blockers off the linebackers."
With only a pair of second year men remaining on the roster at CB; 2002 #2 pick Travis Fisher and James Whitley, the Rams are going to be looking hard at cornerbacks very quickly, and probably adding one very high in the draft as well. They are bringing in veteran stars Ashley Ambrose and Denard Walker next week for a look see, two very good starters who were added to the free agent list when the Falcons and Broncos, respectively, cut them this week for cap reasons.
Denard would be a very good addition if Bly can't be signed quickly enough, because at 6'1" the ex-Titan can deal far better with bigger receivers than Bly, who is just 5'9. Ambrose is a small corner, and he is 33 years old, but for a good price he would still be a fine addition to the roster as well. Whitley, along with fellow exclusive free agents; QB Marc Bulger, FB J.R. Niklos, S Nick Sorenson, and LB Kole Ayi, were given one year tenders by the Rams, according to Martz.
Martz said the team will need to add another back with Canidate gone, and he seems to prefer getting one in the draft, though a free agent bargain after June 1 may also be possible, if the right player is available then. He also said he was happy with the way kicker Jeff Wilkins turned his season around and according to Martz, "Got back in the groove", last year after a horrendous slump, and "Wilkie" will return as the Rams placekicker. He was not as sure about the future of incumbent punter Mitch Berger, now a free agent, saying that punter "May be something we have to look at."
Martz surprised some in attendance when he explained that #4 wide receiver Ricky Proehl, also unrestricted, like he was last year, is no slam dunk to return. Martz left room for lots of speculation about the Rams receiver plans when he explained that, " I don't know where we are with that (the Proehl possible return), because right now it's a real complex issue. We will put that on the back burner, because we don't know what our WR situation will be. There will come a time when it will clear up, but it's about some other stuff, because we have to make some other decisions first that will affect Ricky's situation."
Along with the top three receivers; Ike Bruce, Torry Holt, and Troy Edwards, Martz says the predictions of doom for 2002 free agent bust Terrance Wilkins are premature, even though he was deep in Martz doghouse at the end of 2002. Like fellow bust Jamie Duncan, cutting Wilkins saves no cap room at all right now, so both will get a chance in mini-camp and maybe training camp to stick. According to Martz, " Terrance will return this spring at split end, because he has too much ability to just churn out. He has real live ability as a wide receiver, and it's just about the mistakes with him."
As Martz further clarified, "It's a trust issue, and we have a saying that goes, be where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there, and never fool the quarterback." No doubt some of the times Edwards and Wilkins "fooled" Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, and Jamie Martin in 2002, it ended up an interception on their game stats. I doubt it is simply to give Wilkins a spot on the top four receivers on the depth chart that the Proehl deal is going to wait.
Word has it the Rams want to get bigger at wide receiver, and there are a couple free agents who may well be among the "many" that Martz says are still being scheduled for future free agent visits. The draft offers a very good crop of bigger wide outs as well, which may also be in Martz thinking, as they conserve cap by not jumping on Proehl too fast.
Martz was very candid about the possible return of Aeneas Williams, who was cut rather than the Rams having to pay him over $7 million in 2002, which gave the team greatly needed cap room to sign some new hired help soon. According to Martz, "Aeneas has already made up his mind to return, and we hope we can retain him this year. There are some other issues with Aeneas, and we hope we can clear it up. Everyone here knows how important he is to this organization, so we hope it works out." Martz did not say what he and Williams had discussed in private, calling it "uncomfortable to talk about", and explaining that any details "would have to come from Aeneas".
Another topic of discussion was the possible renegotiation with guard Adam Timmerman, now in the last year of his contract signed in 1999. The Rams could save some considerable cap room by redoing Adam and lowering the $8 million or so cap hit he causes them in 2003, however, with $6 million paid to Kurt Warner already in on lump, plus the bonuses that are going to be needed for other free agents in addition to Wohlabaugh, Martz said they will wait a year to address Timmerman "finishing his career as a Ram".
"We would like Adam to finish his career here," explained Martz, who was quite clear in his praise for Timmerman, a real team leader since arriving as a free agent from the Packers in 1999. "It's the right thing to do and if we can get that done we will be glad to do it. A year from now we hope we can structure something so he can finish out here. It's something we have already talked to Adam about. He means a great deal to this team, this organization and this city, and is what we like to think we are all about."
Martz was pleased with the work he, Smith, and Armey got done at the scouting combine last week, saying that, " The addition of junior players has added depth to all positions, and three or four appear deeper than normal." Martz added that this would be, "A good draft to have a lot of picks in." The Rams added one pretty good one today with the Canidate trade, and it appears that the Rams would be open to making deals to acquire even more selections for the April 26th NFL draft.
The way Martz and Armey and Zygmunt "hit the ground running" today, those mock drafts for the team may get a little easier to do for draftnik Rams fans the next few weeks. Too bad Carl Poston, Orlando Pace's mouthpiece, doesn't have the same sense of urgency that Rams triumvirate is exhibiting. Martz called today's moves, "A home run", for the Rams organization. If Zygmunt can somehow get a deal done now with their All-Pro tackle to create more cap room for his plan, that would be a mammoth "Grand Slam" of Ruthian proportions, especially with Carl Poston throwing nothing but "curveballs" in the dirt.