With the offseason still in its infancy stage, there is no telling what the final pool of free agents will look like when it comes time to start negotiating contracts. Still, there have already been a number of “big name” releases from team. While some players are slotted for free agency with expiring contracts, other will be “surprise” cap casualties; mostly veteran players in the latter stages of their back-loaded contracts. This year, it appears that wide receiver will be the hot commodity, with Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe, and Mike Wallace as expected to test the free agency water. However, this 2013 FA will likely run much, much deeper than it appears at the moment. At this point, St. Louis is sitting pretty tight under the salary cap, meaning that there will not be another $50 million signing like Cortland Finnegan last offseason. However, that does not mean that the Rams cannot pursue top tier talent. With that in mind, here is Ramblin’ Fans’ bargain “Wish List” for the coming season:
1. Established, play-making wide receiver: Brandon Lloyd, New England Patriots
You likely won’t see Lloyd on any of the free agency lists around the league, but according to the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him hit the market at some point this offseason. The Patriots owe Lloyd a $3 million roster option, which, if not paid, makes him an unrestricted free agent…
While some in St. Louis may still be scorned by the fact that Brandon Lloyd chose to follow Josh McDaniels to New England, the fact remains that he and Sam Bradford had outstanding chemistry in the short time they were together in the Edward Jones Dome. In 2011, Lloyd joined the Rams on the field in Week 7 of the regular season. Due to injury, Bradford and Lloyd did not play together until Week 9, but when they did, there was an instant connection. Even with the high ankle sprain against the Cowboys in Week 10, Bradford started in five games with Lloyd spread wide on the outside. In those games, Bradford attempted 162 passes, with 56 of those throws going in the direction of his newly acquired playmaker. Lloyd hauled in 24 of those catches for 351 yards and 3 touchdowns in only that five game span, averaging nearly 5 receptions per game and over 70 yards.
Imagine what that connection might look like with a healthy Sam Bradford throwing the football, an upgraded offensive line, an actual offseason to work on route and timing, Chris Givens and (potentially) Danny Amendola, and, to top it all off, a competent head coach and offensive coordinator! No one would complain about Dwayne Bowe or Greg Jennings, but Lloyd would come with a much smaller price tag, knowledge of the personnel on the offense, and some semblance of a connection already formed with the quarterback…
2. Veteran outside linebacker, with coverage skills: Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
If you haven’t heard of Daryl Smith, that likely puts you in the same boat as 98% of the NFL fans that reside outside of Jacksonville. Smith sat out a majority of 2012 nursing a groin injury, playing on only the final two games of the regular season. However, Smith has been a staple in the Jacksonville defense for nearly a decade; one of the few elite players on the roster, especially on the defensive side of the football. The long-time 4-3 outside linebacker has averaged 84 tackles per season, including 21.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, and 6 interception, in eight nearly full seasons in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith was the 2nd highest rated 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL in 2011, his last full season. That year he had 93 tackles, 4 sacks, 7 hits on the quarterback, 3 hurries, and was 3rd among all linebackers (1st among 4-3 outside linebackers) with 63 defensive stops, meaning tackles that resulted in an offensive failure (i.e. sacks, tackles for loss, etc.). More importantly, he was on the field extensively in pass coverage, playing 398 of his 915 total snaps dropping back in the zone or in man-to-man coverage. In that time, he allowed only one receiving touchdown, snagging one interception, and lead all linebackers with eight pass deflections.
*2010- 11th rated 4-3 outside linebacker (86 tackles, 3 sacks, 9 hits, 10 hurries); 2009- 1st rated 4-3 outside linebacker, 3rd among all outside linebackers (behind only Lamarr Woodley and DeMarcus Ware)
Players like Paul Kruger, recently-released Nick Barnett, and Anthony Spencer will garner the most attention among analysts in this free agent class. However, Smith’s relatively low-profile and the fact that he is coming off of an injury that sidelined him for a majority of the season might make him the best “bang for your buck” acquisition of the offseason. Many expect the Jaguars to throw a reasonable deal at the life-long Jacksonville linebacker. However, in the later stages of his career, Smith may choose to explore his opinions, especially if a team on the rise calls with a similar offer; St. Louis likely falls into that category.
3. Competent offensive tackle, with experience on the right side: Sebastian Vollmer, New England Patriots
New England has a recent history of snatching up any and all of the St. Louis Rams free agents, most recently Brandon Hoomanwanui and Greg Salas… oh yea, and Brandon Lloyd. So, it is only fair that St. Louis finally start to return the favor at a couple of key positions this offseason. Sebastian Vollmer is one of the more underrated offensive tackles in the NFL, especially having dealt the back issues for a majority of the last two seasons. However, with a legendary offensive line coach, a “regular” offseason to prepare, and a significant reduction in pass blocking snaps throughout the season, Vollmer might just be able to skyrocket into that next tier of blockers in St. Louis.
Despite the injuries, Vollmer still graded out as the 4th best right tackle in the NFL last season, allowing only 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 22 hurries on Tom Brady in 1111 pass-happy offensive snaps. To put that into perspective, the non-injured Barry Richardson allowed 7 sacks, 13 hits, and 25 hurries on Bradford in the run-oriented St. Louis Rams’ offense. More importantly, Vollmer committed only three accepted penalties (five total) in all of 2012, the fewest among the Top 15 tackles in the NFL last season. Again, to put that into perspective, Rodger Saffold committed six penalties in only 621 snaps.
With the Broncos’ front office essentially guaranteeing the return of Ryan Clady in Denver and Jake Long being the “big name” that he is, Vollmer could end up being the steal of the free agent offensive linemen. Several will point to offensive tackle as a main target for the St. Louis Rams in the 2013 NFL draft. However, Jeff Fisher has a well-documented history of not taking offensive lineman early in the draft, and, at least in this draft, solid prospects are few and far between. Vollmer is likely the best right tackle in the NFL when healthy, but with recent injury history, he may get fewer looks from other teams. The St. Louis Rams should be able to shift the money they gain when they inevitably cut Wayne Hunter, and use it to fill one of the biggest holes on the roster.