With the franchise hovering on the verge of a first winning season since 2003, the St Louis Rams seem to be only a few key pieces away from mounting a serious challenge for a playoff berth. Many fans have therefore seen this off-season as a vital step towards gathering these pieces before the current window of opportunity closes. As the NFC West gets increasingly tough, the Rams need to get these next few months right if they are going to move into the next stage of their rebuilding project.
Despite the seeming importance of this off-season, however, the Rams have been surprisingly quiet in this free agency period. While this may be part of a deliberate strategy, the silence from Rams has disconcerted many fans. Apart from tender offers to three exclusive rights free agents, the Rams’ gains can best be summed up as the re-signing of two of their own players, albeit important ones. The more obvious positions of need (safety, cornerback, offensive line, wide receiver) are yet to be addressed, and with marquee names flying off the shelves in the initial twenty-four hours of free agency, it seems as if the front office is happy to wait for April’s draft and leave their increased cap space untouched…at least for now.
The Rams have hardly been sitting back though and have, according to rumor at least, shown an interest in some players who may have made a valuable contribution to the team’s prospects. Safety Jairus Byrd received significant attention from Rams fans, only to see him sign with the Saints. Cornerback Alterraun Verner was, likewise, a hot commodity for the blue-and-gold, but went to Tampa Bay instead. A lesser known name, tackle Geoff Schwartz, also piqued the interest of Rams Nation, but decided to pledge allegiance to the New York Giants. And, perhaps most worryingly, Rodger Saffold agreed to a mammoth contract to take him away from St Louis and to the Oakland Raiders. The Rams, it seemed, were 0-4. Like in the not-so-old times.
As has been well documented, though, the Raiders reneged on their deal and Saffold returned to St Louis for a reduced, though sizeable, amount. While the oft-injured guard/tackle perhaps did not deserve the furore that heralded his return to the team, his re-signing is, nonetheless, an important one as it adds consistency and his flexibility to the offensive line. Saffold’s tenure in Oakland might have been shorter than even former head coach Hue Jackson’s, but their loss is undoubtedly St Louis’ gain, even if it still does not fully address the franchise’s issues. The re-signing of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, whose impact was felt after returning to the team following his four-game suspension last year, was another helpful act, but the next key move is still firmly very much in the offing.
But the most frustrating factor of the Rams’ off-season is, perhaps, neither their failure to sign players like Byrd or Verner, nor the loss of Chris Williams or Kellen Clemens. Instead, the loss of Shelley Smith to the Miami Dolphins represents a major loss to an interior line that has now lost three of its members, and was close to losing a fourth. Smith was a solid player who would have added continuity to the offensive line, and the fact that the Rams were unable to retain him is a source of frustration. On the other hand, it opens the possibility for a suitable replacement to be found in the Draft, although this experiment is yet to pay dividends with Barrett Jones.
The latest rumors have linked the Rams to wide receiver Kenny Britt. While this is unlikely to set Rams Nation on fire, a “prove yourself” deal might prove worthwhile. Until then, however, expect the Rams to lie low as the wait for Draft day to pick up these remaining pieces.