Fans, the media and NFL teams are licking their chops thinking about the eventual (hopefully) start of the NFL free agent period, an orgy of cash that can either set a team up for the season ahead or load them down with yet another burdensome contract for a player unable to contribute. The St. Louis Rams are hoping for the former. Already, despite 100+ days of lockout, the Rams have been linked, by source or speculation, to a handful of key free agents at positions of need.
In order to make sure you are the knowledgable fan, adequately prepared for the mad dash that is perhaps just a few short week away, here's a primer on the free agent players most often talked about in connection with the Rams.
A cautionary note. Owners and players are still haggling, in trying to get a new CBA done, over a provision to give teams a handful of options for right of first refusal for free agents, a mechanism allowing them to match any offer made to a specified number of their free agents and give them a leg up on keeping them. Players vehemently oppose this, as you might imagine. Be forewarned that there's still a chance for the NFL to stifle the league's immensely popular hot stove season.
DT Barry Cofield, NYG - Cofield's name is on the tip of everyone's tongue as a top free agent target for the Rams. Denied free agency last year because of the funky no-cap rules and his playing time threatened by a depth chart of younger players behind him, Cofield's days in New York are over. He'll be one of the more sought after free agent defensive tackles on the market, but his past connection with Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo figures to make a difference.
DT Brandon Mebane, SEA - There's nothing better than taking away one of your rivals' top players, and Mebane might be the best DT, non-nose division, on the market. Talk connecting the Rams with Mebane has not been as widespread as the Cofield talk, but every team with a 4-3 defense and a need in the middle will be interested.
RB Darren Sproles, SD - Covered this one already, yesterday.
RB DeAngelo Williams, CAR - A long-shot for sure, not only because he'll be the most coveted running back on the market and could easily end up back with Carolina thanks to a stipulation that teams spend in excess of 90 percent of the salary cap.
RB Cadillac Williams, TB - A third-down specialist at this point in his career, Williams might be a useful role player here. I can tell you that there has been talk inside Rams Park about Williams, though not so much as a plan A.
RB Reggie Bush, NO - He's not technically a free agent, but he probably will be before the Saints offer to pick up his $11 million+ in salary this year. RIght now they want to trade him. He's another one that's more rumor than real for the Rams.
S Quintin Mikell, PHI - Duh, there's an Eagles connection, an automatic tip that a player could be of interest to the Rams, especially on defense. Mikell would be a welcome addition to the Rams, replacing Oshiomogho Atogwe with a player who embodies the versatility Spagnuolo likes in safety. Good in coverage, strong in the box, Mikell was one of the better safeties in the league last season.
S Michael Huff, OAK - Not as obvious as Mikell, but Huff could be a real steal for the Rams. He has six INTs over his last two years in the league, when he's really developed as a player. He has the speed the Rams could really use at the position.
LB Ben Leber, MIN - An older, stopgap solution for the weakside. Leber, 32, is established and probably represents an upgrade on that side for the Rams. He likely would not play in nickel packages.
LB James Anderson, CAR - Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole knows all about Anderson, having coached linebackers with the Panthers before joining the Rams staff in 2009. He was one of the better linebackers in the league last year, but it's unlikely Carolina lets him walk.
LB Justin Durant, JAC - Remember Durant's name. Injuries have kept him off the field far too much of the time over the last four years, but when he has been healthy, he's been outstanding. Instinctual, fast...he could be exactly what the Rams need on the weakside. Groin and ankle injuries shelved him for six games last season.
Obviously, there are more free agents than this, hundreds more to be exact since this free agent class could top 500 players. Players listed above have been mentioned in connect with the Rams one way or another, by informed pundit or media marriage arrangers, there is some legitimacy behind each. You will notice that nowhere on this list are any free agent wide receivers. That is not a mistake on my part, with no apologies to the people who continue putting Plaxico Burress and Randy Moss in a Rams uniform for 2011...it won't happen. In fact, outside of Mark Clayton, don't look for the Rams to sign any receivers in free agency.
As the days go by and free agency gets closer, we'll be updating this list.