The St. Louis Rams should make it official with free agent linebacker Ben Leber very soon. ESPN reported yesterday that Leber signed a one-year deal with the Rams worth up to $1.75 million through incentives. Today, however, the dotted line has yet to be signed. According to Howard Balzer, however, it's within winking distance.
Leber will be the 12th free agent signed by the Rams this offseason. He might not even be the last, as the team considers options to replace injured CB Jerome Murphy. Of all those free agent addition, only three signed contracts longer than one year. One-year contracts were a regular feature around the league in free agency this year. With no time to bargain and play all the game that go with it, teams and players were both content to use one-year deals in the hopes of setting themselves up well for free agency next year. I hope some enterprising researcher complies a list of teams with the most one-year contracts; I do wonder if that might not be the Rams. The length of those contracts says plenty about how the Rams envision those players this year and beyond.
Let's read between the lines on the Rams' free agent moves.
In it for the long haul
Justin Bannan, Harvey Dahl and Quintin Mikell all received multi-year deals. Dahl and Mikell both figure into the long-term plans at their positions. Linemen tend to age better than other positions, and Mikell has just four seasons as a starter despite being 30.
Running back plans
Remember that the Rams wanted to draft a running back this year. Both Mark Ingram and Mikel LeShoure received first-round grades inside the Rams war room. Other opportunities presented themselves in both the first and second rounds, and Devaney found his backup running back answer elsewhere...with a pair of one-year contracts to Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. Both players have to prove that they can stay healthy and continue playing a role in this league, albeit different roles.
The 2012 NFL Draft already features some high profile running backs, guys similar to Ingram and, more telling, Steven Jackson. It stands to reason that the Rams will again give those options a very serious look with an eye toward a future without Steven Jackson, due to make $7 million in each of the next two years, when he'll be 29 and 30. Jackson could void his contract after this season if he can get his average receiving yards total up to 400 and keep his season average for rushing yards north of 1,200. Either way, the Rams have to think about life without Steven Jackson, be it next year or beyond. Having two role players on one-year deals gives them flexibility to pair a younger player with Jackson next year or seek other options.
Some of the players who received one-year deals have a real opportunity to establish themselves in a favorable climate. The most notable of those players is Zac Diles. Diles has flashed that in his young career, but injuries and poor circumstances in Texas have him in need of a fresh start. If he proves himself this year, the Rams may well want to lock him up and keep him on the weakside next to James Laurinaitis rather than search annually for answers.
Okay, Mike Sims-Walker is really the most notable "prove-it" player. He lost standing with the Jaguars last season, when he was bothered by nuisance injuries and upset that he wasn't getting looks from forgettable QB David Garrard, who has a tendency to lock onto his receivers, with free agency looming. I've heard the Jaguars had concerns about bringing him back, knowing that they planned to draft a rookie QB. Good at everything, great at nothing, MSW could be this year's Brandon Lloyd turnaround story.
Defensive tackle Daniel Muir is another younger player who has a real opportunity to in a defensive system known for getting contributions from mid-tier defensive tackles.
On the other end of the age spectrum, 30+ guys like Al Harris, Brady Poppinga and Ben Leber give the Rams veteran savvy, and in Leber's case a great skill set to match team needs. A one-year deal gives the two linebackers the chance to shine and try to land one more solid deal to end their career. Harris, at 36, can go out on a high note, rather than injured reserve with the Rams this year.