Free agency continues. For the St. Louis Rams, however, the bulk of the work is done. Over the course of ten days the front office addressed significant areas of need on the roster, including backup running back, wide receiver help, defensive tackle, safety and a sprinkling of depth here and there.
Already, many consider the Rams the class of the NFC West, the most complete roster of all four teams. Comparing yourself next to Arizona doesn't exactly set the bar very high, but comparison's aside, the Rams have had a solid free agency period.
Let's assess how the Rams did in free agency and what' next.
The Rams needs were exposed for the entire world to see in a prime time week 17 loss to the Seahawks, a game that decided the division's entrant to the playoffs. An appearance on the world stage did nothing to indicate to anyone other than the most dedicated of Rams fans that this was, in fact, a different team.
For its instant downside of ended the season on a sour note, that loss proved to be a big motivating factor for this team. Not just for the players and coaches, the front office responded, taking some risks in the draft that will hopefully provide for a strong pass rush and a diverse array of weapons for gifted quarterback Sam Bradford. GM Billy Devaney and Co. followed up the 2011 NFL Draft with a free agent bonanza, one focused on adding strength and veteran savvy to group of talented, but inexperienced franchise building blocks.
The headline free agent addition was offensive guard Harvey Dahl. The former Falcon brings the sheer meanness and tenacity missing among a skilled front five. Not only will this help with pass protection, but Dahl figures to make the running game relevant again. Moving the ball on the ground through the middle part of the field can finally be consistently productive. More importantly, it takes away the luxury opposing defenses have had of sitting in the box and forcing Bradford to throw to his limited options at receiver.
Receiver is still a bit of a question mark. Picking 14th in the draft denied the Rams a chance at either of the two most talented receivers. I like the idea of adding Mike Sims-Walker on a low-risk, one-year contract. He's not a No. 1 in the sense of Larry Fitzgerald, but more of a potential Brandon Lloyd type, a guy who runs routes well and knows how to battle defenders to make the catch. MSW is an upgrade for an offense looking to use a receiver by committee approach.
Backup running back was the other big need on offense, something that Billy Devaney admitted freely he had failed to address last year. I think some fans and the media warmed to the idea of a higher profile backup, really more of a potential replacement than a true backup. However, the Rams have a superstar running back, and there's no reason to buy his ticket out of town just yet. The combination of Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood can accomplish a couple things, in addition to giving the offense some personnel diversity. First, they lighten Jackson's load. Norwood is more of a specialist and Williams can work more on third downs, especially as a blocker. Second, with those two options, the Rams don't have to press Jackson if he's banged up or dealing with the kind of nagging injuries that can slow him down for a game, letting him heal should he get injured.
Clearly the most important add on defense was S Quintin Mikell. They signed him before any other free agent and gave him the biggest deal out of the whole group. Mikell is the perfect safety for a Rams defense that values versatility over flash. Good in coverage, solid versus the run, Mikell can move around the field to help the secondary with multiple receiver sets or the linebackers with speedsters lined up behind the offensive line. If they can maintain their health, the Rams have a quietly built a very strong secondary.
I'll admit, I was high on the idea of making a big splash at defensive tackle, Barry Cofield or Brandon Mebane. The front office didn't share that sentiment. Justin Bannan gives them some much needed strength in the middle. Muir is more of an undertackle, who can hopefully get some penetration. Strength in the middle is key. Too often last year opposing blockers could get into the second level, tying up the Rams' best linebacker, James Laurinaitis, and exacerbating their weaknesses at OLB. Big bodied and strong, Justin Bannan will help prevent that, keeping the traffic cut and freeing up the linebackers to do their work. I expect this to be a very, very good year for James Laurinaitis.
Speaking of linebackers, the Zac Diles addition makes me smile, and might be the most underrated addition of the bunch. Diles' talent was lost shuffling around the Houston defense last year and dealing with nagging injuries. He may not be much help in coverage, but he gets to the football, something the Rams were missing on the weakside last year. Combined with a stronger front, he could be very productive. The Poppinga signing gives them more depth and attitude.
Devaney added Al Harris for those intangible factors; his experience and leadership give coaches the kind of security blanket they like to have. With Jerome Murphy potentially facing a serious injury, the Harris signing may be more important than initially thought. Harris has something to prove, not wanting to be drummed out of the NFL because of injury. Hopefully, he can recapture some of that ability this year, playing in a limited role and providing depth.
Combined with this year's draft, which gave the Rams a bona fide pass rusher and three offensive chips, Billy Devaney has had a solid offseason. Are the Rams in the elite category? Not at all, they have too much left to prove, and the schedule gods gave them a real opportunity to prove themselves this year. There are still weaknesses to be sure. Jerome Murphy's injury leaves them thin at cornerback behind their two stud starters. Ditto the offensive line. The receivers, all the offensive skill players, still make for a big question mark as the Rams look to models in New England and New Orleans of high powered offenses lacking true blue superstars beyond their quarterback.
The franchise has come a long way in a short amount of time, but much work remains.
Van's free agency grade: A