Rams have tough calls to make on free agents

2013-01-04T05:30:00Z 2013-01-05T12:20:00Z Rams have tough calls to make on free agentsBy Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

During the Rams’ season-ending meeting Monday, coach Jeff Fisher told the team he wants every unrestricted free agent back in 2013.

Fisher enjoyed this group of players that much. But reality eventually will say otherwise. When the emotion of the season wears off, and Fisher and general manager Les Snead begin the nuts-and-bolts evaluation of the roster, they will come to the realization that they need to do better in some instances.

In addition, they won’t be able to bring back others because of salary-cap constraints.

Unlike last season, when the Rams ended up re-signing only one of their 20 unrestricted free agents — backup quarterback Kellen Clemens — the club would like to re-sign maybe as many as a half dozen of their 13 pending unrestricted free agents.

All told the group of 13 combined for 86 starts. Five of the pending unrestricted free agents basically were full-time starters when healthy: wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson; right tackle Barry Richardson; center/guard Rob Turner and free safety Craig Dahl.

Another player at the top of the group is defensive end William Hayes, who didn’t start a game but was invaluable off the bench, recording seven sacks, 34 tackles, 11 quarterback pressures and five QB hits.

Hayes, who spent three of his previous four NFL seasons with Fisher in Tennessee, wants to come back – unequivocally.

“I love it here,” Hayes said. “I love the tradition, the coaches, my teammates, the facility. It’s a great place to be. This team, the future’s gonna be crazy around here. If we can keep these guys together, it’s gonna be really exciting.”

But limited cap space will cause the Rams to make some tough choices.

With the signing of their eight practice squad players to the offseason roster this week, the Rams currently have 47 players under contract. According to figures filed with the NFL Players Association, those 47 players count about $119 million against the cap – a cap that is expected to be $121 million in 2013.

Where did all that cap space go that was supposed to be available in 2013?

Largely to the contract extensions of Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, both of whom were signed between the start of training camp and the start of the regular season.

It looks like money well spent.

Long finished among the NFL’s top 10 in sacks for the second year in a row, with 11½. After a bit of a slow start by his standards, Laurinaitis finished with a career-high 174 tackles and played his best football over the second half of the season.

Between them, Long and Laurinaitis count nearly $26 million against the cap in 2013.

Rams executive vice president Kevin Demoff doesn’t like to backload contracts. He prefers a pay-as-you-go method, making sure that the Rams aren’t boxed in during future years when the contracts of many of their younger players start expiring.

So the Rams will have to prioritize and create extra money to re-sign some of their pending free agents, much less sign any outside free agents. However, there are areas on the current roster where money could be freed up.

As much as the Rams would like to re-sign running back Steven Jackson, they’d like to do so in a way that lowers Jackson’s current cap count of $8.9 million, which includes a $7 million base salary.

The same goes with safety Quintin Mikell, who played much better this year than he did in 2011, registering 114 tackles, three sacks and forced four fumbles. But Mikell will count $9 million against the cap in 2013, including a $6 million base salary.

Also, offensive tackle Wayne Hunter, acquired in a trade with the New York Jets on Aug. 28, will count $4 million against the salary cap in 2013, which is a lot of money for a third tackle.

The Rams have until the start of the free agency period, March 12, to figure out a way.

At the top of the Rams’ free-agent class is Amendola. Before his collarbone/breastbone and foot injuries, he looked like he had the makings of a true No. 1 receiver with his quickness, speed, toughness and hands. Some were calling him a faster version of New England’s Wes Welker. But the injuries sidelined him for five games and limited him in three others. If you include the 2011 season in the equation, Amendola has played in only 12 of the Rams’ last 32 games. The question becomes, how high are the Rams willing to go on Amendola, who clearly is a security blanket for quarterback Sam Bradford when on the field?

If they’re unable to re-sign Amendola, do the Rams then try to use some of that money to re-sign Gibson, who was an improved player in 2012, finishing second on the team in receptions (51), reception yards (691) and scoring a team-high five touchdowns?

If they opt to re-sign neither player, then the Rams must look elsewhere for wideout help, because they’ll basically be left with Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brian Quick.

On the offensive line, Richardson played better than expected – particularly when it came to run blocking.

“Every year I’ve gotten better,” he said. “I think this would be my best season as far as overall.”’

In the preseason, Richardson wrested the starting job from Jason Smith (who ultimately was sent to the Jets in the Hunter trade), and never let go. Richardson considers St. Louis a good fit.

“It’d be nice to come back,” he said. “But you never know in this league what’s going to happen.”

Again, it could come down to how much Richardson is looking for, or might command in the open market.

He was a relative bargain this year, signing for $800,000 in base salary and signing bonus, but also eligible for $700,000 in incentive bonuses, at least some of which he earned.

And what to do of super-sub Turner?

He was signed for $700,000 to be a backup guard and center. But because of injuries to center Scott Wells and guards Harvey Dahl and Rokevious Watkins, Turner ended up starting all 16 games —nine at center and seven at left guard. It probably will take more to get him back in ’13.

At free safety, it’s doubtful the Rams will re-sign Dahl, as they look for a better coverage option at the position. And the same probably holds true at strongside linebacker, where Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan shared the position. The Rams would like more speed and athleticism in their starter.

Follow Jim Thomas on twitter @jthom1

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