By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
There are many reasons for Martz relaxed manner, and a schedule that includes plenty of time to talk openly to the media or appear in various local functions and coaching clinics. The reason at the very top of the list is that Martz has left much of the future of his roster to his boss, and friend, Rams President of football operations Jay Zygmunt.
Since really having the power over the football success of the franchise bestowed upon him, Zygmunt has proven to be among the very best in the NFL at what he does; the tough negotiating with agents and players that’s imperative in the days since the salary cap came into effect. Zygmunt is not a man who needs to read his quotes in the paper everyday either, nor does Martz need to worry about Jay hogging credit for his brilliant work.
The thing fans need to realize is that building an NFL team to greatness and keeping it there is not about throwing money around or pandering to fans who hate to see a favorite athlete leave over money. Jay Zygmunt is a Notre Dame alumnus, degreed in business administration, with a Law degree from Northwestern, and also a certified public accountant. However, he is no “bean counter” when it comes to running the football side of the organization.
Zygmunt puts together a plan; one that takes into account far more than the immediate needs of the team, and then sticks to his plan for the most part. Jay refuses to give in to agents who think their client is too special to work with him on a fair deal that fits the salary cap as well. His manner is not confrontational at all either, as most of the top agents speak very highly about his method, at least the ones who understand the salary cap.
While doing the juggling it takes to get under the cap to add players who are worth what they will be paid when they become Rams, Zygmunt is also quick to jump on opportunities that come up to really help the team at low cost and low risk. His relationship with Martz and GM Charlie Armey is one that maximizes the abilities of all three men, where ego doesn’t get in the way of progress. That’s why Martz hasn’t been at all worried about the relative inactivity of the Rams during the early days of free agency, when slick agents are hoodwinking all the NFL “suckers” into bad deals.
The opportunistic trades Zygmunt put together to bring Marshall Faulk and Aeneas Williams to St. Louis, with help from team President John Shaw, were possibly the best moves any NFL team has made the last five years. Today, Jay Zygmunt completed a trifecta of dazzling additions by trading the Rams 2004 second round pick to the Saints to acquire Pro-Bowl right tackle Kyle Turley.
For the third time, Zygmunt has given up only a second round pick for a star that fills a huge hole in his roster. Need a running back in 1999, because June Henley is the best you have? Hello Faulk. No stud cover corner to be found in 2001? Hello Aeneas Williams. Nothing but a question mark at right tackle, and your Pro-Bowl left tackle is holding out? Kyle Turley, come on down(or in his case, up)!
Add in the fact that the #2 headed south to New Orleans will almost certainly not be as high as the 11th spot in that round the Rams hold in 2003, and you can go ahead and crown Zygmunt as executive of the year for the second time in three years. Most NFL GMs will say a future pick is worth one round lower than a pick right away, so this is more like giving only a #3.
Turley has already made it known that his salary demands to re-sign past 2003 won’t break the Rams bank, and his aggressive attitude is something the Rams have definitely been missing along the line. I pointed this out in one of the first free agency commentaries on this site, and in Turley, they got a guy at the very top of the NFL list when it comes to taking a belligerent attitude onto the field every game.
Turley had some serious problems with his Saints head coach, Jim Haslett, and some of his teammates, but recognizing some of the losers the Saints have had on that roster, and seeing them quit on Haslett the last two seasons, makes one think that a change to an organization like the Rams should really make such problems a thing of the past for Turley. Mike Ditka certainly had no trouble with Kyle after he drafted him in 1998, but Ditka would never put up with some of the human garbage the Saints have seen fit to add to their roster recently.
Rams offensive line coach emeritus Jim Hanifan has coached guys with Turley’s temperament, and had no problems focusing the “bad attitude” of those linemen on the opposition. Starting with guard Conrad Dobler and center Tom Banks with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hanny has harnessed some real wild stallions into a solid and efficient team. His lines were the major reason that Don Coryell enjoyed such success with such a sorry franchise.
In San Diego and Washington, Hanifan had plenty of guys with the fire of Kyle Turley, and was successful at every stop using that attitude to win line battles, which translates into victories. If the Rams can get Pace re-signed in the end, they will have the best set of tackles in the game. With new starting center Dave Wohlabaugh also an upgrade to the line in aggressive approach, Zygmunt and Martz have given a big shot of adrenalin to his trench warrior crew, and it was just what the doctor ordered.
The Rams are calling Turley their starting right tackle, but if the Pace thing gets too out of hand and the Rams indeed deal Orlando rather than be held for ransom by Carl Poston, Turley can play the left side, as he did last season in New Orleans. His best side by far is the right side, however, so Zygmunt won’t be dealing Pace just out of emotion. He’ll wait and use the franchise tag rules to bring Pace down to earth on his contract desires, because he holds the cards in that negotiation, and won’t let Poston’s antics effect him one bit.
Zygmunt has avoided the overpriced, mediocre merchandise of free agency but still has filled holes with quality players at reasonable rates. The signings of Punter Sean Landeta and running back/kick returner Leon Johnson both came at the veteran minimum that allows them to count just $450,000 each cap wise. He inked a very good veteran starter in Wohlabaugh to a deal that won’t mean cutting him in a year to save cap space, and now the addition of Turley, one of the best in the NFL at his position since his rookie year, adds to Zygmunt’s successful off-season plan.
Add in the new deal to bring Aeneas Williams back for at least a couple more years, and maybe more if he decides to keep playing, plus smaller deals to bring back OT Grant Williams and DL Tyoka Jackson, and this off-season plan gets an “A” grade. All Zygmunt needs to do now is get Ernie Conwell done, which should be doable if Conwell really wants to come back, and get some of the lesser but valuable backups like Jeff Zgonina and Heath Irwin done at a fair price, and he will turn the roster over to Armey, Martz and the Rams scouts to fill the rest of the holes with draft picks.
You can bet Zygmunt won’t be resting on his laurels though, even after this latest coup. The Rams are continuing to look at veterans like cornerback Jason Sehorn and safety Larry Whigham, who are visiting Rams Park, hoping to add more help at a reasonable salary. The Rams are really focusing on their backup players’ ability to play special teams this off-season, which is very good news for Rams fans.
As of now, the Rams need a tall fast young wide receiver, a fullback prospect, a couple linebackers, a cornerback, a starting left guard, a defensive end/pass rusher, a tight end or two, and that’s about it. With at least eight draft picks, four in the top 75 selections, some of those holes can and should be filled nicely with young, inexpensive talent.
One tight end could be Conwell, and Irwin would be able to start or at least be a top backup at guard if a guy like Travis Scott or John St. Clair beat him out. If the Rams can sign Sehorn or another corner like Duane Hawthorne, who also stopped at Rams Park for a chat, another roster hole is become a strength going into draft day. With no certain holes to fill, it allows Armey and Martz to go after the best players each round regardless of position, which is exactly the way an NFL team should go into a draft.
The strength of the draft where the Rams pick is definitely defensive line, unless one of the top two corners, specifically Marcus Trufant of Washington State, manages to make it to the 12th pick. You can bet Armey will be trying to deal up if the right deal comes along to move a spot or three to get Trufant, but the Rams won’t panic and give too much to do a deal, because they won’t be desperate.
There will be lots of good cornerback prospects available in round two, as well as some very intriguing wide receivers. The receiver and corner crop is deep enough that even a third or early fourth rounder will provide talent with starting potential. The linebacker crop is not as strong, but one OLB, Georgia’s Boss Bailey seems to be a perfect fit for the Rams defense, and he will almost certainly be there at pick 12. The Rams could even go against their usual philosophy and take an O-lineman first, which would be either Iowa guard/tackle Eric Steinbach or talented Stanford underclassman Kwame Harris, both of whom have steadily moved up draft charts since January.
Should they deal Pace for a high #1, they can add one of those two to groom as his replacement and still have their own #1 to use for Bailey, Trufant, or a defensive end. It would also give the Rams the flexibility to deal down and acquire more draft picks in a draft that is very deep in most positions.
It may be very quiet again at Rams Park until draft day, but after this Turley trade, maybe fans will do like Martz, and trust the beautiful mind that is Jay Zygmunt to do his job without doing much to feed their off-season hunger for headline stealing free agent deals. Like any savvy shopper, Zygmunt is inclined to wait awhile after Christmas to get a good deal instead of paying $300 to some huckster in an alley for the only $40 value “Tickle Me Elmo” available.
In the final accounting, parents that allowed themselves to be dragged into
that yuletide insanity past by their whining kids ended up with a $40 doll,
just like NFL people will clearly understand soon when they realize that they
paid a $13 million bonus for a $4 million “toy”. In a league that
has a salary cap, like the NFL, such impulse buys will make for a very unhappy
“New Year”, for those who listened to their whining fans instead
of using common sense.