By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
It's pretty clear that rebuilding the Rams linebacker corps, the weakest in the NFL in 2002, is a big priority this off-season for Mike Martz, Jay Zygmunt, and Charlie Armey, the trio in charge of bringing new talent to the squad. No doubt their initial focus will be in free agency early this March, and the good news is that it could be a solid year for unrestricted free agent linebackers.
Even if the top available talent, Cincinnati's Takeo Spikes, is restricted from moving on by a franchise or transition tag, there is still good depth at linebacker in free agency. Spikes has told the media that he wants to get out of Cincinnati after five miserable years, but the Bengals won't give a darn about what Spikes wants, just like they tagged Corey Dillon when he wanted out of Cincy and even threatened to retire rather than return a couple seasons ago.
What could happen is a tag, sign, and trade with Spikes, just as the Rams did with disgruntled DE Kevin Carter in 2001, and the Rams could very well be interested in dealing their top pick to acquire Spikes if they want him bad enough. New Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, a defensive minded guy, may also be able to mend whatever fences are broken with the talented Spikes.
The bad news is that the Ram have been looking for linebackers throughout their entire seven year St. Louis existence, and yet the most success came from an unknown rookie free agent signing that brought London Fletcher into the NFL, and a second round pick that brought in Tommy Polley, the only quality linebacker now on the roster. Other decent moves at the position were ones that brought Charlie Clemons and Mike Jones into St. Louis, though their impact was short lived.
Those guys were superstars compared to the others that the Rams signed in the past as the guys that would bolster the middle of the defense, as millions of dollars were thrown away on mediocre talent, the latest free agent linebacker mistake being Jamie Duncan, who will get another season to show he is at least a capable backup only because of the cap implications of cutting him loose.
One of the Rams first big free agent signings in the off-season before they debuted in Missouri in 1995 was outside linebacker Carlos Jenkins. Anyone who remembers his 1996 attempted "tackle" in overtime against the Cardinals in the desert has their image of Jenkins ability carved in stone.
The Rams then spend big bucks in 1996 to steal MLB Robert Jones from the Cowboys as their top acquisition, and he too was a pathetic addition to the defense, though he did revive his career playing OLB in Miami after the Rams cut him loose in June 1998.
To replace Jones, the Rams brought in veteran former Cardinal Eric Hill, and he too fell victim to the Rams LB jinx, staying just one injury filled season in which he endeared himself to no one on or off the field. Fletcher basically got the starting job in 1999 by default, when Dick Vermeil decided to quit shopping for bad high priced middle linebackers for a while, though the Rams did sign another veteran, Todd Collins, who had one decent year before he too was sent out of town.
Once Mike Jones and Collins were judged to be too slow to play in Lovie Smith's defense in 2001, the Rams went out and got Lovie one of his guys from Tampa, Don Davis, and also took a chance on the Saint's Mark Fields, who had been cut for cap reasons by New Orleans.
Fields went the way of the other FA linebacker busts in St. Louis, and like Robert Jones, he came back and had a good year for another team, in his case the Panthers. Maybe that's why they are going ahead and keeping Duncan another season, to prevent the same error that impatience with Fields and Robert Jones caused.
Davis proved not to be durable enough for a full time starting role for the first time as a pro, after five seasons as a backup, and he is almost surely not expected to return in 2003, as his contract is up.
Most of the bad linebacker deals were done before Mike Martz took charge in 2000, but he certainly joined in the past history of failure when it came to finding starting linebackers for his team, and in such a critical off-season as this, Martz can't afford to make any serious free agent signing mistakes.
Does that mean the Rams avoid the position in free agency and put all the eggs in a draft full of solid to very good middle linebackers? Probably not, because the draft is horribly weak at outside linebacker, as bad as it's ever been. There may not be even one outside linebacker drafted in the first round in April, which makes finding one that can actually be a productive long term guy a must in March.
There will still be a large need for a mean tough MLB in the draft, even if a top outside guy is inked to a big free agent deal in March, so the free agent hunt should really not affect the Rams overall draft plan, not at a position where only one or two current players are sure bets to make the roster in camp. Normally a team will carry six linebackers at least, and many also play a big part in special teams, so the Rams need to add three or four good players at the position before the season, and not just roster filling types either.
Even though the Rams probably have Spikes as their #1 target, they could decide that the pool of young veteran linebackers available in March allows them to forego a trade that would take away their top draft pick and cost big cap dollars.
Having players available such as Detroit's Chris Claiborne, who can play inside or outside, Colts OLB Mike Peterson, Chicago pass rushing OLB Roosevelt Colvin, Buffalo's Keith Newman, who has been playing in the 3-4 for years, Philadelphia's hard hitting O