The St Louis Rams prepared for free agency by cutting ties with cap-heavy veterans, including long-time warriors Ron Bartell and James Hall. These are bittersweet times for Rams fans, knowing that these moves are necessary for the process of rebuilding. But as Brennan put it earlier tonight:
Happy to see the Rams get draft picks and free up cap room, but hoping this is the last beginning of a rebuilding phase we see for a while
Ron Bartell was one of the longest-tenured Rams on the roster, one of the few Jay Zygmunt era draft picks to survive the last talent purge, and one of the defense's veteran leaders. While he was never considered one of the elite corners, he played with smarts and a a physical edge to his game. Larry Fitzgerald once called Bartell "the toughest cornerback I've played against."
Bartell had a strategy of attacking his opponent's hands, playing through the hands and into the head, disrupting the final split seconds of a would-be catch by any means necessary. But this physical mindset got the better of him last year, as he fractured his neck in Week 1 while putting his hat into a pile. It was a crushing blow to the St Louis secondary, both from a talent and leadership perspective, and the beginning of a snowball effect that wiped out nearly our entire defensive backfield.
James Hall, who just turned 35 last month, had a rebirth here in St Louis after being lost in the shuffle as a Detroit Lion. He benefited particularly from playing under Steve Spagnuolo, who moved him from the left DT/DE to an edge-rushing DE on the right side, a move that cleared room for Chris Long on the strong side. Hall and Long combined for nineteen sacks in each of the past two seasons, with the elder player passing the torch to the younger in 2011.
I've been busy today but I hate to see guys get released. Especially James Hall, it was a honor and a pleasure to call you a teammate.
Neither of these players were elite, blue-chip talent. But both were workers, guys whose effort and drive was never questioned, on or off the field.
Also joining the veteran cuts were a trio of Devaney signings, Jason Brown, Fred Robbins, and one-year-rental Justin Bannan. Of the three, Bannan had perhaps the best year, but was part of a defensive middle that was gashed against the run all season long. Robbins and Brown, formerly useful players, simply fell apart last season.
Jason Brown was Devaney's first free agent splash signing, the feisty and funny former Raven who was going to anchor the last great rebuilding process. But he never seemed to find his groove here, failing to put together anywhere near as complete a season in St Louis as any of the ones he had in Baltimore. The coaching staff's midseason decision to bench Brown – even as they were struggling to find five guys healthy enough to play – was a precursor to the changes to come.
The moves help clear significant cap space for the advent of free agency, but it will be interesting to watch and see whether Rams GM Les Snead jumps out with quick signings, or prefers to lay back and wait for the right guys to come to him. Billy Devaney was a big believer in the "splash" signing in the team's core positions, making obvious overtures about his seriousness by handing out high-dollar contracts early in free agency to Jacob Bell, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl. Of those three moves, only Dahl has earned his paycheck, and only Dahl is expected to move forward with the Rams in the Jeff Fisher era.
Meanwhile, last year's biggest winner in free agency was a team that out-waited everyone: the division-stealing San Francisco 49ers. Their big impact signing was the hiring of Jim Harbaugh. The Rams are hoping their big impact signing, Fisher, has a similarly catalytic effect. But without the same stable of home-grown talent that the 49ers have, we may have to dip deeper into the free agent pool just to fill out a roster that matches Fisher's vision.