Monday, March 16, 2009

Rams secondary takes shape

In mid-February, the Rams' secondary was in a state of flux. Strong safety
Corey Chavous had been released, cornerback Fakhir Brown had been removed from
the team's plans, and free safety Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe and cornerback Ron
Bartell were about to become free agents.

Less than a month and more than $50 million later, the new regime at Rams Park
has solidified most of its defensive backfield:

Feb. 19 — Atogwe, 27, is assigned the team's franchise tag, assuring his
presence in 2009 and earning him a one-year salary of $6.34 million.

March 2 — After a visit to New Orleans and a contract offer from the Saints,
Bartell, 27, re-signs with the Rams. His four-year deal could max out at $28

March 10 — Strong safety James Butler, 27, a free agent who spent the previous
four seasons with the New York Giants, signs for four years and, if certain
incentives are met, about $17 million.

"It's very exciting," Butler said. "O.J.'s been having a lot of interceptions
the past two years, and Ron Bartell's arrow is definitely going up."

With a laugh, Butler added, "We've got a lot of young players, and they're fast
— I might be the slowest one out of the bunch. I might have to start working on
my 40s."

Atogwe, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound third-round draft pick in 2005, is a three-year
starter who has developed into one of the NFL's top ball-hawking defenders. He
led the NFC with eight interceptions two years ago and picked off five more
passes in 2008. He also finished second on the team in tackles this past
season, with 109.

Bartell, a 6-1, 209-pounder drafted in the second round in 2005, cobbled
together a breakout season in '08. After shuttling between safety and
cornerback his first three seasons, Bartell became a full-time starter. He was
the team's best defender in coverage, compiling one of the league's best "burn"
rates (percentage of passes completed against him), and his three interceptions
were second to Atogwe.

Butler, a 6-3, 215-pound Georgia Tech product, wasn't drafted after his senior
season in 2005, which shocked the two-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference

"It was very tough. I was like, 'Man, these guys aren't better than me,'"
Butler said. "But I think every player has things he has to go through, and I
went through that. You just have to roll with the punches."

The snub amped up his determination to prove the skeptics wrong, Butler

"Every player has a motivation. ... that was my motivation," he said.

Signed by the Giants as a free agent, Butler kept his initial goals simple.

"My first year with the Giants, it was just, 'make the team ... keep
grinding,'" he said.

He filled a reserve role his first two years, then earned a starting job in
2007. Coincidentally or not, that was the same year Giants coach Tom Coughlin
hired Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator.

"Coach Spags came over with a different mind-set, an aggressive mind-set, and
we bought into it," Butler said. The effect was immediate.

The Giants' defense improved from 25th in the 32-team NFL in 2006 to seventh in
'07 under the future Rams head coach. Spagnuolo's scheme vs. New England's
record-setting offense was widely hailed as a primary factor in the Giants'
stunning 17-14 Super Bowl triumph.

Butler had a team-high 10 tackles vs. the Pats, but he played down his

"It really wasn't about the personal things," he said. "Just to win as a team,
and the way we won, that was the biggest thing."

Spagnuolo's defense moved up to No. 5 this past season, and his stock as a
potential head coach soared. The Rams hired him Jan. 17. And when Spagnuolo
called at the start of the free agency period, Butler listened.

"Coach Spags gave me my first opportunity to start in the league, and he helped
my career grow. I wanted to stay with him," Butler said. "I was talking to
other teams, but in the back of my mind, I was going to be here."

As for the fourth member of the secondary ...

"Wide open," Spagnuolo said. "There's going to be a lot of competition in (the
three) minicamps, and we'll just let guys compete and see who surfaces."

Tye Hill, the Rams' first-round draft pick in 2006, probably is the top
candidate among the incumbent corners. He started 10 games as a rookie but has
played in just nine games over the past two seasons because of injuries.

"I don't think Tye has lost his swagger," said Butler, who co-owns a Golden
Corral restaurant in Centerville, Ga., with Hill. "He's definitely motivated to
be one of the best corners in the league this year, and he's been working hard
this offseason. Tye Hill will be a great player this year."

Other cornerbacks under contract are Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Justin King
and Jonathan Wade. Also, Jason Craft, a free-agent acquisition last year, could
be brought back.

Butler "was a real key piece of the puzzle" in the secondary, Spagnuolo said.
"He's going to be kind of the glue that brings these guys together."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Brown Ready to Work

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It would have been easy to mistake Jason Brown’s mostly stoic, focused expression for indifference or apathy as he was introduced as the newest St. Louis Ram on Saturday afternoon.

Brown wasn’t sporting the wide smile of a guy who had just cashed in a five-year contract worth upwards of $37 million except when the cameras were on him.

Make no mistake; Brown is excited about becoming the literal and figurative center of what figures to be a new look offensive line. He just doesn’t show it because he knows the task that awaits him and his new teammates.

“I want to be able to put on a show and smile for the cameras right now and act as though I am excited,” Brown said. “But to tell you the truth, the excitement factor is over. Right now - and the coaching staff understands - me coming from a team last year on the rebound, with a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, you had a brand new offensive scheme, all of those things you have to overcome…I am thinking about working right now because I know the challenges that we are going to have to overcome in order to be a great team this year.”

It’s that focus and passion that has landed Brown here in St. Louis, the top priority and the first major step of what figures to be a dramatic overhaul of the team’s roster for 2009.

It’s that heart and drive that has taken Brown from fourth-round draft pick in 2005 to one of the league’s highest paid centers. It’s that total package that will almost certainly make Brown a fast favorite for fans, teammates and coaches alike.

“He was kind of joking a little bit about people saying how come you are not more excited,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He has a very serious attitude. He is very, very serious about his job and I could see that immediately when I met him. I think he is mature beyond his age. He’s only 25. He seemed a lot more mature than 25 to me.”

For the record, Brown will turn 26 on May 5 but there’s plenty of merit to Spagnuolo’s theory that Brown is wise beyond his years.

Late last week, the Ravens broke off talks with Harold Lewis and Kevin Omell, Brown’s St. Louis-based agents. When it became clear that Brown would not be able to continue his career with the team that used the 124th selection in the 2005 NFL Draft on him, the suitors began lining up.

When the clock hit 12:01 on the east coast or 11:01 p.m. in the central time zone, the Rams wasted little time placing a call to Brown and letting him know of their interest. In addition, the team put in a call to Lewis and let him know that they had made Brown their top free agent priority.

“After the bell rings, you get a lot of phone calls from a lot of different places,” Lewis said. “You put together teams of interest and I told Jason that in this market you have got to hit it fast and hit it hard. I don’t think you need to make a tour around the world.”

Indeed, Lewis and Omell encouraged Brown to narrow his focus to places where he could become a fixture and raise a family. Much like Spagnuolo suspected, Brown’s maturity and family situation made Lewis believe his client fit better in a place like St. Louis than say Philadelphia or Washington.

Brown’s wife, Tay, is about to become a dentist and the couple had son Jason Jr. just 16 months ago.

“My feelings were that with having a young family and being the type of person he is, this would be the perfect place,” Lewis said.

The Rams moved quickly to set up a visit and only hours after that initial phone call, Brown was on a 6:15 a.m. flight to St. Louis via a small, regional jet. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Brown wasted no time making an impression on Spagnuolo, general manager Billy Devaney and just about everyone else he came into contact with.

After long negotiations and a Friday night dinner, a deal had been struck and Brown put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon.

For Brown, the hardest part of the process was coming to terms with the fact that he’d be leaving the team that gave him his first chance.

“”Many players would like to stay with the team that drafted them and would like to finish their careers there,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, there’s a separation between business and the personal side of football and they had to make a business decision. Right now, in my career, I have to make a business decision as well and that is to take care of my family to the fullest of its extent. I’m just so glad and fortunate that I am welcomed into another family here with the Rams.”

Brown’s warm welcome to the Rams should come as no surprise for a variety of reasons. Aside from the aforementioned leadership and personal traits that made Brown appealing, his fit as a football player makes him all the more appealing.

At 6’3, 320 pounds, Brown represents an upgrade of about 3 inches and 30 pounds over any of the centers the Rams used in 2008.

Brown was a three-year starter in the middle at North Carolina before moving to guard when the Ravens first plugged him there in 2006. Brown grew accustomed to the guard spot, starting 28 games there in 2006 and 2007.
When Mike Flynn vacated that spot, Baltimore moved Brown back to his more natural center position. The transition wasn’t too difficult for Brown, who had made his name at that spot for the Tar Heels.

Brown’s steady hand in the middle of the Ravens line helped Baltimore rush for an AFC best 2,376 yards in 2008 and made him one of the most coveted names on the free agent market.

Brown’s professional approach and even keeled demeanor help him stay poised under pressure.

“There’s not another position on the team where you are going to have a Shaun Rogers – 380 and I’m being generous pound – pretty solid guy lined up on you,” Brown said. “And then you have the rules from the officials that they are allowed to encroach on the ball until half of the ball so their helmets can be halfway across what they call the line of scrimmage. So they can encroach the ball that much so we are pretty much touching noses. They are breathing down my neck.

“Now, imagine this…it’s a third down situation, third and long, the guy is on your guard, put your head in between your legs, you come back up and he’s right on you. That’s a dilemma. What was the movie, Speed, with Keanu Reeves? What do you do? That’s what it is. But you know what, you stay calm, focus on the fundamentals, techniques, all those things and you will be fine.”

Oddly enough, the Ravens viewed Brown’s switch back to center as a means to lower his value on the free agent market. While the dollars going to guards has been steadily on the rise in recent years, Brown believes he helped re-establish the market for centers with the help of his agents.

Brown couldn’t help but thank Lewis and Omell with another film reference.

“I have an extended family out here as well,” Brown said. “My agents Kevin Omell and Harold Lewis are out here. They set up office right below our facilities here in Maryland Heights. It’s funny. I was just thinking about Jerry Maguire, because they are my ambassadors of ‘quan.’ They truly are.”

Now that Brown has been shown the money and the business part of his offseason is complete, he’s ready to get right back to work and do whatever it takes to help the Rams enjoy a turnaround season similar to what happened in Baltimore in 2008.

“I’m excited but like I said before, I have the vision of knowing right now, ‘What’s it going to take?’” Brown said. “There’s an X factor. And the X factor is heart. When I come back here on March 16 on the first day of offseason workouts, I’m going to be very observant to see everyone’s reactions, everyone’s attitude because it’s going to take nothing short of a miracle in order for everyone to get on that right page. It takes something special, something extremely special.

“I definitely want to bring my work ethic to this team. I’ve heard that there are some areas lacking leadership-wise. I can be vocal, but I choose to be a servant-leader first and to lead through example. I will be the first person in these facilities in the morning and I will be the last person to leave.”