Ram Says Price Isn't Right Yet : NFL: Tight end, No. 5 on depth chart, holding out for more money.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What can Jim Price possibly be thinking?

Jim who?

The Rams' tight end, the guy who figured to be in for the fight of his life to make the team this year and now is holding out for more money.

Even if the Rams give him what he wants--$275,000--he doesn't get it unless the coaches decide to keep him on the roster the entire season. He's currently No. 5 on a team that kept only three tight ends a year ago.

What can Jim Price possibly be thinking?

"I don't see this going on the whole year," Price said by telephone from his home in Orange. "Eventually I'll show up. But what's my rush in signing if they are not going to compensate me fairly?"

Price said he considered ending his holdout last week, and then again Saturday night when the Rams played the Phoenix Cardinals in an exhibition game. If he doesn't report before Friday, he forfeits his first regular-season paycheck.

"Every time I've been ready to go in, I've asked myself: 'Will I feel comfortable in a week or two?' I never said yes, and until I can say yes, I won't be in.

"Everybody who is not involved in this game can't understand. People watch on Sunday, have a couple of beers and see how fun it looks. They don't see the six weeks of camp, don't see all the hard work, dedication and year-round training it takes. To the untrained eye, it's the greatest deal on earth."

To the untrained eye, it's also $175,000 to play football. If Price doesn't pull the trigger, sign and play this season, what does he do to earn $175,000?

"The trigger will be pulled," Price said. "I could never see myself sitting out a whole year or even one game. I think it's going to be over pretty soon.

"I know the average guy is wondering who is this Jim Price and why is he holding out? Anyone who knows me understands I'm not very rebellious or very stubborn. But after three years, I just wanted a fair deal. I might get it or might not."

He might be right, might be entitled to more money, and he might also be placing his entire career on the line.

"I just had a certain number in my head coming into this season on what I thought was fair and they never really got close," Price said. "Maybe I am jeopardizing things, but this is what I'm worth--pay me.

"Everybody has their price. You wouldn't do your job for half as much money or a third. Although $175,000 is a lot of money, it just comes to a point on what you think is right."

Principle versus reality: Price has his convictions, and the Rams hold all the cards.

Price does not become an unrestricted free agent until next season. Next season, he can entertain all bids and turn his back on the Rams. If he wants to play football this season, though, he must do so with the Rams unless the Rams decide to trade him.

"A lot of people have been advising me to just take the money and get the year out of way," Price said. "But I've been the lowest paid tight end on the team three years in a row. I'm looking ahead to next year and the year after that; I'm trying to set myself up down the road.

"Jay Zygmunt (Ram senior vice president) even told me what I was asking for was right on target as far as the market is concerned, but that's not how the Rams are doing business in this new system. They are slotting their first-, second- and third-year players and are not looking at what I have done.

"If they really wanted me, they would have had me in there already. I don't know, this could be their way of saying I'm expendable."

Indeed, the Rams do not appear alarmed by Price's absence. If he were a wide receiver with speed or an offensive tackle, they might be more aggressive in their negotiations. But there is no shortage of quality tight ends.

The Rams have offered Price, who earned $150,000 last season, a one-year contract for $175,000. They already have agreed to pay Damone Johnson $600,000, Pat Carter $370,000, Troy Drayton $365,000 and Travis McNeal $341,000.

"The way I look at it, I'm fighting for a job with Travis," Price said. "I don't know how many tight ends they are going to keep, but Carter will start and Drayton is not going anywhere.

"I think if I beat out Travis, I should be compensated as much as he is. We're going for the same spot, so why not pay us the same amount? They have never come close to offering those numbers."

Price finished fourth on the team in receptions last season with 35 and he was third in 1991 with 34. Both years, he topped all tight ends in receptions.

But this year, the ball figures to go to Drayton.

"It's no mystery he's going to be their guy," Price said. "But is he going to be able to step in right away? Six games in the season, 12 games or take the whole year? There are still a lot of unknowns.

"I want to play for the Rams, but on a level playing field. I know what it's going to be like competing against a second-rounder who is getting guaranteed money. It's going to be tough. I also know I could be cut, if nothing else as an example: This is what happens to you if you hold out."

So what can Jim Price possibly be thinking?

"I don't think everybody sees what I see," Price said. "But then I've always seen things through different lenses."

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