Question Marks Punctuate Rams' Stormy Off-Season : Analysis: Quarterback situation might be solved, but there still are the issues of free-agent linemen and the draft.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rams were painting yardage markers on their practice field Friday, seemingly oblivious to a city request they must soon vacate the premises, in order to provide a proper setting for quarterback Chris Miller's workout debut Monday.

Miller, who has undergone surgery on his left knee twice in the last two years, has received medical clearance to practice without limitation.

"He's been fitted with a knee brace, he's ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, and doctors have told him he's ready to go," said Joe Vitt, Ram assistant head coach. "Obviously, if he can stay healthy, and we think he can, he gives us a great chance to be better."

Five weeks into free agency, one month away from the draft, a year before they might leave town, the Rams have shown an interest in improving. But so many questions remain unanswered.

Will Miller's knee hold up? Why did the Rams spend $7.7 million to sign Jimmie Jones, a backup Cowboy defensive tackle? Who is Kevin Donnalley, why was he so important to the Rams, and why did they lose him? Jim Everett was only worth a seventh-round pick in 1995? Do the Rams still try to move forward in the draft to get quarterback Heath Shuler or Trent Dilfer? Do they trade down in Round 1, pick up an extra draft choice and select USC wide receiver Johnnie Morton? Will they lose anyone in free agency? Will they attempt to sign Houston receiver Haywood Jeffires? Are they still looking to sign players via free agency?

FREE AGENCY

The Rams opened aggressively. They signed Jones, found a quarterback without having to surrender draft picks and were in position to finish strongly with the addition of Donnalley.

But the Oilers matched the $4.1-million offer for Donnalley, who was going to be the Rams' starting left tackle.

The Rams blew it.

The coaching staff identified Donnalley as a big-time player for years to come and just the right man to protect Miller's blindside against the league's best quarterback muggers.

Warned ahead of time that Houston intended to match the Rams' offer unless the Rams made it prohibitive, with a huge base salary, the Rams opted instead to make a conventional offer.

"We were expecting an offer that would cost us $1.5 million to $1.7 million under the salary cap, and it would have been tough to match," a Houston official said. "When the Rams offered a $950,000 cap number, there was no doubt we were going to match."

The Rams were extremely disappointed in the play of Irv Eatman at left tackle last season and will bring back Jackie Slater at right tackle only if he takes a substantial pay cut. That leaves Darryl Ashmore and an ambulance on call to cart off Miller.

"Our organization probably spent more man hours on Donnalley than any one we have looked at in free agency," Vitt said. "He's a young kid, productive, and he had shut down some damn good ends last year.

"It's a big disappointment to lose him, and we all feel terrible, but we've got to move on. That's the difference this year; we're prepared if something like this happens, and we'll move on. The thing is, we tried to get something done."

The prevailing opinion around the league is that the Rams overpaid Jones, a 6-foot-4, 276-pound defensive tackle, to gain his signature, but they were determined to not let him escape.

"I don't think anyone can say we overpaid him until we see what he's done at the end of the year," Vitt said. "If he puts tremendous numbers up (sacks, tackles), all of a sudden people will be saying he was a steal. We thought the bidding would go higher if we didn't do the deal at that time, and we wanted him.

"Every time we play an opponent, the plan is stop Sean Gilbert. They double-team him with the center, which leaves a guard one on one with our other defensive tackle. To be successful, we needed an athletic pass rusher who could play inside next to Sean. Sean will have a great year, but Jimmie Jones could have better numbers because he will get more one-on-one situations."

The knock on Jones in Dallas was that he was not motivated and didn't work as hard as Coach Jimmy Johnson demanded, but the Rams say they have done their homework.

"That was what they said about Cortez Kennedy when we drafted him in Seattle," Vitt said. "We talked to the kid, and he eased any concerns we might have had. He will be working with (defensive coordinator) George Dyer, and George gets the best out of players."

The Rams went after Jones as soon as the free-agent market opened. They felt the same about Miami quarterback Scott Mitchell, but they also had a plan. They wanted to be aggressive, but they wanted to be sure about their selections, and while Jones impressed them in meetings, Mitchell did not.

"Mitchell was our No. 1-rated guy going into this thing," Vitt said. "But when we brought him in, we found out his shoulder was worse off than Miller's knee. Mitchell wasn't going to be able to throw for another month, and he hadn't started the rehab process yet."

Mitchell, who was recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, could not work out for the Rams. Miller, who was coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, threw for the Rams' benefit and immediately caught the team's fancy.

"Miller's been productive, he's one of the most accurate passers in the game, he has the ability to throw a great long ball, he has leadership skills, and all it cost us was money to get him," Vitt said. "It's a calculated risk, but look at what was out there. We had obvious interest in Warren Moon, but Houston never got back to us. We would have had to give up a high pick for him, too."

If Miller stays healthy, the Rams probably will gain attention for making the best move available in free agency. Miller was on his way to becoming one of the game's best quarterbacks before being injured, and the Rams acquired him without giving up a player or draft pick.

Now that the Rams have a quarterback, they must find players to catch the ball. They traded a fourth-round pick in the 1995 draft to San Diego for wide receiver Nate Lewis, but they regard Lewis as a No. 3 receiver.

The Rams do not expect to re-sign Henry Ellard and have talked about trading Flipper Anderson, if that's what it takes to sign a player such as Jeffires. Jeffires has made it known he prefers returning to Houston, but his salary demands make it impossible for him to fit under the Oilers' salary cap.

The Rams are also very interested in Indianapolis receiver Clarence Verdin and New England receiver Greg McMurtry to complement Jeffires.

The team has until July 15 to sign unrestricted free agents and still might sign additional players for their secondary, such as Kansas City safety Martin Bayless, Jet cornerback Clifford Hicks or released Cleveland cornerback Terry Taylor.

They will continue to look for an offensive tackle, too, beginning with Miami's Mark Dennis.

The Rams lost safety Michael Stewart to the Dolphins, and the Oilers have made a pitch for tight end Pat Carter, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Slater will visit Atlanta this week, and safety Pat Terrell is trying to go elsewhere.

But their best unsigned players (defensive end Robert Young and linebacker Roman Phifer) are restricted free agents, will stay with the Rams and will receive handsome raises.

Running back Cleveland Gary is a free agent, but the Rams have the option of matching an offer for him. They will keep Gary because they intend to run the ball and will require a top-notch backup for Jerome Bettis.

"I don't think anybody can fill all their critical needs through free agency," said Vitt, who was assigned the duty of organizing the Rams' free-agency plans. "We've done some things already, but we've only won 11 games in two years so I don't think we can sit back and feel good about ourselves.

"Chuck Knox and (Senior Vice President) Jay Zygmunt did a great job of mapping this out, and we have been right on top of things. We still have that sense of urgency to improve our personnel, but now the salary cap enters the picture. Now decisions are made with a calculator.

"We've proven here we know how to draft--our No. 1 picks the last two years have been in the Pro Bowl--so now it's a matter of doing the right thing all the way to July 15 with free agency."

THE DRAFT

The Rams have the fifth pick in the first round and a pair of selections in the second.

They do not intend to trade forward to position themselves to take a quarterback, but they do have their eye on one in Round 2.

They have also not ruled out trying to sign Kansas City's Dave Krieg or Phoenix's Chris Chandler later this summer to back up Miller.

The Rams want a wide receiver in the draft, and because none are projected to be taken among the first 10 picks, there is a strong possibility of the Rams moving backward in Round 1.

There seems to be a consensus among NFL observers that the first four players to be selected in this year's draft will be, in no particular order: San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler, Fresno State quarterback Trent Dilfer and Ohio State defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson.

Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham is considered the next-best selection, with Notre Dame offensive guard/tackle Aaron Taylor and Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts right behind.

The Rams like Langham but are more interested in bolstering their offense. They have high regard for Taylor, but Taylor has let people know he prefers to play guard in the pros, and the Rams need a tackle.

"A year ago, I had a damn good idea for quite a while who it would be," said John Becker, Ram director of player personnel. "But there's not one guy that has just flat jumped out as the guy this year. For one thing, we're still in the middle of free agency and there's things to be done yet."

What about the quarterbacks? Aren't these two similar to the two (Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer) who drew so much attention a year ago? Can the Rams pass on the chance to pick one?

"I think both will be gone before we pick," Becker said. "Most football people see these guys as very capable quarterbacks, and I do, too.

"Neither one has Mirer's athleticism. And neither one has Bledsoe's arm strength. But I have been impressed with both, and if one was sitting there when we picked, I wouldn't be surprised if we took him."

The Rams will not have a pick in the fifth round because they surrendered it to Phoenix to acquire wide receiver Ernie Jones last season. They will have three picks in the sixth, but will be without a seventh-round selection.

Last year, the Rams had nine picks, but only Bettis (first round) made a significant contribution. The team still has high hopes for tight end Troy Drayton (second) and safety Deral Boykin (sixth), but running back Russell White (third) and wide receiver Sean LaChapelle (fifth) do not figure in their plans.

THE TRADE

On the same day the Rams gave a fourth-round pick in the 1995 draft to acquire Nate Lewis, they received a seventh-round pick in the 1995 draft from New Orleans for Jim Everett, who is slated to be the Saints' starting quarterback.

The Rams knew Everett was finished a year ago at this time, but they lacked the guts to trade him and start anew. John Shaw, the team's executive vice president, went so far as to suggest moving forward in the draft in an effort to land Bledsoe, but others were more interested at the time in running back Garrison Hearst.

The Rams stuck with Everett, and now they have a seventh-round pick in next year's draft to show for it.

Everett, meanwhile, will be pitching for the Saints, and according to associates still with the Rams, he telephoned recently and told them that he doesn't care if he's deathly sick or seriously injured, he will be there to play the Rams.

Indeed, things are looking up for the Rams, but short of playing an Everett-led team every week of the season, it remains to be seen if they have done their off-season homework well.

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