One Piece at a Time: Building the Rams' Defense

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You know, if you had told me just a couple of years ago that signing Ron Bartell was going to be of paramount importance for the Rams to have any chance of being competitive, I probably would have laughed in your face.
Not too long ago, Bartell was just another Rams draft pick, a second-rounder who had failed to live up to his rather considerable athletic potential. He was plenty big (6'1", 209 lbs. at cornerback), and he was plenty fast, but he also happened to be one of those players who seemed to get turned around at least a couple of times a game, allowing a big play to go right past him. 

Last year, though, things finally came together for Bartell, and he spent the season in a dead heat with Oshimago Atogwe as the Rams' best player on the defensive side of the ball. Suddenly, letting Ron Bartell walk was not an option for the Rams.

Considering the Rams' remarkably thin secondary, as well as the lack of realistic options at corner in this year's draft (there are a couple of solid players, but none that are likely to be in play when the Rams are picking), there simply were not any good options to replace his production. Without him, they would have been forced to rely on Tye Hill to try and make an impact on opponents' passing games. No offense to Mr. Hill, but I just flat out don't see that happening. 

Bartell in action against the Seattle Seahawks -
Bartell in action against the Seattle Seahawks
As it stands now, the Rams are beginning to build what looks to be at least an intriguing defense, one that has the talent, if not the track record. Both Bartell and Atogwe have proven to be true playmakers, capable of a takeaway at any moment. The defensive line looks to be fairly solid, as Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, and Chris Long are all pretty good players up front.

The only true hole in the Rams' defense, it seems, is right smack dab in the middle of the field, in the linebacker corps. Moving Will Witherspoon back outside will help, I'm sure, but it's still a group that needs some additional talent. 

Next, we wait to see if the Rams can get a deal done with James Butler, the safety free agent late of the New York Giants. One would think the Rams should have the inside track, as Butler's former defensive coordinator in New York will be stalking the sidelines for the Rams when the 2009 season begins. Butler departed after his visit last week without a contract, though, so whether or not the Rams will be able to get a deal done is really anybody's guess at this point. 

What isn't a guess is that the Rams need to make as strong an effort as possible to get Butler into a St. Louis uniform. A solid complement to Atogwe at strong safety would not only improve the overall play at the position, but help to shore up the linebacker situation as well. Unfortunately, with Jim Leonard, the free agent safety from the Baltimore Ravens, following Rex Ryan to the Jets, that basically leaves Butler as the only really big fish on the market. If the Rams whiff on Butler, there really isn't another player at safety who represents a real impact pickup; the Rams would probably head into the draft without an upgrade. At that point, the equation could very well tip in the favor of the defense, and the front office might have to take a defensive player with that second overall pick to try and establish some real credibility. 

But for now, those are all secondary concerns, really, off in the distance. Ron Bartell will be a Ram for the next four seasons, through his (likely), peak seasons. Count this one as a decided victory for Billy DeVaney and Steve Spagnuolo, to keep a talented, emerging player in St. Louis, rather than losing him to a team with a better chance at winning.

In the past, the Rams' dysfunctional coaching and front office staff likely would have made it all but impossible to keep a guy like Bartell around. Now, though, the Rams were able to offer an attractive enough environment that Bartell chose to stay, even though the New Orleans Saints likely could have offered him the chance to win sooner. 

It may seem like a small thing now, but you have to build a championship caliber team the same way that Johnny Cash built his Cadillac.

One piece at a time, gentlemen. One piece at a time. 

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