Center Doug Smith, who's in Hawaii this weekend preparing for his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, was the only surprise on an otherwise predictable list of 16 Rams who were left unprotected in Plan B free agency.
The Rams are obviously gambling that Smith, a 12-year veteran with the Rams who turned 33 last November, will not want to pull up stakes after all these years and test the free-agent market. Also, Smith recently started his own business in Southern California and apparently doesn't want to relocate, one teammate said Friday.
Neither Smith nor Ram Coach John Robinson returned phone calls from Hawaii.
Other Rams not protected were receiver Ron Brown, punter Dale Hatcher, cornerback LeRoy Irvin, safeties Johnnie Johnson and James Washington, kicker Mike Lansford, linebackers Mark Messner and Paul Butcher, fullback Mel Farr Jr., quarterback Mark Herrmann, long-snapper Mike McDonald, defensive end Shawn Miller, tackle Kurt Becker, guard Tony Slaton and cornerback Clifford Hicks.
As with Smith, the Rams are gambling that Lansford will not sign with another team.
Hicks isn't a surprise only because he underwent major reconstructive knee surgery in December and his future remains in doubt. Until the injury, Hicks was the heir apparent to Irvin at right cornerback. Now, there are concerns whether Hicks can return with the required quickness to play cornerback. His future may be at safety, and the Rams already have plenty of those.
For Brown, a kickoff specialist who had only five receptions in 1989, being left unprotected is what he wanted. He has asked for his release frequently in recent years and actually retired before the 1988 season rather than return to the Rams on the team's terms.
Having run out of options after a failed attempt to make the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, Brown returned in midseason, then signed a one-year deal in 1989 for $270,000.
Look for Brown, the former Olympic gold medalist sprinter, to be the first out of the free-agency blocks.
"Times have changed and it's time for him to move on," Brown's agent, Steve Arnold, said Friday. "There are a lot of teams that like him, and he can certainly do better financially than with the Rams. They've given him his freedom."
Hatcher made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 1985 but finished last among conference punters in 1989 with a 38.8-yard average.
With plans to move cornerback Jerry Gray to free safety next season, it figured someone in the secondary would be exposed. The Rams chose Washington over the 29-year-old Vince Newsome, who seemed a candidate only because of his age.
Irvin had a year remaining on his contract, but he remains a 32-year-old cornerback in a league with lots of 26-year-old wide receivers. He has the option of returning with the Rams, although most expect a retirement announcement soon.
The National Football League also announced its list of 274 free agents who are subject to compensation and first-refusal rights.
The Rams have seven players in that category, the most interesting being Pro Bowl linebacker Kevin Greene, who played the 1989 season for $250,000. The other conditional free agents are linebacker Brett Faryniarz, tight ends Pete Holohan and Damone Johnson, defensive end Doug Reed, safety Michael Stewart and nose tackle Alvin Wright.
The difference between a conditional free agent and a Plan B? If another team presented Greene with an offer sheet, and he accepted, the Rams could keep Greene by matching the offer. Or, the Rams could choose to let him go and receive two first-round draft choices as compensation.
RAM FREE AGENTS
Kurt Becker G
Ron Brown WR
Paul Butcher LB
Mel Farr RB
Dale Hatcher P
Mark Herrmann QB
Cliff Hicks DB
LeRoy Irvin DB
Johnnie Johnson DB
Mike Lansford K
Mike McDonald C
Mark Messner LB
Shawn Miller DT
Tony Slaton G
Doug Smith C
James Washington DB