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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.

March 27, 1994|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — 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."

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