Best Rams Free Agent Pickups Of All-Time
If the Rams are being completely honest with themselves, they would have to admit that they have failed in the free agent market over the last few years. Ndamukong Suh was a bust. Andrew Whitworth is old. Eric Weddle just quit. Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews couldn’t do enough to make the Rams defense as good as they should be.
After a disappointing Super Bowl follow up year and, currently, no first-round picks in the 2020 draft, March 6th will mean a lot to the Rams chances at improving their team. March 16th is the first day of free agency and the first big day on the 2020 football calendar. (Sorry XFL debut). Here is a look at a few free agents that made Rams teams of the past truly great. These are the best rams free agent pickups of all time.
London Fletcher went to John Carroll University, where he lettered in both basketball and football for the Blue Streaks. Oddly, this small D-III school outside of Cleveland has produced some of football’s finest coaches and executives. Just to name a few, Nick Caserio, Greg Roman, Josh McDaniels, and Don Shula.
Despite that pedigree, a player from the school hadn’t been drafted into the NFL since 1954. After his record-setting senior year, London Fletcher was a shoe in to break that dry spell, but after working out for several teams he went undrafted in 1998.
Fletcher wasn’t unemployed for long, the St. Louis Rams signed the free agent to a one year deal at the league minimum, $158,000. Fletcher asked Rams executives why they didn’t draft him. The reason was simple, he was too short. Fletcher was only 5’10”. The league average height for linebackers is 6’2”.
This left an indelible mark on Fletcher. He saw himself as an underdog. Takeo Spikes, former teammate and second LB picked in the 1998 draft, once said of Fletcher, “Fletch hasn’t let go of that free-agent mentality. He had to work for everything in his life, so he’s still got the chip on his shoulder.”
That chip fueled a lot of great football over his 16 seasons in the league. He started the final game of his rookie season and wouldn’t let go. He only missed one start for the remainder of his career. He holds the record among linebackers for consecutive starts with 215. He is fourth all-time in consecutive games played with 256.
Fletcher played four seasons for the Rams, 1998-2001. He led the team in tackles in 2000 and 2001 and led the team in tackles in their Super Bowl win over the Tennessee Titans. Everyone remembers this Rams era as an offensive powerhouse known as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” That offense casts a long shadow, but the 2001 Rams defense, led by Fletcher made huge improvements from the previous year, under defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. They gave up 198 fewer points than in 2000 and went from 23rd in yards allowed to 3rd.
In 2002, The Rams decided not to resign Fletcher because Lovie Smith determined that Fletcher couldn’t handle the duties required of a Tampa-Two Mike system. Fletcher signed a five year contract with the Buffalo Bills for $17.2 million. Fletcher had made just over two million in four years with the Rams. He currently sits second to Ray Lewis in career tackles and combined tackles. That chip definitely paid off.
There are exactly two interesting things about Jeff Wilkins. He was, to date, the last barefoot kicker in the NFL, which is both cool and weird. The other is that he was involved in some sort of Gary Anderson conspiracy that hasn’t been exposed, until now. Although, it’s probably because it is more of a coincidence than a conspiracy. So maybe there is only one interesting thing about Jeff Wilkins. Only you can decide.
In 1994, Wilkins’ rookie season, he rode the bench in Philadelphia. The Eagles opted not to sign him for the next season, but instead, they signed the legendary Gary Anderson. He was then picked up by the 49ers, they gave him a starting role in his third season. He did great and the 49ers opted not to sign him, but instead signed the legendary Gary Anderson. In 1997, the Rams picked up the free agent and promised if he did well, they would not replace him with the legendary Gary Anderson. So Wilkins did well and he wasn’t replaced.
How good was he? He is the Rams all-time leading scorer with 1,223 points and scored 16 of the 30 points the Rams scored in their two Super Bowl appearances. He played in all but 5 games over his 11 seasons with the Rams. Wilkins still holds the record of consecutive PAT’s without a miss, 371. He missed one PAT as a Ram and is fourth in PAT percentage among players who played more than 10 seasons.
The last thing you want from a kicker is any drama. You want a guy that goes out there every game and knocks it through the uprights. That’s exactly what Jeff Wilkins did. His consistency earned him the nickname ‘Money,’ and even that seems flashy for this guy. He probably told his team to just call him Jeff.
When googling “Jeff Wilkins Career Highlights,” you get a few Rams related videos then a bunch of Dominique Wilkins videos, but that’s probably just how Jeff likes it.
Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch
Elroy was never actually a free agent because, well, the concept didn’t exist at the time. In 1945, when Hirsch was drafted by the Cleveland Rams, the reserve rule was in place in the NFL. The rule essentially bound a player to a team indefinitely, but Crazylegs didn’t sign his contract with the Rams. He instead opted to return to the University of Wisconsin. And then, he went ahead and signed with the Chicago Rockets of the AAFC in 1946 after being discharged from military service in 1945.
In June 1949, Hirsch alleged that the Hornets (The Rockets became the Hornets in 1949) had breached a contractual obligation to pay him a bonus. Turns out, Hirsch just really wanted to be a Green Bay Packer, but he couldn’t sign with another NFL franchise since the Rams held his NFL rights, having selected him in the 1945 draft. So Hirsch finally became a Ram. By this time the Cleveland Rams had moved and became the Los Angeles Rams. (That’s a story for another day.)
Hirsch played nine seasons with the Rams, making the NFL championship game four times, winning one in 1951. Hirsch had a career year in 1951, breaking several single-season NFL records, including most receiving yards(1,495), yards per game(124.6) and touchdowns (17).
Almost 70 years later, Elroy is still tied for 5th with 17 touchdowns in a single season. Not only did he catch 343 passes for 6,299 yards for the Rams, but he also rushed for 314 yards and caught 7 interceptions and recovered 7 fumbles. That’s right, he played both sides of the ball!
His versatility was truly on display in his rookie season with the Rockets when he logged the following contributions: 384 kickoff return yards and one touchdown; 347 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns; 235 punt return yards and one touchdown; 226 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown; 156 passing yards and one passing touchdown; and 97 return yards on six interceptions.
Hirsch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. After his career, he hosted the Union Oil Co.’s 76 Sports Club television show and a daily sports commentary show on KNX radio from 1961 to 1967. Of course, any truly great LA sports career should involve the moving pictures. Hirsch starred in several movies and TV shows. His first role came in 1953, where he played himself in “Crazylegs,” which launched him into fame off the field.
There is no surprise here. Kurt Warner was not just the most important free agent signing for the Rams, it could be the most cinematic stories the NFL has to tell. Hollywood couldn’t write it any better. In fact, there is a movie about Kurt Warner’s story coming out in 2020.
For those of you who have been under a rock for the last 20 years, Kurt was out of the league after being cut by the Packers after his rookie season. He was stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa for $5.50 per hour. He spent time in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe.
In 1998, he was signed by the St. Louis Rams to be the third-string quarterback. In 1999, Trent Green tore his ACL in a preseason game and Dick Vermeil named Warner as his replacement.
Warner went on to throw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns. 41 touchdowns were the third most TD’s thrown in a season at the time. He won NFL MVP that season and then led his team to a Super Bowl victory, where he became the first QB to throw for more than 400 yards in a Super Bowl.
His rise out of nowhere was so unexpected that Sports Illustrated put him on the cover with the caption, “Who is this guy?” The next season he signed a seven-year deal worth $47 million. Kurt would have had to work over 4,000 years at Hyvee to earn that much.
As if one inspiring story wasn’t enough, Kurt tossed in a comeback story to his narrative for the fun of it. The Rams and Warner parted ways in 2004. Warner did a stint with the Giants where he was eventually replaced by some rookie named Eli Manning. In 2005, he was signed by Arizona. In Arizona he started then was replaced by Matt Leinart, then got his starting role back. In 2008, Warner led the Cardinals into the playoffs by winning the NFC West, then back to the Super Bowl.
Warner finished his career with three Super Bowl appearances, four trips to the Pro Bowl and two MVP’s. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017