NFC West teams made a few under-the-radar veteran signings that could pay off this season.
The Arizona Cardinals signed veteran linebacker Paris Lenon, whose value has increased with Gerald Hayes recovering from back surgery. The Seattle Seahawks added veteran offensive linemen Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts, players experienced in their new offense and potentially valuable mentors for first-round choice Russell Okung. And in St. Louis, the Rams brought in defensive tackle Fred Robbins from the New York Giants in an effort to bolster their run defense and provide veteran leadership.
"They had a bunch of young guys who had never played the game in the NFL before," Robbins said via phone this week in sizing up the 2009 Rams. "They had a lot of lineup changes, different guys playing different spots, injuries, this and that. But when you bring in some core veteran guys, you bring in some other key guys and you get guys with a better feel for what is going on and understand the game a lot better -- not just running to the football, but technique and learning your plays and keys. That is the part that carries over and makes teams better."
The Rams have added 13 veterans to their roster since Week 17 last season. Four of them -- Robbins, quarterback A.J. Feeley, center Hank Fraley and linebacker Na'il Diggs -- are 32 or 33 years old. A few others -- safety Kevin Payne and cornerback Kevin Dockery come to mind -- have starting experience. Like Dockery, Robbins was with Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo on the Giants. Diggs played for Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole in Carolina. Fraley and Feeley were with Spagnuolo and Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in Philadelphia.
"We're able to make the guys be aware of how to play the defense [or offense], what to expect, what to look for," Robbins said. "These guys know how to perform, how to practice and you look forward to games. When you bring in some veteran guys, we've been through it. This is a young team and a young team brings energy. We are just trying to show them how to exert their energy in the right way. Once guys learn how to get that feel, good things are going to happen for us."
Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren took similar (if more aggressive) measures after a 6-10 season in 2000. He was even more aggressive by bringing in veterans Levon Kirkland, Chad Eaton, Marcus Robertson, John Randle and Trent Dilfer. Seattle finished 9-7 the next season.
Robbins singled out Chris Long and James Laurinaitis as defensive players who could exceed expectations in St. Louis this season. I also asked him about rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. Robbins was with the Giants when Eli Manning was a rookie, so he knows what it's like to break in a young quarterback.
"What has surprised me was just how quick he is picking up to the NFL tempo, the NFL speed and everything that way," Robbins said of Bradford. "He's stepping in and doing a good job and the things he does on the practice field make it seem like he is not a rookie."