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Rams sign free-agent running back Craig Heyward

March 4, 1997

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ The St. Louis Rams signed Craig ``Ironhead″ Heyward to a four-year contract Tuesday, in part because they hope the veteran running back can be a positive influence on the troubled Lawrence Phillips.

The Rams prized Heyward, 30, for his ability to help at three positions: H-back, fullback and backup tailback. San Diego and Atlanta, where Heyward played the last three years, also competed for Heyward’s services.

``I’m tickled,″ said Dick Vermeil, the Rams’ coach and general manager. ``He’s a great blocker and a very good runner and has very good hands. Whoever is lining up at tailback is going to be better.″

The Rams also hope Heyward can assist Phillips, the second-year running back who’s had several scrapes with the law.

``He’s been through problems in his life, he has solved the problems,″ Vermeil said of Heyward.

``I think he can be a great sounding board for younger players _ how to be a true pro and handle your problems, how to correct them, how to become what you ought to be.″

It was the second free agent signing for the Rams in two days. On Monday, they signed kicker Jeff Wilkins to a four-year, $2.1 million deal.

Heyward, who once played at more than 300 pounds but has slimmed down to around 250, made the Pro Bowl in 1995, when he rushed for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns. He lost his starting job last year to Jamal Anderson and had 321 yards on 72 carries plus 16 receptions for 168 yards.

The signing makes it questionable whether the Rams will be able to re-sign Harold Green, their own free-agent running back. Vermeil said the team will have to come up with a creative solution in order to sign Green.

But the Rams aren’t done shopping the free agent market. The team is looking at linebackers Wayne Simmons of Green Bay, Lewis Bush of San Diego and Michael Jones of Oakland. Jones is scheduled for a visit to Rams camp on Wednesday; the others have already been in.

The Rams also plan to visit with Dallas punter John Jett as a possible replacement for Sean Landeta.

Vermeil said the team signed Wilkins away from San Francisco instead of keeping Chip Lohmiller mainly because of age. Wilkins, who will turn 25 next month, was 30-for-34 on field goal attempts last year and was fourth in the NFL in scoring with 130 points.

Lohmiller, 30, was 21-for-25 on field goal attempts and had 91 points last season.

Until he missed a 39-yard attempt at Pittsburgh in December, Wilkins had been 37-of-37 in his 49ers’ career from under 45 yards.

``I’ve studied the kickers more than anybody in the NFL has ever studied the kickers and his numbers are impressive,″ Vermeil said. ``Whenever you have an opportunity to upgrade your personnel, you do it.″

Also Tuesday, new Rams backup quarterback Mark Rypien signed a free agent deal he agreed to last week. Rypien played for the Rams in 1995 but signed with Philadelphia last year as a free agent after contract talks broke down.

``I never wanted to leave,″ Rypien said. ``I feel very happy, very secure, very excited about being back.″

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