Setting the Rams on a Path to Redemption
There’s still a lot of football to be played in 2013, but nobody has a more interesting offseason ahead than the St. Louis Rams. The 6-8 Rams have had a disappointing season, with quarterback Sam Bradford suffering a season-ending injury and top pick Tavon Austin struggling to gain a steady foothold in the offense, but they have much to look forward to in 2014.
That primarily comes as a result of the Robert Griffin III trade the Rams executed with Washington before the 2012 draft. After Griffin’s fantastic rookie season, St. Louis was widely panned for making the deal, but with Griffin injured and disappointing for most of 2013, the decision to trade away the second overall pick for a bounty of picks in return now seems like a masterstroke. The last pick St. Louis will receive from that trade is Washington’s first-round selection in the 2014 draft, a pick that will be near the top of the opening round. Currently, St. Louis is set to receive the second overall pick from Washington to go along with its own pick, which currently sits at no. 14. Throw those picks in with a young core, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn, and the Rams have every reason to believe they can contend in 2014.
Things aren’t quite as easy as they seem. The Rams still have a lot of work to do, and there are major holes on their roster that will force them to make tough decisions. What might the Rams do as they head into the 2014 offseason? Here’s one path that would seem to make sense:
The Salary Cap
Although the Rams are a relatively young team and have the benefit of all those cheap draft picks from the RG3 trade, they have a number of highly paid players on the roster (notably, defensive stalwarts Chris Long and James Laurinaitis) and have invested heavily in free agency over the past several seasons. As a result, St. Louis’s cap situation isn’t anywhere near as rosy as you might think. According to Spotrac, the Rams already have $123.6 million committed to the salary cap for 2014, which is expected to fall at $126.3 million. That’s without signing any of their pending free agents or fitting salaries for their draft class — with two first-rounders, remember — underneath the cap. If anything, the Rams will need to create space for themselves heading into 2014.
That’s possible, but it’s going to come with some repercussions, too. The most obvious move the Rams could make is to release Bradford, who has been a microcosm of this team during his time in St. Louis: bursts of promise amid long-running injury woes and disappointing performances. Bradford showed some signs of improvement during his seven-game run at the helm this year, but he remains an extremely conservative passer who seems either unwilling or incapable of taking shots downfield. Put it this way: There are people who think Bradford’s an absolute bust, and there are people who think Bradford has the potential to be a viable starter, but I can’t think of a single person around the league who ever suggests to me that Bradford is a sure superstar quarterback anymore.
Honestly, for the Rams to justify paying Bradford his going rate, he needs to be a superstar. Because Bradford was a first overall pick under the old collective bargaining agreement, he’s in the middle of a massive contract that pays him like he’s already one of the best quarterbacks in the league. And 2014 is the first year in which Bradford’s contract can be moved without incurring suicidal cap penalties. As an example, if the Rams had cut ties with Bradford before the 2013 season, he would have counted for $23.3 million on their cap, nearly twice his $12.6 million cap hold while on the active roster. That’s not moveable.
In 2014, Bradford’s cap hit balloons to $17.6 million. With just two years left on his deal, most of Bradford’s enormous signing bonus has already been counted for on St. Louis’s cap. If the Rans were to cut or trade Bradford, they would only incur $7.2 million of dead money charges on their cap next season. That means that moving on from Bradford would release $10.4 million in cap space for the Rams in 2014 while taking Bradford off the cap altogether for 2015. Given that the Rams will have the second pick in a quarterback-laden draft pool, it’s hard to imagine they won’t move on from their former top pick and find a better use for that $10 million elsewhere on the roster.
Bradford isn’t the only veteran with an outsize contract. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was a prize signing for the Rams from Tennessee just two offseasons ago, but his tenure in St. Louis has been a disaster. Finnegan has played poorly when on the field and has struggled to stay healthy, with a “thigh” injury (NFL code for a hamstring issue) and then a fractured orbital bone sidelining him for most of 2013.
The Rams will have to pay Finnegan a $3 million roster bonus that is guaranteed for injury this offseason, but they still might want to consider releasing him. Finnegan has a $6 million base salary and will cost $10 million (including that roster bonus) on next year’s cap. The Rams could release him early in the offseason and save $4 million on their cap in the process, or they could choose to designate him as a post–June 1 release, which would save them $6 million on next year’s cap while pushing $2 million of the dead money from Finnegan’s deal onto the 2015 salary cap. It would be tough to swallow the hit on Finnegan’s contract after paying the Jeff Fisher favorite a whopping $27 million over two years, but those figures are a sunk cost by now. The release would give the Rams valuable cap space to use on a player who can perform better than Finnegan.
Two offensive linemen could also leave town. The Rams could cut ties with guard Harvey Dahl, who is due $4 million that could be saved in full if the team releases him. They might also opt to dump center Scott Wells, who has played just 19 games in his two seasons with the team while breaking his leg and his foot. Releasing Wells would wipe away a $6.5 million cap hold while placing just $2 million in dead money on St. Louis’s 2014 cap. In all, releasing Bradford, Dahl, Finnegan, and Wells would combine to likely save the Rams just less than $25 million in salary-cap space for next year.
The Rams also have several starters/near-starters who will become free agents this offseason. They’ll want to at least consider bringing some of them back. The team’s biggest unrestricted free agent is offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who was the team’s left tackle before Jake Long came to town. Saffold was disappointed by the move, which took him out of the pay market for left tackles and sent him packing to much cheaper positions. He was expected to play right tackle this year, but a knee injury kept him out at the beginning of the year, and he has actually now shifted inside to play right guard. The Rams will be thin at offensive line if they follow our moves, so signing Saffold to a contract extension and slotting him as a starter at one spot on the offensive line makes sense.
Left guard Chris Williams is a stopgap on a one-year deal, and he probably will not be re-signed. The Rams will also lose linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who has had a disappointing year after being suspended for violating the league’s PED policy, resulting in his release (and subsequent re-signing) by the Rams. He’s probably gone. The only other occasional starter hitting the road would be safety Darian Stewart, who the team will likely let go without much of a fight.
If the Rams make those moves, they will be exceedingly thin on the offensive line and have no quarterback of any note. They would also need two new starting members in their secondary, with the Rams requiring a starter across from Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. Rookie third-rounder T.J. McDonald would probably move into the starting lineup at safety, while fourth-rounder Barrett Jones would compete for playing time at center. The Rams would likely look into the market to find a cornerback to replace Finnegan, at least at a price that won’t bust their budget. They could be a landing spot for Tarell Brown, who appears set to leave the 49ers after last year’s bonus fiasco after his contract runs out this season.
So, let’s say the Rams sign Brown, re-sign Saffold, and renegotiate Wells’s contract. They would still have plenty of cap space with which to pay their rookies and consider contract extensions for somebody like Quinn, who will demand one of the highest salaries in the league as an extraordinary young pass-rusher. That leaves them in need of a quarterback, an offensive lineman or two, and an outside linebacker. Hey, what do you know? The Rams will have their pick of those guys at the top of the draft.
There’s still plenty of maneuvering to go on between now and draft day in early May, but if things go as planned right now, the Texans would likely take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the first pick of the 2014 draft. That would leave the Rams choosing between four options with the second selection:
Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney would be the consensus second pick if Bridgewater came off the board first (assuming they both enter the draft), and he has once-in-a-generation athleticism, but Clowney plays defensive end, and the one thing the Rams definitely don’t need is a defensive end. They are set at end with Quinn and Long manning the starting spots. You could make the argument that the Giants have invested heavily in what seemed like “extra” defensive ends and found them valuable reps by moving them around the defensive formation, but given St. Louis’s weaknesses elsewhere, a Clowney selection would be inefficiently using the resources at hand.
Instead, if Clowney is just so good that nobody else looks at the numbers side of the scouting report, the Rams are probably better off trading the pick altogether. Rams fans are likely sick of moving down, but in doing so, the Rams would pick up a first-rounder and some other goodies in the process while selecting a player who has a better fit on their draft board, even with the lower grade.
A Quarterback. It’s not clear who the second-best quarterback in the draft is after Bridgewater, but that’s what the evaluation process is for. The Rams can ensure they have their pick of the post-Bridgewater quarterbacks to man their team on a relatively small contract. This would be another very reasonable move.
Jake Matthews: A Texas A&M guard who kicked outside to replace Luke Joeckel after the former A&M left tackle was drafted with the second pick in this year’s draft by the Jaguars, Matthews is a prototypical left tackle candidate who could bide his time on the right side until Long gets hurt, at which point Matthews would become the team’s long-term left tackle. That would also allow them to move Saffold inside on a permanent basis, which would solve one of the problems there.
Anthony Barr: The most intriguing option, to me, is UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. Scouts have compared Barr to Von Miller in terms of his versatility and ability to impact plays as a pass-rusher. He had 10 sacks as a senior in college — blowing away Clowney’s total during his final year at the helm — and here he would slot in on the outside, playing alongside Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, who is in the middle of a fine rookie campaign. It would fill the final hole in St. Louis’s wildly expensive, ridiculous front seven, but Barr would almost be a luxury item for a team with Quinn and Long already rushing the passer. It’s a good problem to have.
The Rams could use their own first-round pick, currently set to fall at no. 14, on a secondary choice. They could opt for a quarterback if they passed on one with the no. 2 pick, or use the second pick to shore up the offensive line. In any case, they have plenty of options.
And Then …
And then, the Rams will have a different look for 2015. They’ll have a new quarterback and likely have at least part or all of a new secondary to go along with him. Fisher will almost surely stick around for at least one more year, but rumors suggest he could move on from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to try to find somebody who will get more out of the team’s two biggest offensive weapons, Austin and Jared Cook.
It might not work. The Rams might get squeezed out of the Bridgewater hunt and end up taking a guy who doesn’t immediately play well while Griffin gets better and plays at his previous level. At the very least, the Rams would have a different identity. After years of struggling through the Bradford era, the Rams finally get to find — and define — the next era of St. Louis football.