St. Louis Rams' Off Season Primer: 4 By March 11

USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 NFL Draft is still many months away. With the Rams' season concluded, thoughts begin to turn towards the off season; particularly the NFL Draft. The new league year begins on March 11, 2014. The Rams will have many difficult decisions to make between now and then. Many of those decisions are in regards to the salary cap and impending free agents on the roster. What will the Rams attempt to accomplish between now and March 11? How will the moves made in the off season influence their selections come draft time? Part four, of a nine-part off season primer series, examines 4 key issues for the Rams during the transition period leading up to the new league year.

The first two months of the calendar year are a transition period for most NFL teams. The regular season has ended. The 2013 league year is in its final stages. March 11 marks the beginning of the 2014 league year. The two-month transition period will be important for the St. Louis Rams, as they have many personnel and financial decisions to make before March 11.

The accompanying chart highlights important dates - and their significance - for NFL teams in the coming months:

January 12 Assistant coaches under contract to playoff clubs that won their Wild Card games may be interviewed for head coaching positions through the conclusion of Divisional Playoff games.
January 18 East-West Shrine Game, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida.
January 19 AFC and NFC Championship Games.
January 25 Senior Bowl, Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Alabama.
January 26 AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii.
January 26 An assistant coach, whose team is participating in the Super Bowl, who has previously interviewed for another club’s head coaching job may have a second interview with such club no later than the Sunday preceding the Super Bowl.
February 2 Super Bowl XLVIII, MetLife Stadium, New York-New Jersey.
February 3 Waiver system begins for 2014. A 24-hour claiming period will be in effect through the Friday prior to the last regular season game (waivers requests made on Friday and Saturday of each week will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on the following Monday.) Players with at least four previous pension-credited seasons whom a club desires to terminate are not subject to the waiver system until after the trading deadline.
February 17 First day for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition Players.
February 19-25 Combine Timing and Testing, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana.
March 3

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, deadline for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition Players.

March 8-11 Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents upon the expiration of their 2013 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 11. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 11.
March 11 Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must exercise options for 2014 on all players who have option clauses in their 2013 contracts.
March 11 Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit Qualifying Offers to their Restricted Free Agents with expiring contracts and to whom they desire to retain a Right of First Refusal/Compensation.
March 11 Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit a Minimum Salary Tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2013 contracts and who have fewer than three Accrued Seasons of free agency credit.
March 11 Top-51 Begins. All clubs must be under the 2014 Salary Cap prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time.
March 11 All 2013 player contracts will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time.
March 11 The 2014 League Year and Free Agency period begin at 4:00 p.m., New York time. The first day of the 2014 League Year will end at 11:59:59 p.m., New York time, on March 11. clubs will receive a Personnel Notice that will include all transactions submitted to the league office during the period between 4:00 p.m., New York time, and 11:59:59 p.m., New York time, on March 11.
March 11 Trading period for 2014 begins at 4:00 p.m., New York time, after expiration of all 2013 contracts.
March 23-26 Annual Meeting, Orlando, Florida.
April 7 Clubs that hired a new Head Coach after the end of the 2013 regular season may begin offseason workout programs.
April 21 Clubs with returning Head Coaches may begin offseason workout programs.
May 2 Deadline for Restricted Free Agents to sign Offer Sheets.
May 7 Deadline for Prior Club to exercise Right of First Refusal to Restricted Free Agents.
May 8-10 2014 NFL Draft, New York City, New York.
May 19-21 NFL Spring League Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia.

4 By March 11

The Rams will be dealing with a number of issues pertaining to personnel and the salary cap prior to March 11:

  1. All teams must be under the 2014 salary cap by March 11. In the off season, the mechanisms used to determine cap compliance differ from those used during the regular season. The next two months will also see the Rams creating salary cap space - through release of players and/or contract restructures - if they desire to re-sign their own free agents, or free agents from other teams.
  2. Player contracts are not based on a calendar year. They run concurrently with the league year, which ends March 11. The Rams have a number of players becoming unrestricted free agents (UFA) on that date. They have exclusive negotiating rights for re-signing those players until March 8.
  3. The Rams have until March 3 to designate (tag) a Franchise or Transition player.
  4. Qualifying offers for restricted free agents (RFA) and tenders for exclusive rights free agents (ERFA) must be submitted to the league office by March 11.

Looking Back At The 2013 Off Season Transition Period

The Rams currently have 125.8 million in financial commitments counting against the salary cap for 2014. The 2014 salary cap is expected to be 126.3 million. Presently the Rams are approximately $500,000 under the salary cap. At this point in time last year, the Rams were roughly 1 million over the salary cap. The tight cap space situation prevalent in early 2013 continues into 2014.

The Rams had 19 eligible free agents of various types at this time last year (15 this year). The four most prominent free agents were Steven Jackson (through voiding of his contract), Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and William Hayes. Although the Rams negotiated with each of them before March, all four became free agents once the new league year began. William Hayes was re-signed in March by the Rams. The remaining three signed with other teams.

To create salary cap space - 7 million in total - the Rams released Wayne Hunter and Quintin Mikell. The voiding of Steven Jackson's contract created an additional 7 million in salary cap space. These transactions were instrumental in allowing the Rams to re-sign William Hayes and Jermelle Cudjo - plus sign Jake Long and Jared Cook as free agents - while still remaining compliant with the salary cap.

Before last years March deadline, the Rams re-signed two ERFA's: Mike McNeill (555,000) and Tim Barnes (480,000). They also made a qualifying offer of 1 million to RFA Darian Stewart. The Rams chose not to use the Franchise or Transition tags last year.

What To Expect Before March 11, 2014

The accompanying chart identifies the 15 players who are eligible for free agency on March 11:

Player Position FA Type
Rodger Saffold OL UFA
Jo-Lonn Dunbar OLB UFA
Chris Williams OL UFA
Darian Stewart S UFA
Shelley Smith OG UFA
Kellen Clemens QB UFA
Matt Giordano S UFA
Will Witherspoon OLB UFA
Brady Quinn QB UFA
Mike McNeill TE RFA
Austin Davis QB RFA
Sammy Brown DE RFA
Tim Barnes C ERFA
Quinton Pointer DB ERFA
Justin Veltung WR ERFA

For clarification, the differences between the three types of free agents can be defined in terms of team control. UFA's can sign with any team without restrictions. If an RFA receives a qualifying offer from their current team, the only way he can change teams is with a higher offer from another team. His current team has the right to match the higher offer. ERFA's, if tendered by their current team, have no recourse but to accept the offer, or be out of football. If not tendered, they are free to sign with another team (the same applies to RFA's).

None of the 15 players eligible for free agency count against the 2014 salary cap. It's an important distinction, for each re-signing could have salary cap consequences before the March 11 deadline.

In the off season, only the top 51 cap hits on a roster (plus any outstanding dead money) count against the salary cap. Currently, the Rams' top 51 cap hits and dead money leaves them approximately 1.3 million under the salary cap. At this point in time, there's very little room for re-signing free agents, or pursuing free agents from other teams in March.

The two biggest issues the Rams face before March are: the interior offensive line and the salary cap.

The Rams could create 30 million plus in salary cap space, virtually overnight, if they so desired. Releasing Kendall Langford, Harvey Dahl, Scott Wells, and Cortland Finnegan creates 19.5 million in salary cap space. Converting a portion of base salaries to pro-rated bonuses in the contracts of James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, and Sam Bradford can easily create another 10.5 million in salary cap space. There are consequences associated with these transactions. The Rams would no longer have the services of 4 veteran players, and the restructured contracts would threaten the future stability of their salary cap structure. Fiscal responsibility is a trademark of successful NFL teams.

The Rams WILL have to create 8-9 million in salary cap space - irrespective of free agency signings/re-signings - at some point before the regular season begins. This amount covers the net cost of signing the incoming rookie class, creates an adequate reserve for contingencies during the regular season, pays the practice squad, and provides a cushion for salary cap adjustments - earned incentives, workout bonuses, escalators - made by the league.

Four interior offensive linemen are eligible for free agency in March: Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, and Tim Barnes. Rodger Saffold's free agency may be the biggest issue the Rams face before March. He is the only player the Rams would consider for the franchise tag, although at a cost of 10 million it's not likely to occur. In addition, Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells - due to age, declining abilities, injuries, and big cap hits - could be considered candidates for release. Losing all six could be catastrophic for the offensive line. How would the Rams replace all of them? Conversely, retaining all six could have a dramatic, negative impact on the salary cap structure this year. Many decisions will need to be made in this area before March. Les Snead is keenly aware of the decisions that lie ahead (link):

"That's what the off season is for," general manager Les Snead said. "We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."

This is the time of year when the three-headed brain trust of Demoff, Snead, and Fisher comes to the forefront. The next two months is not just about evaluating players; it's for VALUING them as well.

Off Season Primer Series

Part 1 - Salary Capping The St. Louis Rams' Off Season (link)

Part 2 - The Offensive Line (link)

Part 3 - Younger In 2014? (link)

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