The beginning of the new league year - March 11 - is fast approaching. That day marks the start of the free agency signing period. The Rams have been quite active in signing free agents under the Fisher/Snead regime. With fewer glaring needs/holes on the roster than in prior years, will the Rams still be looking to sign a player(s) through free agency this year? Or have they reached a point where it's possible to fill their remaining roster needs entirely in the NFL draft?
Rams' Recent Free Agent History
The Rams have achieved moderate success and mixed results with their free agent signings under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead. Finding quality free agents can be just as big a crap shoot as the NFL draft, only far more expensive. How have the Rams' signings graded out in the past two years?
The accompanying chart presents a scale for grading the Rams' free agent signings:
A+ All Pro A Excellent A- Very Good B+ Above Average B Average B- Below Average C+ Serviceable C Minimal Impact C- Backup F Poor
Assigned grades are determined using the following criteria: production/performance, games played and started, and how much bang the Rams have received for their buck.
Player Position 2012 Grade 2013 Grade Scott Wells Center B- B Cortland Finnegan Cornerback B F William Hayes Defensive End A A- Jo-Lonn Dunbar Linebacker A- B Kendall Langford Defensive Tackle B- B+ Jared Cook Tight End N/A B Jake Long Offensive Tackle N/A A-
Overall Grade - B
The seven players listed are the Rams' most significant - and expensive - free agent acquisitions in the past two years. I believe the Rams have received the most value from two players - Jo-Lonn Dunbar and William Hayes - who were the cheapest acquisitions on the list.
What impact do the seven players have on the Rams' salary cap for 2014? Their combined salary cap hits represent approximately 1/3 of the projected 2014 NFL salary cap.
The accompanying chart lists the 2014 salary cap hits for the seven free agent acquisitions:
Player 2014 Cap Hit Cortland Finnegan 10,000,000 Jake Long 9,250,000 Jared Cook 7,000,000 Scott Wells 6,500,000 Kendall Langford 6,000,000 William Hayes 3,845,000 Jo-Lonn Dunbar Free Agent 1.0 mil. in 2013 Total Cap Hits 42,595,000
Jo-Lonn Dunbar will be eligible for free agency again in March, having just completed a two-year contract with the Rams. Both Scott Wells and Cortland Finnegan could become salary cap casualties, either released or subject to substantial pay decreases. The remaining four players' cap hits will likely be unaltered in 2014. Acquiring free agents can be an expensive proposition, one with no guarantee of a significant return on investment.
2014 Free Agency
Rams' Current Roster
There are 67 players on the Rams' current roster/depth chart:
The Salary Cap
At present, the Rams are approximately $4.5 million - including carry forwards - under the projected 2014 NFL salary cap ($130 million). The initial estimate for the 2014 NFL salary cap was an increase of $3.3 million to $126.3 million. As of this morning, that figure has risen to $130 million, according to Adam Schefter:
NFL's salary cap now projected to rise to about $130 million, up 5 percent from $123 million last year, per league sources. More $ for all.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 20, 2014
The additional increase will likely give the Rams more wiggle room. But it's all relative. Each of the 32 teams receives the same increase. More dollars to spend, means greater demand for players, which in turn means higher-value free agent contracts this year.
The Rams have additional financial commitments during the year to consider, as noted in an earlier off season primer article:
"The Rams WILL have to create $10-$11 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, etc. - made by the league."
By any measure, the Rams are currently in a relatively tight cap space situation. As noted last Thursday, the Rams - through roster cuts and restructures - can create $15-$20 million in salary cap space virtually overnight, if they so desired (link). It would still leave the Rams in a position where they could only sign 4-5 of their own smaller-contract free agents, plus 1 - possibly 2 - more expensive free agents.
Rams' Free Agents
The accompanying chart lists the 14 Rams players 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 Tim Barnes C ERFA Quinton Pointer DB ERFA Justin Veltung WR ERFA
The Rams could re-sign any of the bottom dozen on the list for six-figure amounts. The most important free agent is Rodger Saffold, who will command a substantial raise over his expiring rookie contract. Saffold likely holds the key to how the Rams' off season will unfold. The Rams could also be interested in re-signing Jo-Lonn Dunbar, especially given his history with DC Gregg Williams. Dunbar would likely command a low seven-figure salary. Losing all four interior offensive linemen on the list could pose serious problems for the Rams in the coming season, especially if Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl become cap casualties.
Free Agency Preview
Most teams - the Rams included - normally use free agency to address specific team needs/holes in the roster. Heading into March, the Rams' biggest needs will likely be the defensive secondary, and the interior offensive line.
Walter Football provides a ranking of all eligible free agents, and publishes all transactions related to free agency (link). Rotoworld also generates an accurate free agent list, with a loose ranking of all eligible free agents (link). These lists are updated on a daily basis.
How will the Rams approach free agency this year?
CBS Sports' John Breech gave his take on what the Rams' game plan will be for free agency:
"The Rams free-agency game plan will most likely involve setting up their draft game plan. St. Louis is snuggled up right up near the projected salary cap and will probably have to drop a few veterans to give themselves some breathing room. That could be bad news for offensive linemen Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells. Cortland Finnegan and his $10 million 2014 cap hit could also be out. If the Rams decide to dump those three, don't be surprised to see the team make a small splash and go after one or two players who could possibly start in the secondary or at linebacker."
ESPN's Nick Wagoner suggests the key for the Rams should be the draft, not free agency (link):
"With so many high-priced players already on the roster, the margin for error in free agency and the draft is minuscule in the league’s best division. If the Rams want to keep up, the time has come to stop spending big money on outside help and start investing in themselves."
Last year, Kevin Demoff participated in the MIT Sloan Sports Analytic's Conference. He shared his thoughts about spending in free agency:
"If you have $8 million to spend in free agency, you might be better off spending $7 million on one guy and $1 million on the other than buying two players at $4 million."
Demoff's words certainly rang true last year, as the Rams added big-money free agents Jake Long and Jared Cook, and limited the remainder of their spending to mostly lower-priced players.
This years free agent market is likely to be very deep at the safety and cornerback positions. Many quality, younger options exist across the spectrum of price-level tiers. Fewer quality, younger options exist at the offensive line positions, although there are a number of them who may be of interest to the Rams.
The accompanying chart lists 20 players who are eligible for free agency, and are intriguing options for the Rams. The list is comprised of 11 defensive backs, 6 offensive linemen, 2 wide receivers, and 1 defensive tackle. All except Anquan Boldin are in their twenties. The players on the list will command a wide range of salaries, from $2 million to $8 million plus per season:
Player Position Team Evan Dietrich-Smith Center Green Bay Alex Mack Center Cleveland Brian De La Puente Center New Orleans Geoff Schwartz Guard/Tackle Kansas City Jon Asamoah Guard Kansas City Austin Howard Offensive Tackle NY Jets Jeremy Maclin Wide Receiver Philadelphia Anquan Boldin Wide Receiver San Francisco Linval Joseph Defensive Tackle NY Giants Sam Shields Cornerback Green Bay Vontae Davis Cornerback Indianapolis Alterraun Verner Cornerback Tennessee E.J. Biggers Corner/Safety Washington Husain Abdullah Safety Kansas City Louis Delmas Safety Detroit Malcolm Jenkins Safety New Orleans Chris Clemons Safety Miami Donte Whitner Safety San Francisco Jairus Byrd Safety Buffalo T.J. Ward Safety Cleveland
Last week, I took an in-depth look at some of the players on the list (link). I believe the Rams will target a veteran safety in free agency this year. The safety position is the weakest unit on the team. Although the Rams are likely to address the position in the draft, it would be prudent for the Rams to add a veteran presence. Two safeties stand out as being affordable, better than average, and having a connection to the Rams organization:
From last weeks free agency article:
"Jenkins was selected in the 1st round of the 2009 draft. He's 6'0" - 204, and turns 27 in December. Among this years free agent crop at free safety, he's not as highly touted as Ward, Byrd, or Donte Whitner. Jenkins has never quite lived up to the expectations of a 1st round pick, although he has shown flashes at times. His best seasons were during the tenure of Gregg Williams as DC in New Orleans (2009-2011). Under Williams, Jenkins was a 2nd team All-Pro selection in 2010. Although not a huge difference-maker, he's a solid, above average free safety who might again thrive with Williams at the helm. In 2013, Jenkins accounted for 94 combined tackles, 7 passes defended, and 1 interception."
Safety Louis Delmas was released by the Detroit Lions last Thursday, in a salary cap-related move. Delmas' release allows him to sign with any team at any time, for he is no longer under contract. Delmas was selected by the Lions in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL draft, and has been a quality, consistent starter throughout his time in Detroit. Delmas will be 27 in April.
The biggest question any team will have about Delmas is how he checks out medically. He has battled knee problems on and off over the last three seasons. Although his practice time was limited during the 2013 season, he started all 16 games, intercepting 3 passes and recording a pair of sacks. He was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team in 2009, and was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2010 and 2011. Delmas is known as an aggressive, relentless, hard hitting safety, with ball skills.
Before re-signing (for two years) with Detroit in 2013, the Rams negotiated with Delmas, in an attempt to bring him to St. Louis. Contract talks stalled, as Delmas wanted more than the one year "prove it" deal the Rams were offering at the time. The Rams were concerned about his health-related issues.
- The Rams will re-sign Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Kellen Clemens, Tim Barnes, Mike McNeill, and Chris Williams or Shelley Smith (cheap depth at guard).
- The Rams will make every effort to re-sign Rodger Saffold, but only at a reasonable cost. At present, I put the odds of re-signing Saffold at 60/40 against.
- Scott Wells will be released. Harvey Dahl and Cortland Finnegan will be subject to either substantial pay reductions, or will be released outright.
- If the Rams do venture into the free agent market, expect Malcolm Jenkins and Louis Delmas to be targets. If Rodger Saffold is not re-signed, the Rams may take a look at Jon Asamoah, as a potential replacement at the guard position. Delmas, Jenkins, and Asamoah will likely command contracts averaging $3.25-$4.5 million per season.
- Although he will come with a hefty price tag ($9 million plus per season), the Rams will at least inquire about CB Alterraun Verner, especially if Cortland Finnegan is released. Jeff Fisher drafted him, and he became a 2nd team All-Pro last season under Gregg Williams (who was a senior defensive assistant with the Titans). Williams mentioned Verner in his introductory Rams press conference last week. A signing of this nature would test the Rams' cap resources to the max.
- With fewer roster needs, look for the Rams to be much quieter in the free agent market than in previous years. Certainly quieter than the buzz that never goes away regarding the Rams' commitment to Sam Bradford:
Rams looking forward to the day when team's continued commitment to Sam Bradford isn't perceived as national news @101ESPNFastLane— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) February 18, 2014