Free agency is about to bubble to the surface this coming Tuesday. March 11 is the day players begin the once-a-year musical chairs money dance. New teams, uniforms and cities to call home, players are paid millions of dollars as NFL franchises commit to position repairs and expediency. Cap spaces are rising, and the urge to spend on newfangled toys is an itch team owners and GM-s can't resist scratching. Is it just me who thinks all free agents should be listed on eBay so we can watch a bidding war "LIVE"...
The St. Louis Rams are in an interesting position right now. With two first round draft picks this year, they have to balance what could be available when they go on the clock this May at New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall. Do they spend big now on a safety like Jairus Byrd, or wait for draft day to select Calvin Prior or Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix? Should they throw boatloads of cash at free agent offensive linemen, or does Jeff Fisher change his historical trend and take a Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews? Don't forget how deep the guard class is this year too. Weighing the value of bringing back Harvey Dahl versus taking a David Yankey, Gabe Jackson or Xavier Su'a-Filo won't be easy.
So much is up in the air for the Rams, and the importance of the coming NFL Draft can't be understated for the burgeoning NFC West contender. Les Snead wangled a great deal in the Robert Griffin III trade with the Washington Redskins, but the pressure to make it all worthwhile in the long run isn't very far from his mind. College Prospects are unknown quantities at best, regardless of how well they perform at the NFL Combine or individual Pro Days.
The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement has made building through the NFL draft more fiscally sound, but it hinges on how well scouts judge talent. Plus, you can get a key position player like a quarterback in the first round for chump change compared to the days when a first overall pick demanded $70 million without ever stepping on an NFL field.
The best argument for staying out of the free agent shopping frenzy runs counter to what NFL fans want most: WINS! Youth serves the future, not hedonistic desires for a favored team to instantly streak toward the Super Bowl. For two year, the Rams have been the youngest team in the NFL. This trend doesn't seem to be ending soon, since it looks like some - if not all - the most veteran Rams' players could be released before the league year begins this month. Cortland Finnegan has been released, with the prospect of Dahl and center Scott Wells being possible targets too. Add in the base number of draft picks the Rams will be bring in to training camp - not to mention undrafted free agents - and the roster of St. Louis' average age plunges down even farther.
I think most NFL coaches like a veteran presence in their locker rooms, but money hits this value judgement squarely between the eyes. How much can coaches offset the presence of a Harvey Dahl's leadership and game knowledge? If we look at the Rams two young starting corner backs - Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson - and postulate how much Cortland Finnegan has contributed to their development, has it been worth millions of dollars? I think it has, but only to a point. At some undecipherable time, young players have to stand on their own. Herein lies the problem facing the Rams this coming May 8th, and it's a coin toss at best. Do they go from having an experienced - though arguably mediocre - offensive line to one of youthful inexperience and promise for years to come? Do they hold pat on Rodney Mcleod, or draft a free safety instead of spending a king's ransom on Byrd?
One guy who seems to always be at the tail end of decisions made by the Rams is Sam Bradford. Say what you want, but I bet his lower lip will quiver just a tad if St. Louis moves on without Dahl, Wells and Rodger Saffold. It's not that guys like Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews are bad offensive tackles. For Bradford, he knows it's the unknowns that'll kill you as a NFL quarterback. Can he excel - or even last - through an entire offensive line going through their learning curve? Yes, Jake Long should be ready for the 2014 season. But what if he isn't? Sam will walk into the huddle and see youth determination, but I guarantee his snap count will include a groan or two before the ball is hiked. All this being said, the youth trend - and not free agency - is the course for the Rams to stay true to even if it means another season of re-building and experience gained.
The expanded cap space I mentioned earlier is a devilish thing in and of itself. The uninitiated will see money to spend on new players, while the more savvy will see the portent of immutable laws of economics rushing toward NFL players and teams. Supply and demand, as well as regional market forces, will drive elite players' salaries up commensurate with the money available to spend. Big market teams like New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, ect, will begin to push recent league financial parity out of whack. "But each team will have the same amount of money to spend," you say? Not even close to true. While many see the TV revenue as a pure "source increase" to the amount of money teams have to spend is still based on their financial viability as a whole. Empty seats at home games whittles down the money they'll have to spend. It's easy to forget at times that an NFL franchise is a business, and how remaining profitable on a balance sheet is at the top of their billionaire owners' wish lists. Many who watch the 2011 CBA began to wonder why the NFLPA encouraged their members to sign it, and the newest TV contract the NFL has kicking in is the reason why. I still think the owners pulled a fast one on the players, since we've seen more teams than ever begin to release players that only 5 years ago would've been seen as invaluable lynch-pins a team needed to retain.
The thing about free agency for the Rams in 2014, is how Jeff Fisher sees his team developing. Contracts for guys like Robert Quinn are going to slam their salary cap hard. Recent contracts signed by James Laurinaitis and Chris Long were huge commitments. I'm a HUGE Laurinaitis fan, but if I'm being honest with myself, I think the Rams overpaid him. Tears would be on my official Rams logo pillow, but I'd have taken Chris Borland - ILB, Wisconsin - in the second or third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and moved on from JL55. Our salary cap guru Frank Dobozy can talk to you about the money savings, which would be substantial, in the long run at the very least. It would help pay for some of the high past draft picks who are going to start hitting the end of their rookie deals. All this is to say, free agency isn't a something the Rams should be thinking about right now, at least from a monetary perspective.
Young teams like the St. Louis Rams - with loads for former high draft picks on their roster whose rookie deals are beginning to expire - have more motivation than others to watch their fiscal bottom line. Among the lowest crowd drawing teams in the NFL, the new $133 million salary cap is far more vague than a given for the Rams. The course set by Jeff Fisher two years ago heavily bends toward youth; growing a team through the draft. He's brought in a few free agents in the hope of stemming the horrible loss trend by the Rams over the past ten years while he re-builds with young players from the bottom up. He's made the Rams a far more exciting team to watch too, albeit one that still yearns to top a .500 win percentage each year.
If I've learned anything while watching all four NFC West teams, it's that position depth across their rosters is paramount. Buying in on high priced free agents might patch a glaring need in the short run, but it also could cost you the few second tier players needed to bolster two or three other positions too. Fans are eagle-eyed when they watch their teams' players, and jump at the chance to second guess or decry a poor performance. But I can't help wondering how much we as fans consign to a player, when the play called, or scheme used, may very well be the cause of being out of position? I recall a play in 2012, when for some wild reason Michael Brockers - a rookie at the time - was used in pass coverage. It was ugly, and the opposing team scored. The play made Brockers look horrible. Yet, fans saw the scheme to be at fault, and rightly so. I mention this because currently Rams fans appear to be focusing their angst on safety Rodney McLeod, even though he was starting at free safety for the first time, next to a rookie strong safety - T.J. McDonald. Call it circumstances, kismet, or a failed Ouija board based defensive scheme by former defensive coordinator Tim Walton, the idea McLeod doesn't deserve a reasonable timeline for his learning curve that's arbitrarily given to top draft picks is kind of odd to me.
I bring this up because of the latest rumors out across the NFL media that the Rams are circling Jairus Byrd. Given what I've read, he'll cost in the $8 to $9 million a year range. If I apply my sly draft logic, this could signal the direction Les Snead and Jeff Fisher may take on May 8th. Could they be thinking Byrd would be a short term, quality patch so they don't have to take a Clinton-Dix in the first round, or is it a smokescreen to encourage other teams in need of a free safety to shift their focus into trading up? I haven't lost faith in McLeod as many have, and with the arrival of Gregg Williams - who has coached some stellar low-round/undrafted free agent safeties in his day - I'm willing to spend some "hope points". McLeod is a talented athlete who could blossom in the right circumstances, so why gamble on a free agent contract which potentially mortgages the future? The answer for fans is an easy one: "Byrd will help the Rams win now!" But will he? How many times have NFL fans seen a free agent who gets a big pay day stumble; never living up to what was hoped?
For the first time in years, I really don't want the St. Louis Rams to spend on free agents. When I see the myriad of draft possibilities coming the Rams way this May, I truly believe key position players are there that'll flip a switch and turn this team into something special. Mock Draft machinations are one thing, and mind's-eye free agent fits are another. But the track Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have for St. Louis is sound, albeit one fraught with unknowns. For me, that's what makes watching the team I've loved for so long special. Seeing the layers added, corners turned; the up swings and downs - the cheers and groans - are why I'm an NFL fan. How about you?