As the 2013 NFL regular season winds down, thoughts begin to focus on the off season, particularly the 2014 NFL Draft. Seven round St. Louis Rams mock drafts are beginning to appear. The majority of these mocks are well thought-out, and reflect the Rams' perceived needs. Therein lies the rub. What will the Rams' needs be come May?
One of the areas to look at - in determining the Rams' needs going into the 2014 NFL Draft - are potential salary cap casualties. Salary cap casualties played a significant role in last years draft. Before the opening of the free agency period, the Rams released offensive tackle Wayne Hunter and safety Quintin Mikell. The release of these two players resulted in an increase of 7 million in available cap space. The 7 million in additional cap space was instrumental in allowing the Rams to sign tight end Jared Cook and offensive tackle Jake Long. It also meant the Rams felt no pressure to select an offensive tackle in the draft - and a lot of pressure to select a safety - resulting in the Rams picking T.J. McDonald in the third round.
2014 Salary Cap Outlook
The St. Louis Rams currently have the lowest available cap space in the NFL ($17,718). Unless measures are taken by the Rams to alleviate the cap space situation, it's likely they'll remain tight up against the cap in 2014. The NFL Salary Cap is expected to remain relatively flat for 2014. An increase from 123 million to 126 million is a reasonable estimate of what the Salary Cap will be for 2014.
The Rams will gain 18 million of cap space relief in 2014 for the following reasons:
- 11 million in dead money will come off the books.
- Cortland Finnegan's cap hit will go down 5 million.
- James Laurinaitis' cap hit will go down 2 million.
Conversely, there are many cap hit increases in 2014 negatively impacting cap space:
- Chris Long's cap hit increases by 6 million.
- Sam Bradford's cap hit increases by 5 million.
- Jared Cook's cap hit increases by 3 million.
- Jake Long's cap hit increases by 5 million.
- William Hayes cap hit increases by 1.8 million.
- The cap hits of Scott Wells and Kendall Langford remain the same, while Harvey Dahl's increases by 1.25 million.
Given these figures, it's evident the Rams will continue to have a tight cap space situation in 2014. The Rams will also need to create a minimum of 7 million in cap space to sign the 2014 rookie class, account for cap adjustments, and have a contingency/reserve in place for the 2014 regular season. At present, the 2014 cap space situation would preclude the Rams from signing any significant free agents, including their own [ex. Rodger Saffold].
There are four strategies the Rams can utilize to alleviate the cap space constraints:
- Restructure existing contracts.
- Limit re-signing of players on the roster who are free agents after this season.
- Limit the signing of free agents from other teams.
- Release players on the roster with larger contracts, making them "cap casualties".
Cap Casualties And Contract Restructuring
The accompanying chart presents the St. Louis Rams' 10 highest cap hits [in millions] for 2014:
The "cap hit" is the sum of base salary and various bonuses for each player. "Dead money" is the amount counting against the salary cap in 2014 if the player is released [assuming all remaining pro-rated money is accelerated into 2014]. "Cap savings" refers to the amount saved for 2014 only, and is the difference between the players cap hit for 2014 and any outstanding dead money.
Jake Long, Jared Cook, and William Hayes all signed new contracts in 2013. None of the three are candidates for release or having their contracts restructured. Most NFL observers would agree that restructuring a contract after the 1st year shows bad faith on the part of the teams' front office, and is not conducive to signing future free agents. In addition, both Long and Cook would have exorbitant dead money charges against the salary cap if released.
Sam Bradford is not a candidate for restructuring or release. Bradford has only two years remaining on his rookie contract, which precludes entertaining a restructure. An extension is a more feasible option, but not likely given his season-ending injury. Bradford will first want to produce a quality season in 2014 - to enhance his bargaining position on a new contract - while the Rams will be cautious about offering an extension until he is fully recovered and productive.
Chris Long and James Laurinaitis are not considered potential cap casualties. They both have contracts that are conducive to restructuring, due to the high base salaries and minimal amounts of bonus money in 2014. To create cap space in 2013, Long's contract was restructured by converting part of his base salary to a pro-rated bonus. Restructuring Long or Laurinaitis would only be contemplated as a last resort. The Rams don't want to imperil their future salary cap position and structure by back-loading contracts.
From strictly a financial/contractual perspective, Cortland Finnegan, Kendall Langford, Harvey Dahl, and Scott Wells are the four players likely to be considered for release or contract restructuring. Their contracts contain relatively low - and manageable - amounts of dead money. More importantly, the cap savings for each player is quite substantial [4-7 million], negating the negative impact of the dead money on the Rams' overall salary cap position. The absence of guaranteed monies remaining in their contracts would allow their releases to be relatively pain-free, with respect to the salary cap.
The "Financial Foursome"
Center Scott Wells was having a fine season until fracturing his fibula against San Francisco in Week 13. He will miss the Rams' remaining 4 games. In 2012, Wells played in just 7 games due to injury. Wells will be 33 in January, and is in the twilight of his career. Releasing Wells would create 2 million in dead money against the salary cap in 2014, but results in cap savings of 11 million [4.5 in 2014, 6.5 in 2015]. His release would have little impact on the 2014 draft, as the Rams have Tim Barnes [if re-signed as an ERFA] and Barrett Jones for depth at the position. If the Rams wish to retain Wells' services, they could attempt to restructure his contract in a manner similar to that of Harvey Dahl.
Guard Harvey Dahl has missed 4 games due to a knee injury. Dahl missed the last 2 games of 2013 with a torn triceps injury. Dahl will be 33 in June, and is also on the downside of his career. At the September 4, 2013 salary cap compliance deadline, the Rams restructured Dahl's contract, in what was essentially a pay cut. The accompanying chart presents Harvey Dahl's remaining contract [before and after the restructure]:
Year Base Salary Roster Bonus Cap Hit 2013 4 0 4 2014 4 0 4 2013 2.75 0 2.75 2014 2 2 4
For 2013, 1.25 million of Dahl's base salary was converted to incentives based on playing time, allowing the Rams immediate cap relief before the deadline. If Dahl earns the 1.25 million of incentives, the Rams can choose to apply the total against either the 2013 or 2014 salary cap. As a concession to Dahl, 2 million of his 4 million base salary for 2014 was converted to a roster bonus, due on the 3rd day [March 14] of the 2014 League Year. The Rams will be forced to make a decision on retaining Dahl early in the off season. His release [if done before March 14] would result in a 4 million cap savings, without any dead money. Releasing Dahl could have a significant impact on the 2014 draft [and free agency], as Shelley Smith, Rodger Saffold, and Chris Williams all become free agents at the end of this season.
After signing with the Rams as a free agent in 2012, defensive tackle Kendall Langford made the difficult transition from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 defensive tackle. Despite inconsistent play, Langford has become more comfortable at the position, and is having the best statistical season of his career (link). Releasing Langford would create 2 million in dead money against the salary cap in 2014, but results in cap savings of 11 million [4 in 2014, 7 in 2015]. The Rams could attempt to restructure his contract in a manner similar to that of Harvey Dahl, although the cap savings would be substantially less than the savings created by an outright release. Releasing Kendall Langford would likely have a dramatic impact on the Rams' 2014 draft. Depth is thin at defensive tackle, and neither Jermelle Cudjo or Matthew Conrath could adequately replace Langford. The Rams would have to give serious consideration to drafting Ra'Shede Hageman or Louis Nix 111 in the first round of the upcoming draft.
From Ramblin' Fan:
"Kendall Langford has quietly strung together three consecutive solid performances from the interior of the defensive line. He ended Sundayâs game as the fourth-leading tackler on the team, and was relatively effective pushing the pocket from the interior. Langford appears to be one of the primary targets for some form of "restructuring" at the end of the season. However, if his play continues, the St. Louis Rams may be more apt to "work with," rather than "insist," when it comes to those negotiations."
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan suffered through an injury-filled 2013 season, playing in just 7 games. Finnegan will have surgery on his eye during the off season, and should have a complete recovery, in time for the 2014 season. His play was disappointing this year, certainly not warranting a contract that ranked 4th among all NFL cornerbacks. Finnegan will be 30 in February, and his skills have shown signs of eroding. Releasing Finnegan would create 3 million in dead money against the salary cap in 2014, but results in cap savings of 26 million [7 in 2014, 9 in 2015, 10 in 2016]. Finnegan has a 3 million roster bonus that becomes fully guaranteed 5 days after the Super Bowl game. It's currently guaranteed for injury, although he can be released for skill or salary cap reasons. The Rams will have to make a decision on retaining Finnegan very early in the off season. They will be looking to reduce Finnegan's cap hit through a pay cut, restructure, or outright release. His situation is described in depth by Nick Wagoner of ESPN (link). Finnegan's status will have a direct impact on the Rams' draft plans in May.
The Rams will have some difficult personnel decisions to make in the coming months, especially when the release of four players results in 19.5 million of much-needed salary cap space. Management of the salary cap - and the fates of the "Financial Foursome" - will be significant factors in what occurs during the free agency period, and the 2014 NFL Draft.