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NFL free agents: A tale of two contracts and the Rams 2014 salary cap

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The Rams got a pretty good deal on free agents this year, but what happens in 2014?

USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Rams aren't capturing the offseason headlines with a gaggle of free agent signings. As disappointing as the news vacuum can be, it really isn't a bad thing. The Rams made two high profile additions with left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook.

Credit GM Les Snead and cap guru Kevin Demoff for getting reasonable deals with both players, deals that fit conveniently under the cap this year. Long's deal is surprising cheap given his potential to regain his Pro Bowl form. Cook's deal is different in that it rewards him for as yet unrealized potential.

Look at the numbers on Long's deal. He was guaranteed just $20 million. His cap hit this year is a mere $4.25 million. That jumps to $9.25 million next year and hits $10 million in the last two years. More importantly, the deal with Long makes it easy for the Rams to cut ties after two years if things don't work out. As Mike Sando notes, the team could part ways with Long after 2014 and have a cap hit of just $2.5 million in 2015.

Cook's five-year, $35 million deal got a different reaction from pundits. His $19 million guaranteed set a record for tight ends. His contract counts just $3 million against the cap this year before climbing to $7 million next year and $8 million in each season after that.

Both contracts reflect potential: Cook's unrealized potential and the potential that Long doesn't recapture his old form.

So both contracts left some flexibility under the cap this year, but next year's cap situation for the Rams looks different with both deals on the books.

Together, they represent $16.25 million in cap space next year. It's part of more than $67.4 million in cap space tied up with a total of six players for 2014. Here's a look using the numbers from Sportrac:

Player 2014 cap cost
Sam Bradford $17.6 MM
Chris Long $13.2 MM
Jame Laurinaitis $10.4 MM
Cortland Finnegan $10 MM
Jake Long $9.25 MM
Jared Cook $7 MM

Six players, $67 million, that's going to force some choices for the Rams decision makers this time next year. It's also probably a good indicator of why the team is taking a measured approach to free agency this year.

This year the cap rose by just over two percent. It's reasonable to expect a similar jump next year, which is to say team will not have significantly more cap room to work with than this year, three million or so maybe.

One thing working in the Rams' favor is that the team does not have a long list of players scheduled for free agency. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Rodger Saffold are the only current starters scheduled to reach free agency in 2014. Re-signing either one of those players seems difficult considering the current outlook for the team's cap situation. Signing an outside free agent may be impossible without some creative contract maneuvers.

This is where all those first- and second-round picks factor in as well. Young players like Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Brian Quick, Isaiah Pead and a total of four first rounders this year and next will carry a nominal cap hit over the course of their rookie deals.

Any of the deals listed above could be restructured. That could even happen this year if the Rams find another free agent on the wish list.

The player to watch this year is Bradford. Long and Cook were brought here to shore up the team's investment in the former first pick, an effort to make him a franchise quarterback instead of a trivia question about how the league used to pay its rookies.