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Playing matchmaker shows major moves that could set the free agency market

A piece from the Ringer’s Danny Kelly has a major free agent for each of the NFL’s 32 teams that shows the Rams could attract some major talent, but they’ll be sending some out into the market as well.

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New York Giants C Weston Richburg
New York Giants C Weston Richburg
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Kelly has a great piece over at the Ringer that looks at one “high-impact” option for every NFL team with free agency beginning next week. While his pick for the Los Angeles Rams merits interest, it’s the comprehensive look at the market that should draw more intrigue.

A couple of his choices of note:

Rams C John Sullivan to the Buffalo Bills

At 32, Sullivan’s a little long in the tooth, but on a reasonable short-term deal, he could provide immense value as the replacement for recently retired longtime starter Eric Wood. The Bills’ offense is still centered around LeSean McCoy and a dominant run game, and Sullivan graded out as Pro Football Focus’s eighth-ranked run-blocking center in 2017.

Sullivan was a major upgrade for the Rams in 2017 who haven’t solidified the center position since Andy McCollum. But as Kelly notes, Sullivan is 32. If the Rams are looking for a long-term or even medium-term solution, Sullivan won’t likely last.

There’s a touch of irony here. A year ago, the Rams were pursuing Bills C Ryan Groy by offering him a two-year deal as a restricted free agent. As such, the Bills had the right of first refusal. They used it by matching the Rams’ offer and keeping him in Buffalo. Groy didn’t see much of the field with Eric Wood in front of him on the depth chart in 2017.

Rams CB Trumaine Johnson to the Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars CB Aaron Colvin to the Carolina Panthers
Washington CB Bashaud Breeland to the Chicago Bears
Philadelphia Eagles CB Patrick Robinson to the Dallas Cowboys
Bills CB E.J. Gaines to the New York Jets
New England Patriots CB Malcolm Butler to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

That’s a lot of corners! Given that we’ve seen some mocks with as many as five cornerbacks in the first round and combine that with this list, it’s a hell of a year to need talent at corner. Of course, the Rams had that need but got proactive and filled it even prior to free agency opening. That means they won’t have to spend big on the position which follows their consistency in undervaluing the position compared to the market. We’re going to see that in plain view this week if these moves play out.

You’d have to think Tru and Butler set the top of the market. Timing will be key here. ESPN’s Dan Graziano recently set out a market projection of a five-year, $77.5m deal for Tru. That doesn’t address the key issue of guaranteed money, but at least gives us one analyst’s projection. For the mathematically challenged among us, that’s $15.5m per year on average. Here’s what Kelly had to say on the Tru pick:

The Browns fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL in 2017, surrendering a 102.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (dead last) and 28 passing touchdowns (tied for 26th) while picking off just seven balls (31st). Veteran corner Jason McCourty played well in his first year with the team, but he needs help, and pairing him with another experienced playmaker like Johnson could pay immediate dividends for this young defense. Johnson played under current Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2014 to 2016, so his familiarity with Williams’s scheme could allow him to hit the ground running in Cleveland.

It’s a market condition ripe for a top contract with the need, coaching familiarity and a solid player in his prime. I’d also keep an eye on Colvin and the timing of where he lands. I’d think Tru and Butler have their deals locked in before tampering ends and the market opens on Wednesday. Colvin might have to wait for those to see how he can extract maximum value before picking a landing spot.

Minnesota Vikings QB Case Keenum to the Arizona Cardinals

Keenum’s an experienced, veteran bridge option at quarterback—which makes him a nice fit for a new coaching staff hoping hit the ground running in year one. General manager Steve Keim and head coach Steve Wilks have some work to do to build a functional offensive line. But David Johnson is set to return as a force both on the ground and in the passing game, and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald will be back, too. So Keenum—who threw for 3,547 yards, with 22 touchdowns and just seven picks to finish second in Total QBR (69.7) for the Vikings last year—would have a few tools to work with if Arizona becomes his new squad.

If the Cards land Keenum, how heavily do they invest in QB in the draft? I’d think a first-round QB is out of the picture if they’re going to spend in FA.

Given how the NFC West is shaping up, the Cardinals might be the most interesting team of the four this offseason, but that’s largely due to how deep a hole they’ve dug themselves after moving on from Head Coach Bruce Arians and the retirement of QB Carson Palmer.

Washington QB Kirk Cousins to the Vikings

The Vikings boast a top-tier defense and two of the best receivers in football in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and will be getting running back Dalvin Cook back from a rookie-year ACL tear. Minnesota’s the perfect landing spot for the top quarterback in the free-agent market. Cousins would make the Vikings a Super Bowl contender in 2018.

Not to get too ahead of ourselves, but if we’re looking at the NFC power rankings a Cousins signing would help Minnesota immensely.

Rams WR Sammy Watkins to the Tennessee Titans

Under new head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, we can assume the Titans are going to go away from the Mike Mularkey’s offense, which was characterized by way too many tight-end-heavy personnel sets. LaFleur, who coached under Sean McVay with the Rams last year, will likely spread things out a bit and favor more three- and four-wide looks, helping to bring Marcus Mariota’s offense into the 21st century. (L.A. led NFL in the percentage of plays run out of a three-receiver, one-back, one-tight-end personnel set last year at 81 percent.) The Titans will need more talent at the receiver position, and Watkins is still just 24 years old and has the upside of a dominant no. 1 receiver. Even if he doesn’t ever reach that potential, he is, at worst, the type of big-play threat the offense needs to take a big jump forward in 2018.

This is the kind of situation that I think prevents the Rams from being able (/willing) to re-sign Sammy. If another team comes in with a multi-year deal anywhere close on APY to the one-year, $13m deal Graziano predicted for Sammy? I don’t see how the Rams commit to that given the deal the Rams gave to WR Robert Woods a year ago and how diverse the offense was in 2017 which limited Watkins’ production. It’s why I would’ve liked to have seen us lock up S Lamarcus Joyner long-term and tag Watkins, but alas. Undervaluing DBs and whatnot.

And finally for the Rams...

New York Giants C Weston Richburg to the Rams

The Rams have been one of the most aggressive teams in the league so far this offseason, using a pair of trades to land cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and the franchise tag to hold on to safety Lamarcus Joyner. Now the team has to handle its needs on offense. With John Sullivan hitting free agency, L.A. needs a new starter at the center position. Richburg missed all but four games last year to a concussion, which is obviously a concern, but when healthy, he’s one of the best players at his position in the league.

This one would be all about the medical evaluation, much moreso than CB Sam Shields who came out of retirement to take a one-year, $1m deal with the Rams. Shields is four years older with a much lengthier concussion history and is coming into a rotational role whereas Richburg would be looked at as a presumptive starter. So to extend him a multi-year deal even in the middle of the C market would require a decent chunk of the Rams’ cap space.

FA is going to be wild, as always. The real key is how the top players set the market for each position and how that filters down across the 32 rosters. With some key needs and a bunch of players on expiring deals with dozens of millions in cap space, the Rams are going to be very active next week.

What do we think about Richburg? Any other names from Kelly’s matchmaking that you’d find attractive for the Rams? What about the market Sammy? Are there too many potential situations of desperation + cap space to make a re-signing with the Rams even possible?