The deadline for NFL teams to a apply a franchise or transition tag is tomorrow at 4pm ET. As it nears, we’ll likely learn if the Los Angeles Rams have opted not to use it or if they’ll apply it to either WR Sammy Watkins, CB Lamarcus Joyner or a wildcard option that as yet seems unlikely.
It makes for an interesting situation. Watkins’ 2017 season certainly didn’t produce as much quantitatively as Rams fans likely would have liked, but the offense he was a part of cranked all year. Joyner, on the other hand, had the finest year of his career ranking as the 52nd best player in the entire NFL according to Pro Football Focus. And yet here we are seemingly deciding between the two as the tag deadline nears.
The situation is difficult to pin down because (a) the Watkins market is certain to be stronger for other teams than the Rams and (b) a new deal for Joyner has yet to be reported. As it pertains to the former, there are offensively challenged teams with bigger holes on their WR depth chart that will put more money in front of Watkins than the Rams will. That leaves a deal with the Rams likely impossible. So there’s a good chance that the only way Watkins remains a Ram is if they match the market terms (unlikely) or use the franchise tag on him (likely). But what reports have suggested is that the Rams would rather lose Watkins than Joyner and if they can’t get a deal inked, they’ll use the tag on Joyner to prevent losing him.
The heart of the issue there?
The Rams don’t value defensive backs as much as the rest of the NFL does.
Since General Manager Les Snead joined Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff and Senior Assistant Tony Pastoors as the Rams’ core contract renegotiations team, the Rams have routinely undervalued their defensive backs as compared to what they’re valued at by the rest of the NFL market.
Consider who they haven’t re-signed since 2012 that found major contracts elsewhere:
- S Darian Stewart: A UDFA in 2010, Stewart was more of a special teams member than a safety though he did log significant time at the position in 2011. After a year with the Baltimore Ravens, Stewart flourished with the Denver Broncos under then Broncos Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips putting in a Pro Bowl season in 2016.
Current contract: Four-year, $28m deal with $13m guaranteed that runs out after 2020
- CB Janoris Jenkins; The Rams went into the 2016 offseason with three of their four starting DBs on expiring deals, leading Snead to famously dub the Rams’ effort to re-signing them “Priority A.” The Rams reportedly lowballed Jenkins and couldn’t come to terms with fellow CB Trumaine Johnson meaning they would need to use a tag (familiar scenario, no?). When the Rams tagged Johnson, it freed up the Jackrabbit to take a major free agency deal with the New York Giants.
Current contract: Five-year, $62.5m deal with $28.8m guaranteed that runs out after 2020
- S Rodney McLeod: A 2012 UDFA who grew into the role in Stewart’s wake, McLeod developed into a fine safety. With second-year S Maurice Alexander developing well behind McLeod, the Rams allowed him to leave in FA along with Jenkins landing with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Current contract: Five-year, $37m deal with $13m guaranteed that runs out after 2020
- S T.J. McDonald: The USC product spent four productive years with the Rams but, like his Priority A brothers, sought greener pastures in free agency. His negotiations were delayed while the NFL considered his . After serving an eight-game suspension for a non-alcohol DUI, McDonald landed with the Miami Dolphins playing his way to a contract extension.
Current contract: Four-year, $24m deal with $6.26m guaranteed that runs out after 2021
- CB Trumaine Johnson: The Rams have had Johnson on a tag for the last two season because they can’t come to terms with him. The Rams value him below what his agent is asking for. Instead of letting him leave, the Rams paid a high cost to keep him around on successive one-year deals. He’s going to get paid by somebody in a bit more than a week which is exactly what the Rams were unwilling to do.
Current contract: TBD
- S Lamarcus Joyner: This is the hard one. Joyner was incredibly good in 2017 after moving back to safety in Phillips’ defense. There’s just no sensible justification to not pay him...except that the Rams simply don’t want to pay talented defensive backs regardless of their quality. Now we do have a little less than 24 hours to the tag deadline. And we’ve got a bit more than a week to the opening of free agency. But if the Rams can’t get a long-term deal done with Joyner this offseason, it’s a clear indication that the current contract team simply doesn’t place the value on defensive backs that the rest of the NFL market does.
Current contract: TBD
On one hand, there’s a silent appreciation embedded in the above for the Rams’ ability to find talent in the secondary. That they have employed so many players that the market values with major, multi-year contracts is a testament to their ability to find those talents in the first place. Having moved on from so many talented DBs listed above and still be in solid shape with CB Marcus Peters and S John Johnson in the mix for 2018 is a pretty impressive navigation of the personnel waters.
But there’s something worrisome about a team that shells out major contracts to WR Tavon Austin and ILB Mark Barron and OLB Robert Quinn and then be in position to move on soon after (Austin is reportedly about to be released while Quinn is going to be traded to the Dolphins as Barron looms as a potential cap casualty) with talented guys leaving unabated hardly inspires. That they’re doing so with DL Aaron Donald and RB Todd Gurley and others coming into the contractual fore soon enough makes things even more ominous.
The Rams have a talented safety in Lamarcus Joyner. Paying him top dollar and tagging Sammy Watkins would allow them to pursue their other roster needs while delaying a cheaper alternative for Watkins in a year’s time. Losing Watkins and tagging Joyner would repeat the Priority A outcome, one that the Rams can only nail so many times.