As the Los Angeles Rams get set to deal with their impending free agents, much has been made about the top three starters on expiring deals: DL Ndamukong Suh, LG Rodger Saffold III and S Lamarcus Joyner.
But the Rams have so many key role players heading toward the same market freedom that makes those decisions much more important overall.
The tampering window opens on March 11 with free agency opening in full two days later. Getting to that point with a clear plan on what to do with their bevy of role players set to hit free agency should be the top priority because it will have much more to do with the future of the team than the three key potential losses in Suh, Saff and LMJ.
The Rams currently have more than $24m available in cap space. Figuring out which role players to dole out money to will determine how much they have to land any bigger names in free agency beyond.
Consider the following roles held by players set to hit free agency:
QB Sean Mannion
Backup quarterback remains one of the most difficult and most important role positions to fill in the entire NFL. You have to get someone capable of playing to a level that doesn’t tank your entire team if the rest of the roster is good enough should they be pushed into action. They also can’t be so talented that they bring calls for playing time should your starter struggle if they’re central to your team’s future. Remember Eric Dickerson calling for Mannion to start after QB Jared Goff back in the 2017 offseason? Or how the Rams didn’t want to disrupt QB Sam Bradford coming back from an ACL in the 2014 offseason so they avoided a draft pick with potential so that when Bradford re-injured the knee they were left with Shaun Hill and Austin Davis as the only options?
It’s not an easy balance to get right.
It’s also worth noting how well-paid some backup quarterbacks are. New York Jets QB Josh McCown was on a one-year, $10m deal for 2018. Super Bowl LII hero Nick Foles made more as the Philadelphia Eagles backup than starting QB Carson Wentz did by nearly $10m. Chicago Bears backup QB Chase Daniel is scheduled to make $10m over 2018 and 2019 backing up QB Mitchell Trubisky.
So the Rams have a bit of a tricky balance here. Mannion may be coveted by teams looking to see if his four years of NFL experience plus the touch of Head Coach Sean McVay are carrying some untapped potential that playing time could help unlock. That might well create a market that would price Mannion out of the Rams’ plans given their limited cap space.
With QB Brandon Allen the only other quarterback on the roster, a Day 3 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft seems likely.
Backup running back
RB C.J. Anderson
RB Malcolm Brown
Call me crazy, but I think we might talk about this some this offseason.
EDGE Dante Fowler, Jr.
EDGE Matt Longacre
EDGE Dominique Easley
DE Ethan Westbrooks
DE Morgan Fox
OLB Garrett Sickels
How incredibly hard is this gauntlet to get through?
Fowler is clearly the top candidate in the group, but that means he’ll also command the strongest market. A potential franchise tag would be wildly expensive.
The position assignments are a little hard to identify here without significant gametime and/or functional time together under Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, but this is essentially and entire depth chart for the two roles.
The Rams still have Samson Ebukam, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Justin Lawler and Trevon Young as primary edge rushers under contract for 2019. Defensive end assignments are little bit murkier given Phillips’ seeming willingness to move guys around, but the Rams have Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, John Franklin-Myers, Tanzel Smart and Sebastian Joseph-Day as down linemen.
So deciding which edge guys and defensive ends to keep will be a crucial decision especially for a defense that will likely lose the support of Suh and Joyner to shore things up elsewhere.
CB Troy Hill
CB Sam Shields
CB Dominique Hatfield
CB Kevin Peterson
S Blake Countess
Even without Joyner, the Rams’ starting secondary should be a strong unit with CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib and S John Johnson III. But with those two corners set to hit free agency themselves in a year, the amount of depth here up for grabs is daunting.
For all the griping over Fan Favorite Troy Hill, he filled in for Kayvon Webster down the stretch into the playoffs in 2017 and held it down in Talib’s absence this year. I think people underrate him severely; given his position on the outside, he could well command a market stronger than Rams slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman did when he re-signed with the Rams last season. Beyond Hill, losing any of this depth would require significant investment with S Marqui Christian and CB Darious Williams the only other defensive backs on the roster.
Given the fact that the Rams have historically undervalued members of their secondary compared to the market, this might be the most worrisome item on this list especially considering Peters’ and Talib’s future.
Special teams contributors
ILB Bryce Hager
KR/PR JoJo Natson, Jr.
WR KhaDarel Hodge
Nobody logged more special teams snaps for the Rams in 2018 than Hager. And once the Rams lost WR/KR/PR Pharoh Cooper to injury, Natson came on board and capably held down the returner role with Countess joining him on kick returns. Speaking of, Countess was third on the special teams snap count list with Shields fifth and Hatfield eighth.
To the degree that Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel gets to weigh in on special teams decisions with his priorities, it would seem that he’d want some of his core guys to stick around if possible.
So no, this group by and large won’t command the headlines of top free agents like Suh, Saffold or Joyner. Fowler and Anderson might get some attention based on their positions and postseason play.
But overall, this group will have more impact on the Rams’ future than the top trio not only for the sheer size of the group but their impacts throughout the team in all facets.
And with just more than $24m to spend as things stand knowing the Rams’ draft class will take a chunk of that with a first-round pick currently on the books, figuring out how to manage the re-signing of the role players they deem crucial to 2019 and beyond is the biggest challenge of all this offseason.