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It’s hard to imagine how the Rams will be able to afford to keep John Johnson

He’s a valuable player on a top-three defense who will be a 25-year-old free agent in March

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Rams safety John Johnson has maintained a high level of play throughout his career and other than 2019, has not missed any games with injury. Johnson, who turns 25 on Saturday, leads the LA defense with 88 tackles (20 more than Troy Hill in second place) and he’s added eight passes defensed; as of Week 15, Johnson has not been blamed for any touchdowns allowed so far this season.

A third round pick out of BC in 2017, Johnson will be a free agent in March.

The top-five safeties in average annual salary all make between $14 million and $14.75 million per season. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu and Kevin Byard all signed their deals in 2019, while Eddie Jackson and Budda Baker were paid on extensions in the 2020 offseason. Two other safeties, Anthony Harris and Justin Simmons, are making $11.4 million on the franchise tag this year.

Harris is 29 and Simmons is 27. Collins was 25 when he hit free agency in 2019 and he signed a six-year, $84 million deal with Washington.

It would stand to reason that anybody who wanted Johnson to remain with the Rams would also admit that Johnson is as good or better than most of these safeties mentioned. Therefore, it would be illogical to argue for re-signing Johnson but against him being worth at least $14 million per year on a new deal or $12 million per year on a franchise tag.

Nobody knows what the 2021 salary cap will be but the Rams have committed the eighth-most money in the league to the 2021 roster. It is likely that if there is a salary cap next year, LA will be at least as hampered in making moves in the offseason as they were in 2020.

Extensions for Cooper Kupp and Jalen Ramsey made it even harder to anticipate maneuvering and the retention of the Rams best free agents next year, which also includes Austin Blythe, Gerald Everett, Leonard Floyd, Troy Hill, Josh Reynolds and restricted free agent Darious Williams.

The Rams could save $7 million if they release Andrew Whitworth with a post-June 1 designation; $6.5 million if they do the same with Tyler Higbee; but unless they also want to part with Rob Havenstein or Michael Brockers, there aren’t many other places they can go to for savings. “Re-negotiating” with Jared Goff would only mean paying Goff more guaranteed money and increasing his cap hit in future seasons.

It also wouldn’t necessarily be enough to re-sign Johnson.

Of course, as long as it is not a franchise tag, a first-year cap hit for Johnson may only be between $3.5-$5 million. Then in 2022, he could cost as much as $17 million (Byard’s second year) or eventually $20 million (Mathieu’s third year) down the line. Gotta get that average up, right?

The LA Rams know they have a starting safety in rookie Jordan Fuller. They also drafted Terrell Burgess in round three and were high on his potential after training camp and through his few snaps on defense in the regular season prior to injury. The Rams also get two more years of Taylor Rapp, for whatever that’s worth, and have held onto Juju Hughes. It would appear that agree or disagree, Les Snead and Sean McVay have been prepared for Johnson’s departure.

The only way for the Rams to guarantee Johnson stays is to give him the franchise tag, which they don’t seem financially capable of doing. If Johnson is allowed to talk to other teams though, it could be difficult for LA to match his best offer; What if Brandon Staley gets a head coaching job with the Jets or Jaguars (the two teams with the most cap space) and wants to bring his on-field signal-caller with him? What if Bill Belichick is interested, given the Patriots cap space, Devin McCourty’s age and the need for safety help in New England? Clearly it is a position that Belichick has valued for a long time.

The Rams wouldn’t be able to compete financially and they would also have suitors for Johnson who could offer him a chance to continue winning.

I am sure that keeping Johnson is something that the Rams would love to do, but I’ve yet to see a reasonable argument for how they could.