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How Rams could afford John Johnson next year

There’s a reasonable argument to be made

Chicago Bears v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

While Sean McVay deals with how the LA Rams can win the next three games (and more), general manager Les Snead has a different puzzle on his hands. The Rams have committed $194.6 million to the 2021 roster — sixth-most in the NFL after the Saints, Eagles, Steelers, Packers and Falcons — and they have a handful of starters set to become free agents.

That includes center Austin Blythe, cornerback Troy Hill, tight end Gerald Everett, running back Malcolm Brown, longsnapper Jake McQuaide, defensive lineman Morgan Fox, linebacker Samson Ebukam and receiver Josh Reynolds. But above all others comes safety John Johnson III, the 25-year-old on-field coach of the defense who has played all 843 defensive snaps for LA this season.

How could it be that the Rams are projected by all those salary cap sites to be $21-$25 million over the cap but still able to field a 53-man roster? How could the Saints ($94-$98 million over) or Eagles ($70 million over) even field a starting offense?

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no known salary cap for the 2021 season, but most recently we learned in the offseason that the NFL and the NFLPA agreed on a salary cap floor of $175 million. “Those salary cap sites” are using the floor as their point of reference.

But it does not make sense or behoove the league to prevent teams from being active in the free agent market, so they will have to have some response when 13 teams are going to be over the cap if it is set at $175 million. And because the NFL has managed to run every game this season, with a likelihood of that continuing through the Super Bowl, I do not expect them to go with the “break in case of emergency” salary cap ceiling that used to be their salary cap floor.

A “sports business intelligence firm” named Team Marketing Report estimated that the NFL is losing $2.7 billion from not having fans in attendance at most games this season, but also notes that the league gets most of its revenue from TV. Even during the pandemic, teams have handed out record contracts — in total value, guaranteed value, annual average salary, all of the above — to nearly any position on the field.

There doesn’t appear to be an expectation from the league that they need to break something in case of emergency. So what would happen if the NFL has a $200 million salary cap instead of a $175 million salary cap?

The Rams have committed $194.6 million to the 2021 roster, so that means that they’d go from $20.9 million over to about $5.4 million under. In addition to that, the Rams can carry over $6.3 million in cap space from the 2020 season, which would help offset the $8.4 million in dead money that they have to set aside for Todd Gurley. This expectation could have been why LA was ready to part with several starters from 2019 and hesitant to add a kicker that would cost $2 million or more.

If the Rams carry over the 2020 cap space, in a world with a $200 million salary cap, then they’d have $11.7 million to spend. Kind of. There are always considerations that need to be made for paying your practice squad, filling out the end of the roster and paying your draft picks, but we also know that LA will once again avoid the first round — a consideration of cost savings we never account for when those trades are made.

Now let’s say the Rams are at $11.7 million under the cap, but 39-year-old Andrew Whitworth decides to call it quits after his heroic postseason comeback from a torn MCL to lead the team to the Super Bowl. LA would save $5.3 million with a normal retirement or $7 million with a post-June 1 designation, getting them to $18.7 million in cap space.

And what did LA have to do in order to go from being $27.2 million OVER the cap to $18.7 million UNDER? They had to: wait to see what the cap actually is, carry over what they have from 2020, and replace Whitworth with Joseph Noteboom, which has already kind of happened.

There may also be a consideration of whether or not Tyler Higbee is a tight end worthy of the $5.3 million in savings that the team would get if he’s released, with only $1.8 million in dead money. We know that Snead wasn’t too shy to part with plenty of others who had a lot more committed to the cap, but then we’d also know that the team would have to still replace Higbee with somebody and Everett is a free agent.

But we can’t overlook Darious Williams, a restricted free agent. The first round tender may cost around $4.8 million and the second round tender comes in at $3.4 million. That’s a big chunk of the cap for a team that might have $15 million or so in “true” cap space. Even McQuaide, if they like him, would cost $1 million per season and that’s not nothing given the constraints facing LA. That could be a quick way to see $4.4 million get spoken for next year. And then they’ll need to decide who the center will be, if not Blythe. Or who the corner opposite of Ramsey will be, if not Williams.

However, that could be enough to extend Johnson.

Even if the team gave Johnson a record-setting contract for a safety (which would be anything over $14.75 million per season), the first year cap hit may only be between $3 to $5 million. However, it does mean that in 2022 the team could be paying him $14 million or more and in 2023, maybe as much as $20 million. That being said, I do not see the Rams having financial issues (yet) when it comes to the 2022 season.

By then, they could easily part — at least from a financial point of view — with Robert Woods, Whitworth, Cooper Kupp, Michael Brockers, Rob Havenstein, Higbee, A’Shawn Robinson, or even Jared Goff if they needed to, with significant savings.

If Johnson III is an integral part of the LA Rams success this season and they want to keep that train going, I believe that it could be possible. Only an idiot would say otherwise.