Were they not in a salary cap situation that they need to clear up before making any other moves other than to get some contracts off the books for 2020, the Los Angeles Rams would have at least a couple of candidates for the franchise tag this year. The Rams have an estimated $14.7 million in cap space for next season per OvertheCap.com and a significant number of key players hitting free agency.
Chief among them are inside linebacker Cory Littleton and edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr., plus Greg Zuerlein, Andrew Whitworth, and Michael Brockers among others. Were they to find the money — which reportedly is still enough to take Darius Slay under consideration — then perhaps Littleton or Fowler would be held onto with a tag. At least until a contract agreement could be reached. The tag for a linebacker is set to be $16.2 million and that applies to players whether they play on the inside or outside. Were Fowler to argue that he’s a defensive end, that price tag would be $19.3 million.
Should LA find the cap space that allowed them to tag one of these players, it would only be the tenth time since its introduction in 1993 that the Rams used it. The prior instances:
- 1998: CB Ryan McNeil
- 2001: DE Kevin Carter
- 2003, 2004, 2005: OT Orlando Pace
- 2009: S O.J. Atogwe
- 2016, 2017: CB Trumaine Johnson
- 2018: S LaMarcus Joyner
McNeil led the NFL with nine interceptions in 1997, his first season with the Rams. He was tagged and then had just one pick in 1998, leaving for the Cleveland Browns in 1999. Had McNeil signed the deal offered to him by St. Louis in ‘98 — four years, $13 million — he would have not only made $5.6 million that year (he made $3 million on the tag), he may well have been a part of the Super Bowl champs instead of the expansion Browns.
(McNeil also turned down a four-year, $8 million contract with the Detroit Lions before signing his one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Rams in 1997. Ironically, McNeil founded the company Professional Business & Financial Network after his career and published OT Magazine, which specifically tailored itself to helping athletes manage their money. Or perhaps not ironically, since McNeil had mistakes to learn from.)
Carter was a classic use of the tag, being a top pick in 1995 then leading the NFL in sacks as the team won the Super Bowl in 1999. He played one more season with the Rams and got the tag in February 2001 after a “disappointing” season with 10.5 sacks, with few expecting him to actually return to the team. On March 28, he was traded to the Tennessee Titans to be paired with Javon Kearse, and the Rams got the 29th overall pick in the draft. That pick turned into nose tackle Ryan Pickett.
Pace was tagged for three consecutive years and he played in all 48 games of those seasons, making the Pro Bowl each time. Pace met with the Houston Texans in the 2005 offseason but eventually he signed a seven-year, $52.9 million deal to remain with the Rams. In 2006 he missed eight games and in 2007 he missed 15. He ended up playing for St. Louis for four of those seven seasons on the original deal but never again at the level he was at for 2005.
Similar to McNeil, Atogwe had a season where he really blew up, intercepting eight passes in 2007 as the starting free safety. He came back with five more picks in 2008 but accolades like the Pro Bowl always alluded him. Not money though, as the team tagged him following his 13 picks from 2007-2008 and he eventually settled for $6.3 million to play the 2009 season. He was solid enough to sign a five-year, $32 million contract in 2010 but was released only one year later. Atogwe was out of the NFL by 2012.
Then there’s Johnson, who is the third DB on this list to turn a high interception total into a franchise tag. Johnson intercepted seven passes in only 14 games in 2015 then was deemed the team’s franchise corner over teammate Janoris Jenkins, who left via free agency to sign with the New York Giants. Jenkins made the Pro Bowl in 2016 but Johnson played well enough to earn himself another tag in 2017. After another pretty decent season, the Rams could no longer afford to play tag with Johnson and he signed a five-year, $72.5 million deal with the New York Jets.
Johnson has missed virtually half of the last two seasons and is a potential cap casualty candidate.
Finally, Joyner became the sixth player and fourth DB to get tagged by the Rams when they designated him their franchise player in 2018. As a cornerback from 2014-2016, Joyner never quite lived up to the potential that Jeff Fisher saw in him when he was drafted in the second round. Taking over at free safety for Mo Alexander in 2017, Joyner found his place under new head coach Sean McVay and shined enough in 12 games to be tagged and receive $11 million in 2018.
He played pretty well that season and the Rams made the Super Bowl, but they were okay with letting him leave this time as he signed a four-year, $42 million contract with the Raiders. After receiving good-to-excellent coverage grades in the two years prior, Joyner received one of PFF’s worst coverage grades in 2019. Always take grades with a huge grain of salt but Joyner didn’t seem to enjoy Jon Gruden’s defense as much as he had seemed to grow under Wade Phillips.
So the Rams have used the tag nine times on six players over nearly 30 years. It helped them keep Pace for a couple of his prime years and landed them a first round pick which turned into a pretty good defensive tackle who played for the team for five seasons. Other than some fringe benefits, like some extra time with some good players, that’s about all the tag has brought them.
They don’t seem to be in a position to use the tag on Fowler or Littleton right now, but that won’t necessarily lead to a worse outcome.