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How can the Rams afford all those players?

It’s the most common question

NFL: AUG 14 Preseason - Chargers at Rams Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“How can the Rams afford all those players? It’s gotta run out sometime, right?”

It’s the most common question I get. Okay, let’s talk about it.

If you don’t want to read this whole article, I’ll give you the shortest version possible first and if you don’t believe these words, then I guess you might need to continue reading. Otherwise, I believe this to be the truth of how the Rams can afford so many good players:

The salary cap isn’t as real as you think it is and as long as the players want to be there and the team wants them to be there, they’ll be there. The Rams found it smart to acquire star players via trade because that’s the easiest way to assure that you are aligned with star players, as the draft is a crapshoot and the competitiveness of free agency leads to the best players being overpriced. First round picks can also be costly and the Rams pass that savings onto “all those players.”

If that is not a good enough answer, then this is the long version:

First of all, we have to dismiss the belief that there is a hard salary cap and that any teams are ever in any real danger of losing key players as long as those players want to be there. Don’t believe me?

The 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Winning a Super Bowl is supposed to automatically price some of your players out of town, but everybody wanted to return and they did. Not only did Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Ross Cockrell, Leonard Fournette, and 11 other Tampa Bay free agents re-sign, but the Bucs were also able to give Chris Godwin the franchise tag.

The franchise tag!

On a Super Bowl team that already had Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Ali Marpet, and Ryan Jensen on expensive deals.

I am by no means a “salary cap expert” but when anybody asks about the salary cap at all, I think the best general rule is to start off with: “The salary cap is not real.”

As long as the players want to be there and the feeling is mutual, the rest will usually work itself out. Exceptions have to have happen in order for it to be a rule, and this year we saw that force Julio Jones out of Atlanta. (But even that case, not really.)

The rule is that the two sides want to be together and that wasn’t necessarily the case with Jones or the Falcons. Atlanta had the means to retain Jones without losing anyone, but that would have meant guaranteeing a lot of money to a 32-year-old receiver coming off of injury. Jones could have taken less money, but might have seen his opportunities fading with the Falcons and isn’t convinced that they’re going to be a playoff team.

So here’s another simple question and answer we can use:

Q: “How do the Rams afford all those players?”

A: “Because they mutually want to be together.”

Not good enough? Okay, let’s get into specifics of how they can manage to be together without necessarily having to take any discounts or in spite of the fact that Les Snead has handed out a ton of big dead money checks over the last few years.

No First Round Picks

One of the benefits of not picking in the first round is that you don’t have to pay first round players. You might not think that’s a lot of money right now but LA hasn’t had a first round pick since Jared Goff in 2016 and those cap hits can add up quickly. The Rams have avoided paying any first round players in the last five drafts.

Corey Davis, the receiver picked by the Titans with the 2017 draft pick sent to Tennessee in the Goff deal, had cap hits of: $4.6m, $5.7m, $6.9m, and $8.1m as of last year.

That’s $8.1 million to Corey Davis. Only four players on the 2021 LA Rams have a higher cap hit than $8.1 million.

I shouldn’t repeat Corey Davis so much because then people are going to think I’m talking about the draft and making arguments for or against other draft picks and that’s really not the point. The point is that instead of spending that $8.1 million on any 2017 draft pick, they used it to help pay for Aaron Donald. Or whatever.

In 2018, the Rams would have had the 23rd pick but they traded that to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks, and New England selected tackle Isaiah Wynn. That would incur a $3.6 million cap hit this year, and Wynn’s fifth-year option in 2022 is $10.4 million. That’s a lot of 2022 money that LA does not have to allocate for next season.

If the Rams had drafted any player at 23, it would be costly to them for at least 2021, if not 2022, and the team owes nothing else to Cooks right now. It’s a cost savings worth mentioning.

Moving down as far as they did in 2019, from originally picking 31st to eventually picking 61st, is also a notable savings.

The trade of two first round draft picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Jalen Ramsey meant that LA would have to pay Ramsey (a lot), but they were a little bit more able to do that thanks to not having to allocate funds to those two imaginary players. In the cases of K’Lavon Chaisson in 2020 and Travis Etienne in 2021, those contracts are a total of $13.3 million for Chaisson and $12.9 million for Etienne. Both spread out over for years.

It’s so weird to even have to say sentences like “$26.2 million might not sound like a lot of money” but here we are. Especially given how nervous I was to invest $50 in Dogecoin.

And here we are: The total combined salary cap figures for Chaisson and Etienne in 2021 is $5.3 million.

Cooper Kupp’s salary cap hit this year: $5.3 million.

These things do matter. The Rams will also have to pay Stafford eventually, but they won’t have to pay the two first round picks who end up with the Detroit Lions.

Let’s get to that next important point.

Who do the Rams have to pay and how much?

When someone says “How can the Rams afford all those players?” I guess it is most important to ask, “Which players?” Let’s start with the obvious ones:

Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, Andrew Whitworth, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods.

Not that there aren’t other “players” among those players but these might be the most well-known Rams today. Oh wait, there’s one more. Jared Goff. Because the Rams are actually paying him ... more than anybody who is actually on the team.

Jared Goff: $24.7 million (dead money)

Matthew Stafford: $20 million (livin’ money, dude)

When a player signs a contract, there’s a signing bonus and then it is spread out over the life of the contract to lower the cap hit. When the player is signed, the team still has to account for that signing bonus against its cap; you can’t trade away the bonus money, and that’s called “dead money.”

In the case of Donald, for example, he converted some of his 2021 salary (which would have all counted against this year’s cap) into a signing bonus (that can be spread out over multiple years).

The strange thing is that a $44.7 million cap hit for the quarterback position is not completely ridiculous anymore. While something will probably change next year, the Packers and Falcons are both set to have a $49 million cap hit at QB in 2022, the Vikings are at $48 million, and the Texans are at $41.5 million.

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott now all make over $40 million per year.

You also have to account for the fact that LA did save some money when they parted with Goff, which means that the net difference is not quite as bad as it first looks.

Meanwhile, the LA Rams are actually only in the middle of the pack for 2022 —$23.8 million — because they’ll be free of Goff’s contract and Stafford’s deal was pretty friendly. This will of course necessitate a contract extension for Stafford, but this isn’t something that LA has to be concerned with because they’ll be able to push his money to 2023 and beyond, when the not-real salary caps will be significantly higher.

By the way, the Eagles are paying a $33.8 million dead money hit for Carson Wentz.

Stafford is the team’s highest-paid player by cap hit in 2021, but at $20 million, he’s a fairly affordable “highest-paid player.’ Nine quarterbacks, two receivers, two interior defensive linemen, and five edge rushers have a higher 2021 cap hit than Stafford, and safety Tyrann Mathieu is only a couple hundred thousand behind.

More importantly, and quite surprisingly, Donald is the only other Rams player to make more than $10 million this year.

Thanks to OvertheCap.com, you can see the 2021 salary chart for LA:

Jalen Ramsey signed a contract extension in 2020 that pays him $20 million per season, but he only has a $9.7 million hit in 2021.

Rob Havenstein is next at $8.3 million.

Tyler Higbee is next at $7.5 million. And I didn’t even mention those two earlier. Because I don’t think people are asking me, “How do the Rams afford Tyler Higbee?” when they ask that question.

Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp both signed similar contract extensions in 2020 and they have similar cap hits of $5.8 and $5.3 million. Next year, those cap hits will go up to $18.3 million for Kupp and $15.7 million for Woods, but this year was just about being able to maneuver everyone’s deal in such a way that they could afford Goff. Whether he was on the team or he wasn’t — clearly there could have even been an element of the extensions being a part of a “Goff contingency plan.”

We’ll get to “Next year” in a moment, but no, it’s not going to be an issue next year either. Again, teams are able to do what they want as long as the players aren’t holding out, demanding trades, or leaving in free agency. You think the NFL, the most powerful and lucrative sports entertainment business in the country, isn’t gonna do what’s best for its teams at all times? What do you even think happens if a team is over the cap at a certain point? The NFL sends them to the CFL? No, every team complies with whatever sort of contract trickery it can think of and nobody is going to do anything about it.

When players get released, we call it a ‘cap casualty’ but it has nothing to do with the cap. It has to do with how the team perceives that player’s current value to the team and whether or not it aligns with their own values at that moment in time.

It’s not a cap casualty, it’s a ‘can’t casualty.’

Sometime the teams are wrong, but that’s usually what’s triggering the decision to release a player. The savings are bonus, often an expected one.

Back to the 2021 Rams:

Stafford is 10th in QB salary

Woods, Kupp have a combined $11.1 million salary, which on its own would rank 16th.

Higbee is 5th in TE salary

Whitworth is 17th in LT salary. He restructured his deal to bring the cap hit down to $5.6 million. This is a rare example of a player sacrificing for team success, usually to be found when said player is 40 and wants to win a Super Bowl.

Havenstein is 6th in RT salary.

Because LA pays so little to it’s interior offensive line and reserve offensive linemen, the Rams are only spending $24.5 million on the entire unit in 2021. That ranks 27th out of 32 NFL teams and is a big reason how “they can afford all those players.”

Assuming this is Whitworth’s last year, the Rams would also save over $13 million next year by his retirement and then will again have one of the least-expensive offensive lines in the NFL.

The Rams only spend $6.4 million at the running back position, and $21 million total on its receivers, with DeSean Jackson costing $3.2 million of that.

The entire 2021 LA Rams offense has an $82.3 million cap hit, which only ranks 24th in the NFL. Importantly, the Kansas City Chiefs rank 25th in offensive spending, the Baltimore Ravens rank 29th, and the Pittsburgh Steelers rank 31st, and any of them or the Rams could have a top-5 offense this season.

“Oh, players want to be there? Great, then money is not an issue.”

Cap isn’t real, son!

The Donald Rams-feld Effect

On the defense, the two obvious players are Donald and Ramsey, but it isn’t at all difficult to make those contracts work and to also hand out a four-year, $64 million contract to Leonard Floyd. Letting players like Cory Littleton walk was never about money, it was only about who the Rams thought was a long-term answer at certain positions for them.

Donald signed a six-year, $135 million contract in 2018 to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, but LA got through the worst of it last year when he had a $25 million cap hit. Being a salary cap manager is simply playing a puzzle game with money. It’s Tetris meets Tecmo.

By converting some of his salary this year, Donald’s cap hit is only $14.4 million, but then his next three cap hits are large like his biceps (but not nearly as guaranteed to bust a hole in your wallet with a swift punch): $26.75 million, $23.5 million, $26.25 million.

These are actually numbers that the Rams are willing to spend, so long as Donald continues to be healthy and performs like his usual self, and that’s why I wrote the other day that Donald could be asking for a new contract next year; though LA would incur some dead money hits, none of his 2022-2024 salary is guaranteed.

The other big money deal to look at would be Floyd’s, but because he was just re-signed this past March, that means that he’s in the first year of his contract. And the first year of the contract is almost always the bargain year for teams, as they keep the base salary exceptionally low as compared to future seasons: Floyd’s base salary in 2021 is $2 million, but it jumps to $16.5 million in 2022.

Despite the fact that the LA Rams have one of the more star-studded rosters in the league, the only teams who have fewer players with cap hits of at least $10 million in 2021 are the Saints and Panthers, who each have one. The Rams have two players above that mark, same as the Broncos, Jets, Texans, and Bills. Yes, LA has fewer $10 million players than the Jaguars, Bengals, and Lions; Detroit has three, including Goff.

To summarize these big name contracts, the Rams had to hit a salary cap of $186.3 million, and the following cap hits total $66.5 million:

Matthew Stafford - $20

Aaron Donald - $14.4

Jalen Ramsey - $9.7

Robert Woods - $5.9

Andrew Whitworth - $5.7

Leonard Floyd - $5.5

Cooper Kupp - $5.3

That leaves the Rams with roughly $120 million left to spend.

We know that about $25 million of that goes to Jared Goff, leaving $95 million for the roster. The rest of the offensive line besides Whitworth gets about $19 million, bringing it down to $76 million. Add Tyler Higbee, A’Shawn Robinson, and a first round tender for Darious Williams, and the Rams are at $57 million in cap space. There’s another $8.4 million in dead money for Todd Gurley, plus $3.3 million for Floyd’s previous deal, and $2.6 million for Michael Brockers: roughly $43 million remaining. Should they keep the NFL’s most expensive punter, it goes to $38 million. Sign one new free agent named DeSean Jackson, now LA is around $34 or $35 million.

Most of what’s remaining goes to players on rookie contracts and as of today, the Rams actually have approximately $11 million in cap space left. Should they do nothing, some savings would roll into the 2022 salary cap and that’s another reason that 2022 will not become a concern.

The 2022 salary cap has a $208.2 million cap, which is still about $26 million more than it was this year. There will also be $13 million in savings for the Rams if Whitworth is released/retires, and plenty of other areas to find room in the form of releases, trades, restructures, and a re-negotiation/extension for Stafford. Essentially, there don’t appear to be any problems on the horizon either.

Even pending 2022 free agents like Darious Williams, Austin Corbett, Joseph Noteboom, Kenny Young, Matt Gay, or Sebastian Joseph-Day could likely be retained, should the Rams want to make any of those pacts happen.

And so that’s how the Rams can afford all those players.