We are still over a month away from the start of the legal tampering period (March 11th) for free agency and we don't know who will get franchise tags and who won't, so it is still early to formulate concrete plans for how the Rams could proceed. That said, these are the basic steps for how I would attack FA for the Rams in 2024.
1. Don't make any offer to Kevin Dotson prior to the start of FA. Handling FA isn't like a video game where it is all about numbers. Human psychology plays a factor in trying to get to a "yes" and reach agreements with another party. Fans always approach Dotson's situation from the team's POV, but almost never look at it from the player's POV. Pretend for a moment that you were Dotson's agent. Per Spotrac, Dotson's projected contract is 4 years with a $16.5 million salary. PFF had it at 4 years with a $17.25 million salary. Yardbarker had it at 4 years $18 million salary. AtoZsports had it the same at 4 years and $18 million salary. Pretend for a moment that those were 4 actual offers from NFL teams. The average of those 4 offers would be $17.4 million per year in salary, all 4 year contracts.
I've seen it suggested that what we should do is hold the line and offer Dotson a "medium tier" offer, maybe something like $10 to $13 million per season. If you were his agent and tomorrow on February 8th you got an $11 million salary opening offer from the Rams, how would you react?
If I were Dotson's agent, my job is to promote the interests of my client. I'm not here to be a nice guy, I'm a killer shark for him. I'm trying to get him paid. If the Rams made an offer like that I would be insulted. I'd consider it a "low ball" offer. $11 million is only 63% of $17.4 million. You aren't just asking for a discount the 1st season, you are taking a big chunk out of his pay all 4 seasons, with a reduction in all the other terms (i.e. the total guaranteed money and the total likely to be earned cash in the deal will all be reduced accordingly.) I wouldn't even make a counteroffer to Snead, I'd be so steaming mad. I'd advise my client that our approach would be to ignore it and send the Rams a politely worded reply to the effect of "Thank you for your interest, but we decline to accept your offer at this time. My client is looking forward to the start of free agency. Have a nice day."
Look at a list of the NFL teams with the most effective salary cap space this year. The top teams have monster amounts of space compared to the Rams. Notice anything about those teams? All of them have a pressing need for an offensive guard. Even the Detroit Lions would be a good candidate to pursue Dotson, because they very likely will see Jonah Jackson leave in FA and with Graham Glasgow being an older player coming off a cheap 1-year contract, they might be reluctant to want to invest heavily in him. Read the tea leaves. The phone lines for Dotson's agent could burn up. There should be calls from many teams who have plenty of cash to spend.
If you low ball Dotson out of the gate, you could "poison the water" and ruin any chance of trying to get him later if the market turns out to be softer than expected or if for some reason he just doesn't like the idea of joining a particular team. If I were Snead I'd say something to the effect of "Thanks for everything you did this past season, couldn't be happier that we traded for you and that you were on our team. Sounds like you're going to land a big contract in free agency. Wish the Rams had more cap space, but there's a financial side to this business and we can't spend at the top of the market like some of the other teams, I'm sure you can understand that. Don't forget about us, because you fit perfectly with our scheme. There isn't another team in the NFL that would showcase your talent as well as the Rams. So, if for whatever reason you don't like the other offers that are on the table, you can always call us. Even if you wanted to come back on a 1-year deal then try to hit the market again in 2025, the best place for you to do that would be with the Rams." I'd leave it at that.
If Dotson's agent calls you during the tampering period, now the Rams have leverage. That's a sign that maybe he's not getting as big an offer as projected and that is when you try to negotiate a lower price or a shorter-term deal instead of a 4-year contract. You don't try to negotiate it before FA, because the Rams have no leverage in the talks at that point in time. The agent will try to push that number up to test whether the Rams are desperate. There's absolutely no reason for Dotson to take such a big discount prior to testing the market. Why would he do that? It makes zero sense from his POV. If you try to put an $11 million offer out early, it makes you look like "the bad guy" taking advantage of him, but if you wait and make that exact same offer later after he's getting say $12 to $15 million offers from other teams instead of the expected $16 to $18 million, now you look like a "good guy" and the offer feels much more reasonable.
One of the concerning stats with Dotson is that his rate of blown pass blocks (per SIS) and his pass blocking efficiency rate in 2023 were both the worst of his 4-year NFL career. His very high PFF grade was largely driven by having a very high run blocking grade and in general pass blocking is more valuable than run blocking in today's NFL.
The second reason I'm not going to sign Dotson prior to the start of FA is I want to have maximum available cash to try to pursue a "big fish" FA. Dotson isn't the biggest fish in the sea. On the SportingNews list of top FAs, he's only the 31st ranked player. On CBSSports he's 28th. Who am I saving the money to pursue? Let's start with the guy who was ranked 3rd and 7th best, respectively on those 2 rankings.
2. The "Big Fish", Justin Madubuike, DT. I mentioned this guy months ago, possibly before we even played the Ravens in the regular season, I don't exactly remember. He had a breakout 2023 season with 56 tackles, 13 sacks, 12 TFLs, 33 QB hits, 33 pressures, all career highs. He was named 2nd team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl. He had the 6th best QB pressure rate among DTs, per SIS and the 8th most SIS points among DTs. He was tied with Chris Jones of the Chiefs in TFLs per SIS, 4th best among DTs. His 77.4 overall PFF grade was 16th out of 130 players at interior DL.
Spotrac estimated his FA contract to be 4 years with a $20.3 million salary. This is potentially low, because recent deals for players such as Quinnen Williams, Justin Simmons, Daron Payne and Dexter Lawrence all were for more money, $22 to $24 million salary range for 4 years. The franchise tag amount for him is estimated to be about $21 million, which normally is where a negotiated salary would begin.
The Ravens presumably will try to keep Madubuike, but they have other mouths to feed and could prioritize someone like Patrick Queen instead. Understandably, the Rams are focused on EDGE rushers, but those guys are less likely to hit the market, they are more likely to get franchise tagged, maybe traded after being tagged.
3. The "medium price" targets: Dalton Risner, guard. Hunter Henry, tight end. Andrew Van Ginkel, EDGE defender. Kevin Zeitler, guard.
Sounds like other guards like Isaiah Wynn of the Dolphins won't make it to the market. Risner. Coming off some type of injury, Risner only got a 1-year contract for $3 million in FA. He started 11 games in 2023 for the Vikings. They traded Ezra Cleveland in the middle of 2023 and having Risner contributed to the decision to make that deal. Per ESPN, Risner had the 5th best pass block win rate in 2023 among guards.
Over Kevin Dotson's 4-year career, he has averaged 24 SIS points per season. Risner over 5 seasons has almost exactly the same average, 23 SIS points per season. Dotson averages 9.25 SIS run blocking points per year, while Risner has averaged 11 run blocking points, a better score. Risner only had a 57.1 PFF grade last season. He's never had a PFF regular season grade of at least 70 in his career. So, the Rams wouldn't be getting a Pro Bowl type guard. The advantage vs Dotson would obviously be price.
PFF compared Risner's potential contract to Connor McGovern in 2023, which would be a 3-year deal with a $7.45 million salary. This is exactly $10 million less per year than the average for Dotson that we calculated above. Plus, it would be for 3 years instead of 4 years, reducing the risk of dead money down the road. Adjusted for the increase in the salary cap, the proposed deal for Risner would be very similar to the 2022 contract the Rams gave to Brian Allen.
Hunter Henry has struggled to stay healthy. He seems to get hurt every season. When healthy, he's been a good player. Importantly for the Rams, Henry is a traditional "Y" TE who scores above average in run blocking per SIS and he's been a reliable receiver. in 2021, he had the 6th most pass receiving SIS points among all NFL tight ends. Spotrac estimates a 1 year, $7.6 million deal for Henry and CBSSports suggested 2 years with a $7.1 million salary. I don't know if teams will want to invest in an older TE with durability issues, but a 1-year contract sounds like the way to go, we just need a stop-gap solution if Tyler Higbee can't play for most or all of the 2024 season.
For years, Andrew Van Ginkel was known primarily as a special teams star and just a serviceable starter. In 2023, he arguably demolished that conventional wisdom, with a 91.1 PFF grade, ranking 7th best among all NFL edge defenders. He had a stellar 42 SIS points, one of the highest scoring LBs in the NFL in 2023. Among LBs with at least 200 pass rush snaps, how did he place in terms of QB pressure rate in 2023? He was the very best LB in the entire NFL with a great 18.9% pressure rate. Over his career, he has an excellent 15.2% pressure rate.
Skeptics could argue that he was really a backup who only played so much due to an injury to another player, that Miami has so many other great pass rushers that it inflated Van Ginkel's stats and that he misses quite a few tackles, plus he suffered a foot injury right at the end of the 2023 season. We're not talking, however, about giving him a Kevin Dotson sized contract. AtoZsports estimated his contract to be a 2-year $15 million deal ($7.5 million salary) after he played on a cheap 1-year $2.65 million deal last season.
Samson Ebukam got a 3-year deal with an $8 million salary in 2023, so it seems reasonable to put Van Ginkel in that territory. Even if he just wanted a one-year contract so that he could try to break the bank in FA in 2025, that would be fine with me. Effectively, instead of paying Dotson, we could take that money and get Risner to be the new guard, then take the rest of the money and add an EDGE rusher, and since we aren't committed to a long term 4 year deal with either player, we'd have more financial flexibility to spend down the road in future seasons or to make a trade during 2024 and add another player in the middle of the season.
Kevin Zeitler was named the 37th best FA per Sporting News, behind Kevin Dotson at 31. Zeitler has been a steady player for the Ravens but he's also about to turn 34 years old and they have other FA priorities. One estimate projected his contract at one year and $6 million. Even if the Rams draft a lineman this year, that rookie might not be ready to contribute, so we could use a vet like Zeitler as a one-year stop-gap solution, let the rookie apprentice behind him with the intention of taking over in 2025.
4. Low priced targets: Zack Baun, EDGE. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB. Dameon Pierce, RB. Greg Gaines, DL. David Edwards, G. Taylor Rapp, S. Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Derrick Barnes, LB. Matt Hennessy, C. Shaquill Griffin, CB. Davis Mills, QB.
For most of his career, Baun was a special-teams player and I considered him to be a big draft bust. As a rotational player in 2023, Baun flashed signs of developing into a decent defender, not just a ST guy. Baun had 16 QB pressures in 2023 after only getting a total of 3 over the first 3 years of his career. he had the first 2 sacks of his career in 2023. He had a 13.2% pressure rate, superior to the starting EDGE rushers for the Rams (Byron Young was at 10.4%) and he had a 71.1 PFF grade.
I'd suggest the same deal that Obo Okoronkwo got from the Texans in 2022 after leaving the Rams. Obo didn't make much of an impression during his time as a Ram, but certain pass rush metrics hinted that he was beginning to emerge his final season in horns. In 2022, Obo produced a very surprising 17.6% pressure rate for the Texans, though he only had 5 sacks. He had 42 QB pressures on only 251 pass rush snaps. Byron Young in 2023 had 47 pressures on 452 pass rushing snaps, so Young only had a few more pressures despite getting 200 more pass rush opportunities. Obo played less than half of their defensive snaps in 2022. Per ESPN he had the 4th best run stop win rate among all NFL EDGE defenders. He had a 75.1 PFF grade.
Obo had a 1 year $3.25 million contract in 2022. We effectively paid Coleman Shelton a 1-year $2.75 million to stay in 2023. As a percentage of the cap, if we signed Baun to Obo's deal, it would be approximately the same as Shelton's contract for 2023.
Spotrac estimates CEH at a 1-year $1.7 million deal, very cheap. RBs don't cost much, especially a RB who averaged an anemic 3.2 yards per carry in 2023. A RB like that would be lucky just to stay in the NFL. He got injured late in his rookie season, then injured his knee early in his 2nd season and after those injuries he doesn't look as dynamic as he was back in college. He's a very small RB and isn't fast, so he can't power through defenders or blow past them with pure speed. So, once he lost his ability to cut sharply and dodge tackles, he became a less effective runner. He's a tiny target for the QB to try to hit with passes. Over the last 3 seasons his SIS rushing point totals have been very poor. He gets very few yards after contact.
Not everything about him is terrible. CEH had a better broken tackle rate in 2023 than Christian McCaffrey. He has 3 career fumbles, regular season and playoffs combined, on 567 touches from scrimmage, a very solid ball security rate. Kyren Williams had as many dropped passes in 2023 (5, for a drop rate of 13.5%) as CEH does his entire career, with a 5.4% drop rate. In 2023, CEH had a 17.1% rate of forced missed or broken tackles, superior to 15.8% for Kyren Williams. When you add up all the factors, is CEH that much worse a RB than Williams? All we're trying to do is add the absolute cheapest RB we could find who is good enough to actually play in an NFL game to provide depth behind Kyren.
Dameon Pierce had a great rookie season in 2022 but got injured late in the year. He fell into a huge slump in 2023, gaining only 2.9 yards per carry, falling to 3rd string RB. The Texans used more of a power running in scheme in 2022, but switched to an outside-zone-based scheme in 2023. If you remember my draft profile about Pierce when he was coming out of Florida, he's not a zone scheme RB, he's more of a downhill RB. A recent article suggested that Houston needed to trade Pierce, Davis Mills (we'll talk about him in a moment) and Robert Woods for whatever they can get, then use those draft resources to try to bolster the team for a potential playoff run in 2024. Pierce has 2 years left on his rookie deal. His base salary is just under $1 million for 2024 and $1.1 million for 2025. For say a 6th round pick, would do a trade for Pierce and take him despite his terrible 2023 stats and his injury? Absolutely.
If Madubuike doesn't hit the market or is too expensive, I'd look at bargain basement guys to try to reinforce the DL and one candidate could be former Ram, Greg Gaines. He only had a 52.1 overall PFF grade in 2023, so he might at or close to the vet minimum salary for 1 year. When he was a Ram he helped plug the middle vs runs. In 2021, Gaines had the 6th best run stop win rate among DTs. You might remember that he played a key role at the end of the Bengals Super Bowl on the final drive. The Lions were able to push our DL around, including Jonah Williams. Even if it is just as a rotational backup, there could be value there in relation to a very low salary.
David Edwards was a backup for the Bills in 2023. He played about 2 games worth of snaps during the regular season with zero starts and he played about 3/4 worth of a game in the playoffs, no starts. He had an 82.7 PFF grade in the regular season, 91.9 grade in the playoffs for a total overall PFF grade of 90.2 in 2023. Yes, obviously he didn't play enough snaps to qualify for the rankings, but his grade was super high.
Edwards and Dotson have played almost the same number of snaps over their respective careers (2,949 and 2,787) and nearly exactly the same number of starts (45 and 44) with nearly exactly the same number of total SIS points earned (95 and 96), yet we're talking about Dotson getting upwards of $18 million per year in 2024 on a multi-year contract while Edwards played on a dirt cheap one-year $1.77 million contract in 2023.
In the summer of 2022, KA wrote an article on TST saying that Edwards was set up to get land a huge FA contract in 2023, likely north of $10 million per year. That never happened after Edwards had serious concussions during the 2022 season. The issue with Edwards was his durability and whether he was healthy enough to even play, but in terms of actual performance and production, the entire body of work for Edwards is just as strong as Dotson's career. Graham Glasgow was an often-injured player with talent and got a 1 year $2.75 million contract from Detroit for 2023, with incentives up to $4.5 million. If we offered Edwards a 1-year $2.75 million deal with no incentives, it would be nearly $1 million more than he got in 2023. It would be a cheaper deal per salary cap percentage than we paid to keep Austin Blythe years ago. That salary would be 15% of an $18 million salary for Dotson, with zero dead money risk for future seasons. If Edwards is just a backup, that's perfectly fine at that rate, he'd be a big bargain if he did exactly what he did for the Bills last season.
Russ Yeast had a better PFF grade in 2023 than Taylor Rapp. So, why in the world would we want to bring Rapp back? Well, first of all, Rapp had a 76.2 grade in 2022, while Yeast had a 57.0 grade in 2023, so it isn't like we took a giant leap forward with that exchange. Rapp has many limitations, particularly in pass coverage as a deep-lying safety. He's not good at man coverage. Those weaknesses are exactly why we might get him on a very cheap contract. Spotrac estimated Rapp to get a 2-year contract with a $5.5 million salary in 2024, but this seems way too high to me considering that he played on a dirt-cheap 1-year contract for $1.77 million in 2023 to be a backup for the Bills and didn't have a particularly strong season. Why wouldn't his market value remain the same?
The reason I still like Rapp at that price is what he does best is what Russ Yeast does the worst. Per SIS, Yeast had the very worst rate for missed and broken tackles among any safety in the NFL at an astronomically high 33% in 2023. Yeast missed 2 key tackles in the playoff loss to the Lions, one on a TD run and another one to help set up a critical long FG by Detroit. Per PFR, Yeast had a 21.8% missed tackle rate in 2023. That's like something you'd see from a CB who can't tackle. Per PFR, Rapp over his career has a 6.6% missed tackle rate. You'd be hard pressed to find many NFL safeties with a better success rate tackling. Antoine Winfield Jr., considered to be one of the top FAs in 2024, has a 6.8% career missed tackle rate, a fraction behind than Rapp.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a spectacular special teams player for the Detroit Lions last season. Over and over again he made great ST tackles or converted on trick plays (Dan Campell called several fake punts) and when called upon to be an injury replacement, he also contributed at linebacker. He made the Pro Bowl as a special teams player this year. He's a fan favorite and with the Lions poised to make a run at the Super Bowl next year, it doesn't make much sense for him to leave, so why would he join the Rams? Because we can offer him something they can't, one last chance to be a "starter" in his career.
The only season he's played a substantial share of defensive snaps was 2021 and he had an unimpressive 55.8 PFF grade. The Lions were horrible on defense that season, perhaps the worst defense in the entire NFL. Reeves-Maybin missed many tackles, he gave up passing yards, he was just okay as a pass rusher.
Detroit had 5 LBs who were all better than any Ram LB not named Ernest Jones. We have huge issues if Jones gets hurt and it didn't look to me like Jones should have even been on the field in the playoff game vs Detroit, he was so limited by an apparent injury that he could hardly do anything vs either the run or the pass. PFF gave him a 40.3 grade for the game. I credit Jones for being tough, trying to push through and play through pain, but at some point you're not really helping, you're hurting the team if you can't be effective. The problem for the Rams is an injured Ernest Jones might be exactly the same in effectiveness as a healthy version of any of the other LBs.
If Reeves-Maybin were a Ram, not only would he instantly make our special teams better (especially our punt coverage unit) but he'd have a good chance at beating out all the other LBs and be the "starter" next to Jones and the next-man-up if Jones got hurt. How many snaps the 2nd LB would play each game might vary since teams play so much nickel, but he'd get way more defensive snaps than he would with the Lions. If he wants a SB ring more than money and playing time, he might not be interested, but if he wants to be more than just a ST guy, we probably have the most wide-open LB situation in the entire NFL.
Detroit might want to keep Reeves-Maybin for special teams purposes. They guy they might be interested in trading is Derrick Barnes, who is entering the final season of his rookie deal. They have so many other LBs, they don't really need him anymore. He suffered a knee injury in the NFC title game, but reportedly no ACL damage. For a late round pick, they might be interested in parting ways with him. Barnes isn't suited to be the coverage LB next to Jones, he is too similar to Jones and is better just as an insurance-policy backup behind Jones, but he'd at least give us depth. We might lose him after his rookie contract expires, but he also might be a lower cost alternative to sign in 2025 if we think that Ernest Jones is too expensive.
Coleman Shelton barely made the top 75 FA list by SportingNews, coming in at 74th, better than Tyler Biadasz of the Dallas Cowboys. If we don't keep Shelton and need a new center, one candidate could be Matt Hennessy of the Atlanta Falcons. Due to injuries, Hennessy hardly played at all the last 2 seasons. A former 3rd rd pick, he had a 76.4 PFF grade in 2021. He had the 10th best run block win rate among centers in 2021. SIS saw it differently than ESPN's metrics, with his pass blocking being superior to his run blocking. Hennessy was a very athletic zone scheme run blocker in college but lacked mass and strength to anchor as a pass blocker. Given his injury history, if given a chance to potentially win the starting job, he might be willing to take a minimum 1-year "prove it" contract, hoping that a bounceback 2024 season would lead to a much better deal in 2025, similar to how we got John Sullivan after his back injury issues.
Shaq Griffin was a 3rd rd pick by the Seahwaks back in 2017. He got a lucrative FA deal from the Jags in 2021 but suffered a season-ending back injury in 2022 and was released the following summer. The Houston Texans waived him in the middle of the 2023 season and he finished the year with the Panthers. Spotrac estimated a contract for him at 1 year and $2.1 million. Last season, Griffin had a better PFF grade than Ahkello Witherspoon, despite switching teams in the middle of the year.
Davis Mills is a backup QB for the Houston Texans. He was a 3rd rd pick in 2021. When CJ Stroud got hurt last season, the Texans used Case Keenum instead of Mills, which disappointed Mills. He got mop-up duty in the blowout playoff victory vs the Browns. Mills had nearly as many INTs as TDs in 2022 when he started 15 games, very lousy overall stats. He was even worse in 2023 in limited action with his 46.2% completion rate even lower than his terrible 47.5 PFF grade. Maybe the Texans have given up hope that he can develop into even a good backup.
On the other hand, I thought Mills played well during the 2023 preseason. He had a 69.9 PFF grade for the preseason. Mills was drafted much earlier than I felt was merited. That said, he's a better QB than the players the Rams could draft on Day 3 in this year's draft and his $1.37 million base salary in the final year of his rookie contract is very reasonable. Mills is super intelligent, when he was in the draft he talked about football in interviews like a future coach. Maybe Sean McVay could develop him better than the Texans. Houston had a new OC in 2023, the first year he had ever been an OC at any level and their QB coach had never been a QB coach before at any level. Mills could audition with the Rams in 2024 and if McVay likes him we could try to sign him to a longer-term contract after the season.
So, there it is, that's my list of names to target in free agency, plus a couple of trades.