Scenarios For The Los Angeles Rams To Fix Their Cap
Ok, everybody. That was a fun week. Matthew Stafford is a Ram, Sean McVay has a fun new toy to play with and Jared Goff is now someone else’s problem. Hope you enjoyed that because now it’s time to get back to cold hard reality. The Rams are way over the salary cap. And, adding insult to injury, the cap is decreasing for only the second time in 27 years.
We won’t know the exact cap ceiling for some time, but the figure being batted around is $176 million, down from $198.2 million in 2020. This puts the Rams over by some $39.5 million. It sounds similar to last off-season, but, believe it or not, this year the margin for error is even slimmer with even fewer assets to work with. Last offseason’s moves left some position groups pretty thin and if they wish to continue their winning ways the Rams will have to thread the needle this offseason.
So how do the Rams dig out of this hole? Let’s take a look at a few scenarios for the Rams to fix the cap.
Firstly, some easy accounting. The Rams have $5.6 million in leftover cap space from 2020 and they will get as much as $2 million in dead cap relief off the Todd Gurley contract with the Falcons. Only $32 million left to go!
The Rams biggest tool this offseason will be to restructure several key contracts. It is assumed that Stafford’s contract will be retooled. Currently, Stafford adds an additional $7.25 million hit to the cap. The Rams can try to pro-rate his bonus or extend his contract and backload his deal with guaranteed money. According to Over The Cap, the biggest savings would come if the Rams added a voidable year, add a fat signing bonus, and spread that money out as much as possible. This would result in Stafford’s hit being a scant $4.86 million, a $15.14 million reduction.
Of course, this depends on the Rams willingness to commit to Stafford before seeing what he actually looks like in the McVay offense. Everyone is very optimistic at this point, but the Rams were pretty high on Goff at one point, too. Furthermore, this will depend on Stafford agreeing to a longer contract. He only has a few more years in his prime and might want a shot at one last big payday. There are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, but ultimately a restructure of this contract is imminent and the Rams may have some leverage in negotiations.
While most see this as Stafford bailing out the Rams, it could be framed as the Rams giving Stafford a second chapter in his career to show he can propel a winning team. Most blame the Lions organization as the reason the team has come up short, but there is a case that Stafford never pushed Detroit over the top. There are several examples of QBs that put up great numbers, like Stafford, but never get an opportunity like the Rams are offering him. Stafford wanted out of Detroit so that he could contend. Meaning, the more team-friendly a contract Stafford accepts, the better the Rams chances of making a Super Bowl will be.
The Rams have been dragging their feet on restructuring Aaron Donald‘s contract for a few years. It seems to be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option for the head office. What this will look like is a huge upfront bonus for Donald that comes right out of the petty cash drawer of Stan Kronke rather than from the cap, but the short-term result will be creating a bunch of cap space.
Rebuilding those two contracts alone could save the Rams at least $25 million. There are also scenarios to restructure other top contracts on the books that will get the current roster under the golden dollar amount. Stafford and Donald are the most likely restructures, but Jalen Ramsey, Rob Havenstein, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp could be offered adjusted deals to get the math to work out. But again, this also relies on how generous ownership wants to be.
All of those deals can be handled within friendly confines and cap-management guru Tony Pastoors knows there’s always money in the banana stand, but what this doesn’t account for is free agency.
The Rams have the pillars of their team under contract, but there are some pieces to watch. Leonard Floyd and John Johnson are both going to be up for big paydays this offseason. Les Snead assumes they can keep both and balance the books, but he recognizes that they both could fetch a higher offer than the Rams could beat.
Floyd had a career year. Some posit that this is what happens when you play alongside Aaron Donald. Dante Fowler’s production fell way off when he left the team, but Fowler still got a $45 million contract from Atlanta. Teams are desperate for edge rushers and this means someone will be willing to overpay Floyd and the Rams aren’t in the position to overpay anyone. Their best option is to use their first pick in the draft on a replacement. It is really the only place to get talent at a fair price for the position. They could try their luck in free agency, but it will be hit or miss. The draft is never a guarantee, but a far less costly risk on a whole.
Johnson is also due for a big new contract. The Rams drafted him in 2017 and developed him into a quality starter. Last season, he ran the defense on the field for Brandon Staley and was a big reason the backfield was so successful. Not only will Johnson be getting a lot of interest in the open market, but he may also get his biggest offer from the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers have plenty of cap space and Staley obviously has an affinity for him. It would also give him some versatility with Derwin James and would create the best safety tandem in the NFL. Even if other teams don’t value him high enough, Staley will. Over The Cap puts his yearly valuation at over $8 million per. Keeping Johnson a Ram will be nearly impossible.
But that doesn’t mean they will have to go out and find a replacement. The Rams have several quality safeties on the roster. 2020 6th rounder, Jordan Fuller was a pleasant surprise. He played 69% of the defensive snaps and snagged three picks. Taylor Rapp should be healthy and starting in 2021 and both Terrell Burgess and Nick Scott proved to be viable backups. New defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, spent most of his days as a defensive backs coach and is skilled at developing young talent. Losing Johnson is a hit, but safety is an area the Rams can absorb a blow with the defensive backs they have currently.
Of course, not signing these guys doesn’t help fix the cap, but it clarifies where the Rams will need to spend in free agency and how much room they will need to make?
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They will likely need to target a linebacker, a wide receiver, and decide what they want to do at center.
To get a free agent linebacker and wide receiver the Rams will have to clear between $2 million to $3.5 million for next season alone. Both contracts will likely be four-year commitments costing up to $16 million for a linebacker and $24 million for the wide receiver. With the kind of leverage they are bringing to the open market, the Rams will have to be savvy in their selection. For a wide receiver, they will be looking for a guy with a specific skill set.
They have two Pro Bowl caliber receivers but lack a vertical threat. Their best bet is to target a receiver that matches that profile, but wants to be in a better offense or is buried in the depth chart. This receiver’s agent will still want a good contract, but the player will want a chance to shine.
As far as linebackers, the Rams need depth and experience, not necessarily top-end talent. They will just be looking for a guy that can stay on the field and play consistently. The players currently on the roster haven’t shown they can do that. So just adding a guy that can do the basics will be a vast improvement. It will allow the rest of the group to heal and develop.
The Austin Blythe decision is a tough nut to crack. He is a free agent this offseason. He was a competent center last season, but that was with Goff. The QB/ Center relationship is obviously one of the most important in football. Whatsmore, it’s unlikely the Rams would get a plug and play center from the draft, and going out and finding a bargain in free agency would be as expensive as keeping Blythe. Of course, keeping Blythe adds consistency, but how much does that matter with a new quarterback?
In terms of cap, the best-case scenario is playing with the cards they’ve been dealt. Blythe made a big jump in 2020 after replacing Brian Allen at center. The Rams may need to rely on the same happening with Austin Corbett. Before joining the Rams, Corbett played center for the Browns and he has been regarded as a versatile interior lineman since before he was drafted. But there must have been a good reason the Rams went with Blythe over Corbett, to begin with.
Moving Corbett to center leaves Brian Allen or Joseph Noteboom to start at right guard. Neither has played stellar when given the chance, but in order to fix the cap, this may be the offensive line scenario the Rams will be left with.
The good news for the Rams is that Stafford doesn’t need as much of a pristine pocket as Goff required. Stafford is a bit more mobile than Goff and is much better at making decisions under pressure. It isn’t ideal, but these are the necessary moves the team has to make to fix the cap.
The last scenario to look at is cutting or trading players under contract. With as lean as they are already running, cutting will have to be done with a scalpel. They will already be losing plenty of guys to free agency, too. Malcolm Brown, Gerald Everett, Josh Reynolds, and Troy Hill may all be on other teams next season.
The Rams will have to make a decision at nose tackle. While A’Shawn Robinson has the largest contract, cutting or trading Sebastian Joseph-Day has the biggest effect on the cap. But even that is only saving a few hundred thousand. Adding an inside linebacker may allow them to move on from Kenny Young saving about $1.5 million.
Who the Rams add in the draft may give them depth to cut some slightly overvalued contracts. As I said, these are just surgical cuts that will be made to free up just the right amount of space.