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Rams have decision to make on Joyner and Watkins as franchise-tag deadline looms

Rams have decision to make on Joyner and Watkins as franchise-tag deadline looms
Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner makes a tackle on Falcons running back Devonta Freeman during the NFC wild-card playoff game at the Coliseum on Jan. 6. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams moved Lamarcus Joyner from slot cornerback to safety last season and watched him develop into a budding star.

They acquired oft-injured Sammy Watkins in a training-camp trade, and then saw him catch a team-best eight touchdown passes and not miss a game because of injury.

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Now it’s decision time for coach Sean McVay, general manger Les Snead and other Rams executives.

Joyner and Watkins are among the NFL’s most desirable pending free agents at their positions.

Tuesday at 1 p.m. PST is the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag to one player. And barring last-minute deals with Joyner and Watkins, or one of them, the Rams are on track to make a choice about which one to tag.

“We’re well aware it’s in the back pocket,” Snead, at the scouting combine last week, said of the franchise-tag option.

A franchise tag binds a pending unrestricted free agent to the team for one year. The player is guaranteed a salary no less than the average of the five highest-paid players at his position, or 120% of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater. Players and teams also can continue to work toward an extension or long-term contract until July 16.

Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson earned nearly $31 million the last two seasons playing under the franchise tag. The Rams are expected to let Johnson test free agency and, perhaps, offer him a long-term deal after ascertaining the market.

The Rams have been trying to re-sign Joyner, 27, since before last season. He was a second-round draft pick in 2014, so the Rams could not exercise a fifth-year option, as NFL teams can do with first-round picks.

After intercepting three passes last season — including one he returned for a touchdown — Joyner would be a sought-after commodity if he hits the free-agent market.

So it’s no surprise that McVay described Joyner as a “huge priority” at the combine.

Tagging Joyner might be a smart play because of his value to the defense — and also the cost. Franchise-tagged safeties are will earn $11.2 million under a salary cap that was reportedly set at $177.2 million by the NFL on Monday.

Franchise-tagged receivers are projected to earn nearly $16 million.

That’s a steep price for Watkins, 24, who caught only 39 passes. But Watkins, the fourth player chosen in the 2014 draft, was working from behind with the Rams after he was acquired in August from the Buffalo Bills, who had not exercised their fifth-year option because of Watkins’ injury history.

The Rams would like to see what Watkins could do with a full offseason and training camp of preparation. They also would not like to see Watkins end up with an NFC West Division rival such as the San Francisco 49ers, who are expected to be active in the free-agent receiver market now that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is in place.

But the Rams could let Watkins test the market, which is expected to be well below $16 million per year, and then come back with a competitive offer knowing Watkins enjoyed playing in Los Angeles with a franchise that has the look of an annual playoff contender.

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Since trading for Watkins, the Rams also knew that they would probably recoup a third-round compensatory draft pick if he played for them for a year and then left via free agency.

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