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Anthony Barr, Malik Jackson among players Rams could target in free agency

Anthony Barr, Malik Jackson among players Rams could target in free agency
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr could be one player the Rams might pursue in free agency. (Kevin Terrell / Associated Press)

Headline-grabbing moves that address needs before the start of free agency are becoming staples of the Rams’ playbook.

The Rams did it again Sunday, agreeing on a contract with edge rusher Dante Fowler. Terms were not disclosed, but the deal is for one year, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

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It was the Rams’ second major move in three days. On Friday they signed six-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who had been released by the Baltimore Ravens.

The offseason aggressiveness continues what is becoming a trend under general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay during the run-up to free agency, which begins with the NFL’s “legal tampering” period Monday and officially opens Wednesday.

Last year, the Rams traded for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib before the market opened. Both helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl.

So did Fowler. The No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft was dynamic and productive after he was acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fowler had two sacks and made several game-turning plays. His hit on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the NFC championship game helped force an interception that led to the game-winning field goal.

The Rams had an opportunity to put the franchise tag on Fowler, 24, but the cost of $15.4 million was thought to be prohibitive. He appeared to be headed to the open market.

But Snead said at the NFL scouting combine that Fowler was “our biggest priority” and “the domino” whose situation would determine how the Rams proceeded in regard to edge rushers.

The Rams struck a deal with Fowler less than 24 hours before the “legal tampering” period, when representatives for free agents can negotiate with teams during a 48-hour window. Contracts can be signed Wednesday when the new league year begins.

Fowler remains in place as a starter while Weddle replaces Lamarcus Joyner, one of 11 pending unrestricted free agents from a Rams team that earned the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 2001 season. Other starters who will test the market include defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, offensive lineman Rodger Saffold and running back C.J. Anderson, who filled in for and then shared time with Todd Gurley.

Cornerback Sam Shields, linebackers Ramik Wilson, Bryce Hager, Matt Longacre and Dominique Easley, defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks and backup quarterback Sean Mannion also are unrestricted free agents. Middle linebacker Cory Littleton, safety Blake Countess, cornerback Troy Hill and running back Malcolm Brown are restricted free agents.

Weddle’s signing — he received a two-year, $10.5-million deal — marked the first major addition to a roster the Rams trimmed last week when they released linebacker Mark Barron and declined to exercise their option on center John Sullivan, creating about $13.5 million in salary-cap space.

The cap for next season is $188.2 million. The Rams had about $36 million in cap space before contracts for Weddle and Fowler are added, according to OverTheCap.com.

Last year, the Rams went into free agency in the midst of an impasse with star defensive tackle Aaron Donald. They signed Shields and Wilson to modest one-year contracts, Suh to a huge one. They then traded for receiver Brandin Cooks and signed him to an $80-million extension. Gurley received a $60-million extension a few weeks later, and the Rams signed Donald to a $135-million extension about 10 days before the season opener.

Looming, perhaps after next season, is a possible extension for quarterback Jared Goff. So the Rams are not expected to break the bank in free agency.

Here are some areas they could address:

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Defensive linemen

New defensive line coach Eric Henderson replaced Bill Johnson, and he is expected to oversee a reconfigured line anchored by Donald, the two-time NFL defensive player of the year.

Suh earned $15 million last season in salary and bonuses, so if he returns, it would be at a significantly reduced rate.

Malik Jackson, recently released by the Jaguars, played for Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with the Denver Broncos and attended Lake Balboa Birmingham High and USC before finishing his college career at Tennessee.

Inside linebackers

Barron was released and the Rams have a decision to make regarding Littleton.

An undrafted free agent in 2016, Littleton started at middle linebacker last season and was voted to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player. Because he’s a restricted free agent, the Rams can designate him a first-round tender at $4.4 million, a second-round tender at $3.1 million, or an original-round tender at $2 million.

Littleton can negotiate with any team, but if he accepts an offer sheet, the Rams would have the right of first refusal and five days to match the offer. If they don’t, they receive compensation in draft picks.

But there is no compensation for the loss of players with original-round tenders.

Micah Kiser, a fifth-round pick last year, played mainly on special teams but could provide a stout presence in place of Barron.

Jordan Hicks, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Barr are the top three free-agent linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.

Offensive linemen

Starting left guard Saffold is hitting the market and appears positioned to cash in. Sullivan also will test the market.

The Rams got good news when Andrew Whitworth announced he’d return for next season. But this might be his last.

Versatile Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen, drafted last season, can fill the vacancies if Saffold and Sullivan move on. But the Rams might seek to add depth. Matt Paradis and Mitch Morse are available centers, though Morse probably will command too high of a price.

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