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Rams study draft prospects with little cap space left to sign free agents

Todd Gurley readies to put on his helmet at a Rams practice last season.
Running back Todd Gurley is one of the Rams with a large contract that leaves the team with little space under the salary cap.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

During the previous three years, when the Rams were NFL darlings on the rise, scouting combine news conferences for coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead drew large crowds of reporters.

The groups were noticeably smaller Tuesday.

Last season, the Rams finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time under McVay. That has made for little offseason buzz — and a quieter combine presence.

Unlike the last two years, the Rams’ contingent did not arrive here in the immediate aftermath of a blockbuster trade or major personnel announcement.

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“I don’t necessarily say you love all the attention, but I do know this: If you’re more successful, you get more attention, so we want to be more successful,” McVay told beat reporters after he stepped down from the podium.

Rams haven’t had a first-round pick since 2016, but have six picks in the April 23-25 draft, one each in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.

How the Rams move forward remains to be seen.

With quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive lineman Aaron Donald playing under megacontracts, the Rams have only about $15 million in salary-cap space, according to overthecap.com.

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Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, edge rusher Dante Fowler, defensive lineman Michael Brockers and linebacker Cory Littleton are among pending free agents. And the Rams gave up first-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 as part of a midseason trade for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who will earn about $13.7 million during the upcoming season and is expected to demand a record-breaking extension.

“There’s really no timeline on that, like when the deal gets done, at this point,” Snead said when asked if signing Ramsey before the season was a priority. “But we’d definitely like to have Jalen helping the Rams for more than just the 2020 season.”

After the Rams finished behind the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, McVay remade his coaching staff, hiring new offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators.

Now the Rams will attempt to use free agency, the draft and, possibly, trades to remake a team for the 2020 season and beyond. On Tuesday, neither McVay nor Snead would reveal if they were targeting a specific position group in a draft that is especially deep in receivers.

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But turnover is expected.

“You’re probably in the phase of, ‘Hey can you find players that you can develop to maybe replace veterans on our roster?’ ” Snead said. “Now, can you actually find players that can fill specific roles.”

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth aims to be back with the Rams this season.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

McVay said the Rams were “pretty confident” they would come to terms with the 38-year-old Whitworth for a 15th NFL season.

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Fowler and Littleton are possible candidates for the franchise tag. Donald and Goff are regarded as untouchable, but Gurley’s and Cooks’ contracts could make them expendable.

Since the Rams returned to Los Angeles before the 2016 season, Snead has shown no fear of taking chances and making big deals. As the Rams prepare for their first season in new SoFi Stadium it would be out of character for them to stand pat.

New England Patriots star Tom Brady is approaching free agency. John Elway, Bruce Arians and Brian Flores talk about what might be next for the Brady.

“This time of year, it is interesting,” Snead said. “You get calls on a lot of players.

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“There’s a new era, in that somebody may call and ask about your best player, which in the past, I don’t know that phone call would be made, right? But usually the answer is no.

“This time of the year, maybe younger general managers are more aggressive, but you get asked about a lot of different players which probably didn’t happen five to seven years ago.”

The Rams “always explore things — you always listen,’ McVay said.

“You’re always trying to upgrade,” he said, “but we’ve got a lot of players that you feel really good about, that you have visions for the future.”

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Even after four seasons at USC, Michael Pittman Jr. hasn’t gotten much attention in a deep group of wide receivers at the NFL scouting combine.

McVay was expected to return to Southern California on Wednesday, leaving Snead, several assistant coaches and scouts to continue the evaluation and interview process with prospects.

Barring a trade back into the first round, the Rams will not choose a player until more than 50 are off the board.

“There will be some players that we, ultimately, will not really spend a lot more time vetting or evaluating because you’ve got a gut feeling they’re not getting to 50,” Snead said. “What you have to do then is the realistic players, really start spending your time vetting him.”


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