Rams have a lot of pending free agents and one franchise tag, if they use it
Late last season, as they pondered what might be their final game with the Rams, edge rusher Dante Fowler and linebacker Cory Littleton displayed an accurate read on the team’s salary-cap landscape.
Quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive lineman Aaron Donald have gargantuan contracts. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is in line for the same.
Fowler and Littleton, pending unrestricted free agents, said they would love to remain with the Rams but acknowledged that the Rams might not be able to afford them.
“I know they have their hands full,” Fowler said, “so we’ll just see how it works out.”
Littleton echoed those sentiments.
Rams stars Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley made it clear on social media they are not voting for the proposed NFL collective bargaining agreement.
“If it’s possible, it would be nice,” he said. “If it’s not, I understand.”
With the NFL’s new league year set to begin March 18, the Rams have about $15 million in salary cap space, according to overthecap.com. That figure could conceivably rise if NFL players vote to approve a new collective bargaining agreement. Players have until Thursday to cast their ballots. Even if approved, however, the increased cap space for this season probably would be used to manage the rise in minimum salaries.
Thursday also is the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag, for which Fowler and Littleton are possible candidates. The Rams do not seem eager to use the tag, which enables teams to avoid a long-term commitment by paying one player a one-year guaranteed salary equal to the average of the top five highest-paid players at their position. But in late February at the NFL scouting combine, general manager Les Snead indicated that all options remain open until the deadline.
The legal tampering period that precedes the start of free agency begins March 16. In the interim, the Rams could restructure existing contracts. “That’s probably the easiest thing to do to create cap room,” Snead said, “Could be an option again.” The Rams also could cut or trade players.
But the Rams are not expected to retain all of their unrestricted free agents.
Offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Austin Blythe, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, kicker Greg Zuerlein and backup quarterback Blake Bortles are other pending unrestricted free agents.
The Rams did not use the franchise tag in 2019. It was the first time in four seasons they chose not to do so. In 2016 and 2017, cornerback Trumaine Johnson played under the tag and earned nearly $31 million. In 2018, safety Lamarcus Joyner was tagged for $11.2 million.
Fowler, acquired by the Rams in a 2018 midseason trade, was a pending free agent last March. But he signed a one-year, $12-million deal that also included $2 million in performance bonuses. The No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft responded with the best season of his career, recording 11½ sacks in former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ hybrid 3-4 scheme.
The Rams list Fowler, 25, as a linebacker. That position group is in line for a franchise-tag salary of $16.3 million, according to overthecap.com. But if tagged as a linebacker, Fowler’s representatives almost certainly would argue that he plays more as a pass-rushing defensive end, which commands a franchise-tag salary of $19.3 million. If the Rams tagged Fowler and a grievance was filed, an arbitrator would make the determination.
Littleton’s tag would be $16.3 million. He signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and has outperformed his contract every year. Last season, the 2018 Pro Bowl selection earned $3.1 million on a one-year, restricted-free agent deal.
Littleton, 26, is now poised to cash in, and is well aware of the $54-million extension that Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson — a former University of Washington teammate — signed in December.
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Fowler and Littleton’s fate with the Rams will be determined by economics and, in part, by new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Last month, Staley said there would “be a lot of carryover” from previous seasons and no “wholesale” changes.
“Brandon’s philosophy is going to be slightly different than Wade’s,” Snead said. “OK, which positions are most important? What type of players do you need playing those positions? Do we have them? If we don’t, can we get by?
“So those are very, very important and will be fruitful meetings before free agency starts and the draft.”
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