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Rams

Rams bracing for the possible departures of Dante Fowler and Cory Littleton

Rams linebacker Dante Fowler celebrates during a game against the Seahawks.
Rams linebacker Dante Fowler could see a big payday when NFL free agency opens, but will he be staying in Los Angeles?
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

The undrafted free agent played his first three NFL seasons for the Rams at minimum salaries, developing into a standout special-teams player, starting linebacker and Pro Bowl selection.

In 2019, he outperformed the one-year, $3-million contract the team paid him as a restricted free agent.

Now, with free agency set to begin this week, Cory Littleton is poised to cash in. Edge rusher Dante Fowler is similarly positioned.

Both helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl two years ago and would be welcome pieces to retain for new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.

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Despite the halt of other sports because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL’s so-called “legal tampering” period is still scheduled to start Monday, with full-fledged free agency opening Wednesday. The Rams are bracing for the possible departures of Littleton and Fowler while attempting to also work out deals with some of their other pending unrestricted free agents.

Rams coach Sean McVay and team officials have said the Rams would like to retain all of their pending free agents, a group that also includes defensive lineman Michael Brockers, offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Austin Blythe, kicker Greg Zuerlein, backup quarterback Blake Bortles, linebacker Bryce Hager and safety Marqui Christian.

The NFL has banned all in-person visits involving draft-eligible players until further notice, the league informed teams Friday afternoon.

“With some of those guys, we’d ideally like to try to get ahead and not have them hit free agency,” McVay said at the NFL scouting combine in February.

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But with only about $15 million in salary-cap space, according to overthecap.com, the Rams almost certainly will not retain all of those players when the annual free-agent frenzy begins.

General manager Les Snead said at the combine that the addition of Staley, new offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and new special-teams coordinator John Bonamego would result in “tweaks to scheme” that would cause the Rams to “work through which positions and which players playing those positions are the most important to help us moving forward.”

Before making any major commitments, the Rams and many NFL teams were waiting for the results of voting on a new collective bargaining agreement. Player voting ends Saturday just before midnight EDT.

The Rams also have until Monday to determine whether to use the franchise tag on one player. Littleton and Fowler are possible candidates, though the cost for tagging either is steep. As a linebacker, Littleton’s one-year guaranteed salary would be $16.3 million, according to overthecap.com. The Rams could tag Fowler as a linebacker, but his representatives almost certainly would file a grievance to classify him as an end for $19.3 million, leaving an arbitrator to decide.

Will Cory Littleton wave goodbye to the Rams in free agency?
Will linebacker Cory Littleton wave goodbye to the Rams in free agency?
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Regardless, the Rams have explored restructuring the contracts of some players and cutting others to create room to possibly sign free agents. For example, they must decide whether to pick up a $4-million option on slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Later this week, contract guarantees and roster bonuses are due for several Rams players, Joel Corry, a former agent who writes about NFL contracts and the salary cap for CBSSports.com, reported last month.

The players include quarterback Jared Goff, receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, running back Todd Gurley, tight end Tyler Higbee, offensive lineman Rob Havenstein, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Robert Woods.

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Of the pending free agents, Whitworth and Blythe are regarded as the two most likely to re-sign with the Rams.

Whitworth, 38, has played 14 NFL seasons. He appears very comfortable playing for McVay, who relies on the veteran’s leadership and affords Whitworth a limited practice schedule. Blythe found a home with the Rams and made the most of his opportunities after he was waived by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017.

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If Littleton or Fowler were to sign elsewhere, the Rams would probably wait to see how the initial flurry of free-agent signings plays out before deciding whether to venture into the market for replacements.

Top-tier free agents such as Shaquil Barrett and others are expected to command salaries that do not fit the Rams.

Linebacker Micah Kiser is scheduled to return after sitting out the 2019 season because of a chest injury suffered during the preseason. Kiser had been on track to start before he was injured. Travin Howard gained experience as a backup.

Samson Ebukam has starting experience as an edge rusher and Obo Okoronkwo showed flashes last season.


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