Andrew Whitworth prepares for 16th season amid uncertain salary-cap situation
Three years ago, for a tour of still-under-construction SoFi Stadium, Rams players boarded buses that ferried them down a hill and onto a dusty surface that would eventually become the immaculate playing field.
Offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, 36 at the time, exited a bus and marveled at the work in progress. Then he turned to Jared Goff, joking that he looked forward to sitting in the stands or a suite and watching the young quarterback play when the $5-billion stadium was completed.
Last Monday, standing in a stadium parking lot, Whitworth reflected on the tour.
“I never thought there’d be a chance in the world I would walk out the tunnel in this stadium,” he said.
Whitworth, a 15-year NFL veteran, is preparing for a possible fifth season with the Rams — his second playing in SoFi Stadium, site of next season’s Super Bowl. And for the first time since signing as a free agent with the Rams in 2017, Whitworth is on track to protect the blindside of an established quarterback other than Goff.
The Rams made moves to ensure the return of inside linebacker Travin Howard and offensive lineman Coleman Shelton, tendering one-year contracts to the exclusive rights free agents Thursday.
In January, two weeks after their NFC divisional-round playoff defeat by the Green Bay Packers, the Rams traded Goff and two first-round draft picks to the Detroit Lions for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford. The deal will not become official until the new league year begins March 17.
Whitworth’s status for the 2021 season also is awaiting official determination. In March 2020, the four-time Pro Bowl selection signed a three-year, $30-million contract that included $12.5 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com. Whitworth started nine games last season before suffering torn knee ligaments. He sat out the last seven games and returned for the playoffs. He carries a cap number of $11.2 million this season.
Revenue lost by NFL teams because of the COVID-19 pandemic will cause the salary cap to drop from $198 million in 2020 to no lower than $180 million this season, though a final figure has not been determined.
“The plan is to prepare myself to play and to plan to be back,” Whitworth, 39, said after speaking at a news conference to open the Los Angeles Unified School District’s COVID-19 vaccination site. “But obviously, I have no idea what’s going to happen with our salary-cap situation. ... You go through the offseason, you make sure you check off all the things that are feeling good and doing great.
“So, it’s a longer process than probably saying, ‘Hey, I’m back.’ It means I’m committed to being back and that’s the plan. Obviously, there’s a lot of work between now and then that has to go into that on a lot of different facets.”
Rams general manager Les Snead said after last season that Whitworth was “a freak of nature” and that the Rams wanted him to return. “In terms of his production on the field, I haven’t seen any more drop off,” Snead said. “Again, like all these decisions, there’s variables to be discussed within that.”
Snead intimated that veterans across the league would be candidates for contract restructuring.
The Rams made a major decision when they decided to part ways with Goff, the top pick in the 2016 draft. After Goff helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018, they rewarded him with an extension that included $110 million in guarantees.
“I try to explain to me people that ask me around town, it’s like every August I show up I’m looking around the room like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right this guy’s not here anymore. Oh, that’s right, he left in free agency.’”
Andrew Whitworth on the nature of free agency
But immediately after last season ended, coach Sean McVay cryptically said Goff was the Rams quarterback “right now.” Snead said he was the team’s quarterback “in this moment.”
Asked if players were surprised by the trade, Whitworth indicated there were clues.
“After hearing some of the press conferences and understanding kind of where we stood as a team, and what things were being said, you knew that there’s obviously some things there where it’s an open door for whatever,” Whitworth said. “So, I mean, you’re more just shocked at the timing and how fast that whole thing came about and all of those type things.
“So, I think as players you’re shocked by it, but I think it’s less shocking to the players only because that’s the nature of what we do. I try to explain to people that ask me around town, it’s like every August I show up I’m looking around the room like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right this guy’s not here anymore. Oh, that’s right, he left in free agency.’
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback was the first Black sports analyst on national television.
“That’s the nature of our business. We’re used to a different face every year. So, when you play that last game, one of the reasons guys are usually so upset when that last game happens is they’re like, ‘Man, this group of guys, I probably won’t ever play with again. And that usually holds true. It’s pretty rare when it’s not.”
Whitworth said that he and Goff became close through the years and that they would remain so.
“I’ll be there supporting him and wishing him nothing but the best,” he said.
Stafford, 33, has played 12 NFL seasons since the Lions selected him with in 2009 with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Whitworth said he has known Stafford for a while. They met through Clint Boling, Whitworth’s former Cincinnati Bengals teammate who blocked for Stafford in college at Georgia.
“We all play golf,” Whitworth said. “So, I already knew Matt pretty well. I think that will be a pretty easy transition and, obviously, he’s a heck of a football player.”
A new quarterback is not the only change for the Rams. There are several new assistant coaches, including offensive line coach Kevin Carberry, who replaces Aaron Kromer.
“It’s what the Rams felt is best — and there’s a couple other things that have gone that way this offseason,” Whitworth said. “So, whatever they think is best is what they’re doing, and you’ve just got to do your best to be a part of it.”
Whitworth, nominated multiple times for the NFL’s Walter Payton man of the year award for his community and charitable work, has been at the forefront of several initiatives with the Rams and is regarded as a team leader. He said he feels “great” physically and is working to strengthen areas of his knee that might have been weakened by last season’s injury.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium. The Rams are aiming to duplicate the feat.
From the parking lot, with the massive stadium in view, Whitworth sounded optimistic.
“It will be really special to have the opportunity to play the season, being my 16th season, where I have the opportunity to turn 40 and also be a left tackle in the NFL, which is pretty rare,” Whitworth said. “So, there’s a lot of things on the horizon and, obviously, a lot of goals, so it gives us plenty to be excited about and to work toward.”
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