Rams taking a patient approach to free agency despite roster needs
The Rams did not wait for free agency to make a bold move.
That happened in January, when they started the NFL quarterback carousel spinning by sending Jared Goff and two first-round draft picks to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford.
The NFL’s new league year began Wednesday, so that blockbuster trade just became official. The Rams will introduce Stafford any day now, starting the next era for coach Sean McVay’s offense.
But as the second day of free agency began Thursday, the Rams had yet to make additional moves to upgrade the personnel that will surround Stafford, a 12-year veteran.
The Rams need a potential deep-threat receiver. But they are apparently too expensive, or so abundant, that the Rams will wait for the second or third wave of free agency, or the draft, to fill that need. Or they might stand pat and see if second-year pro Van Jefferson can stretch defenses.
Even as a sixth grader, and up through the ranks, Matthew Stafford’s hometown buddies in Texas realized the quarterback would be a star.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth restructured his contract to remain with the Rams, but free agent center Austin Blythe is testing the market.
With second-year pro Cam Akers set to start at running back, and veteran Tyler Higbee returning at tight end, the Rams can wait to possibly acquire more depth after the departures this week by running back Malcolm Brown and tight end Gerald Everett.
While the Rams have been relatively quiet, other teams in the NFC West have been active, notably the Arizona Cardinals. They signed defensive lineman J.J. Watt before the start of free agency, and on Wednesday signed receiver A.J. Green and traded for center Rodney Hudson. The San Francisco 49ers re-signed left tackle Trent Williams. The Seattle Seahawks have made a few moves but they’ve mostly made headlines by not trading quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Rams’ approach was not unexpected: When the 2021 salary cap was finally set at $182.5 million last week, the Rams were about $33 million over the limit.
General manager Les Snead and vice president Tony Pastoors went about restructuring the mammoth contracts of defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and the lesser-but-still-large deals they awarded receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
The top spending priorities were on defense. The Rams re-signed edge rusher Leonard Floyd, giving him a four-year contract that includes $32.5 million in guarantees. As expected, they also put a first-round tender on restricted free agent cornerback Darious Williams, all but ensuring he will return to play in 2021 for nearly $4.8 million.
Matthew Stafford and Clayton Kershaw grew up playing sports together in Texas, but in high school they eventually played just football and baseball, respectively, after sharing gridiron and diamond time.
And then the anticipated exodus of defensive players began.
Safety John Johnson agreed to terms with the Cleveland Browns and linebacker Samson Ebukam left for a deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Defensive lineman Derek Rivers agreed to terms with the Houston Texans.
Veteran defensive lineman Michael Brockers apparently declined a proposed contract restructure, which would have meant a pay cut, and was traded to the Detroit Lions. Rotational defensive lineman Morgan Fox signed with the Carolina Panthers.
The fate of cornerback Troy Hill, who produced a career season in 2020, has yet to be determined as the market plays out.
Despite the departures, new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris should be confident. With Donald and Ramsey as cornerstones, Floyd coming off a career-best season playing next to Donald, and Williams in the fold for at least next season, the Rams defense could be formidable again.
Morris and defensive line coach Eric Henderson will have to reshape a line that will not have Brockers for the first time in nine seasons and could miss Fox’s versatility.
All inside linebackers return, but the Rams could be search for a proven outside linebacker to play opposite Floyd.
Second-year pro Jordan Fuller, universally lauded by coaches and teammates for his intellect and skill, appears in line to replace Johnson as a leader at safety. Taylor Rapp, sidelined by injuries for most of last season, should be eager to reestablish himself after playing well as a rookie in 2019. And Terrell Burgess is expected to return from a knee injury that ended his rookie season just as he appeared on the verge of securing a larger role.
Veteran punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Matt Gay will be back. But the Rams must find a replacement for long-snapper Jake McQuaide. The Rams’ longest-tenured player signed with the Dallas Cowboys, reuniting with former Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel and kicker Greg Zuerlein.
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