The offseason the Rams face in 2018 is dramatically less urgent and daunting than what they encountered a year ago.
A new coaching staff was just getting settled in and questions and concerns were lurking around every corner for a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since 2003. An upgrade at left tackle and center were badly needed and a mediocre wide receiver corps required urgent care. A culture needed to be changed and a locker room needed to be saved and restored.
As for young running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff, uncertainty was rampant. Were they franchise caliber players or first-round whifs?
It was, to say the least, an ominous time.
A year later, it can safely be said nearly every concern and task at hand were decisively addressed. If the Rams weren’t hitting home runs — dynamic head coach Sean McVay, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and dependable wide receiver Robert Woods come to mind — they were driving screaming line drives to the outfield wall with the drafting of Cooper Kupp and additions of center John Sullivan wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Gurley was restored as one of the best running backs in the NFL and Goff made a gigantic leap from rookie worry to second year Pro Bowler.
All of which helped the Rams make one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history, their offense going from the worst in the league to the best while surging to a 10-6 record — their first winning season since 2003 — while claiming their first division title since 2004.
Clearly it makes for a much less anxious offseason this year. But make no mistake, they have a lot of work ahead of them simply to remain as good as they were last season. Let alone close the gap between themselves and upper echelon.
So we’re putting on our general manager and capologist caps to lend a helping hand.
Here’s what we’d do if we were in the G.M. chair:
RESIGN FREE AGENT CB TRUMAINE JOHNSON AND SAFETY LAMARCUS JOYNER
Seven months ago it seemed inevitable the Rams and Johnson would be parting ways at the end of the season. Johnson, who the Rams utilized their franchise tag on for the second straight year, even conceded as much at the opening of training camp.
But two things happened that have changed the dynamics. Johnson played better than anyone could have expected while emerging as a valued locker room leader, and fellow cornerback Kayvon Webster, who the Rams signed last March, went down with a torn achilles tendon in early December.
With Webster’s status for next year uncertain it seems illogical the Rams would surrender their best cover corner in Johnson and their most versatile defensive back in Joyner, who can slide back to corner to replace Webster, if needed, or remain at safety after turning in a fabulous season his first year on the job.
The Rams have roughly $46 million available under the salary cap, and likely more if they part ways with veterans Tavon Austin, Mark Barron and Robert Quinn. Getting their two best defensive backs under new contracts is absolutely a must.
FRANCHISE TAG WIDE RECEIVER SAMMY WATKINS
There are valid arguments to be made for either bringing Watkins back or letting him walk as an unrestricted free agent. On one hand, he represents the kind of dynamic home-run hitter the Rams have lacked for years at wide receiver. On the other, he simply did not statistically live up to the hype after they traded for him near the end of training camp.
Woods finished with 39 catchers for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. Good but not great numbers for No. 1 caliber wide receiver.
That’s where the franchise tag comes in so handy.
If, as some suggest, Watkins’ numbers were merely the result of him arriving late in camp and not having a full year to work with Goff, bringing him back on a one-year deal buys time to figure out whether he’s part of the long-range plan. Without, of course, commiting long-range money.
If he rebounds with a big year they can revisit a multi-year deal next year. If not, they can simply walk away no harm done.
RELEASE TAVON AUSTIN
The Rams can create $3 million of cap space by releasing Austin, who is due $8 million in 2018. It’s not necessarily a lot of money — although every dollar counts working with a hard cap — but his departure also helps in other ways. It would open a door for the younger, more dynamic Pharoh Cooper to replace him.
Cooper is potentially a better receiver than Austin and likely more dangerous working out of the back field and on jet sweeps. Sean McVay did an admirable job figuring out a way to get production out of Austin, now imagine what he can do with Cooper in that role.
SIGN DETROIT FREE AGENT DE EZEKIEL ANSAH
Anash is hitting free agency coming off a 14.5-sack season with the Lions and would be a welcome pass rusher either lining up as a defensive end or at outside linebacker, a position he played in college. The Rams need to create more pressure up front, and Ansah, a true four-down defender, can do just that.
SIGN BENGALS TE TYLER EIFERT
When healthy Eifert is an absolute beast and one of the best Red Zone weapons in the NFL. The problem is, he hasn’t played a full 16-game season over five years while dealing with various injuries. He played only two games last year – 10 over the last two seasons – but would be an ideal candidate to sign a one-year prove it deal in search of a bigger deal down the road.
The Rams have made it clear they want more production from their tight ends, and a healthy Eifert is talented enough to provide it. From his perspective, the Rams represent a perfect situation with an up-and-coming quarterback, a bevy of weapons around him, and a head coach in McVay whose offense relies heavily on tight end production.
KEEP OLB ROBERT QUINN
The Rams face an intriguing decision with their veteran pass rusher, as releasing him would free up $11.4 million in cap space. But Quinn made a strong case for himself over the second half of the season while finishing with 8.5 sacks. The Rams did an excellent job managing Quinn’s body following two straight years of reduced games because of injury, utilizing a mindful weekly practice and game schedule that resulted in a much more fresh and productive Quinn late in the season. Between his pass rush ability and the leadership he brings to the locker room, bringing him back is more beneficial than the cost effectiveness of releasing him.
RELEASE MARK BARRON
Barron had a good but not great season in 2017, and while he was second on the team in tackles with 85, his $10 million price tag, coupled with injury concerns, are legitimate factors in deciding whether to bring him back. By releasing him the Rams will create $7 million in cap space. It would mean the Rams looking to the draft or open market to find a replacement, although third-year LB Corey Littleton is certainly a candidate to replacement.
TIME TO HOOK UP AARON DONALD
The price tag for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year is going up by the minute, and while he and the Rams came to an accord last year after a lengthy offseason and training camp holdout, it’s hard to imagine each side going through that again.
Donald is entering the final year rookie contract, and while the Rams could kick the can further down the road by utilizing the franchise tag in 2019 and 2020, the sense is they are eager to wrap Donald up.