Coming off a 6-10 season in 2014, the Rams saw their offseason dominated by talk of potential relocation. As the city of St. Louis worked toward the possibility of building a new riverfront stadium for the team, owner Stan Kroenke set his sights on Los Angeles, pushing for the Rams to move to Southern California as soon as 2016, potentially moving into a new Inglewood stadium a couple years later.
While Rams fans may be preoccupied with concerns about whether or not the franchise will remain in St. Louis going forward, the team also made some noteworthy changes on the field over the last several months, and those moves will be the focus of our Offseason in Review. Let’s dive in….
- Lance Kendricks, TE: Four years, $18.5MM. $6.75MM guaranteed.
- Kenny Britt, WR: Two years, $9.15MM. $3.55MM guaranteed.
- Akeem Ayers, LB: Two years, $6MM. $2.75MM guaranteed.
- Nick Fairley, DT: One year, $5MM. $1.5MM guaranteed.
- Garrett Reynolds, OL: Two years, $2,200,020. $249,999 guaranteed.
- Tim Barnes, C: One year, $710,017. $50,017 guaranteed.
- Rodney McLeod, S: One year, $2.356MM. Signed second-round RFA tender.
- Austin Davis, QB: One year, $1.542MM. Signed original-round RFA tender.
- Cory Harkey, TE: One year, $1.542MM. Signed original-round RFA tender.
The Rams weren’t exactly major players on the free agent market this winter, but they did land one veteran who earned a spot on my list of top 50 free agents, and they didn’t pay a premium to do so. Heading into March, I viewed Nick Fairley as the second- or third-best defensive tackle on the market, behind his former teammate in Detroit, Ndamukong Suh. However, likely due to concerns about his health, Fairley didn’t receive lucrative multiyear offers, and settled for a one-year, prove-it deal in St. Louis.
Fairley’s one-year contract with the Rams is worth $5MM, and if he can stay healthy all season, he should have no problem living up to that deal. Despite playing just 297 defensive snaps in 2014, the 27-year-old ranked as the NFL’s 18th-most-productive defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Fairley, the only DT in the top 20 who played fewer than 400 snaps, graded as an above-average contributor against the pass and the run last season, and picked up six sacks during a 2013 campaign in which he stayed a little healthier.
In Detroit, Suh and Fairley were relied upon to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and ball-carriers from the inside, with the Lions not carrying any real elite outside pass rushers. In St. Louis, however, Fairley will just be one of many productive defensive linemen, playing alongside Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and Aaron Donald, who could be on his way to becoming a Suh-esque defensive tackle himself.
The Rams may have been better served using that Fairley money to bolster a weaker position group, but there’s something to be said for a team making its strength even more formidable. The more effective the Rams are at getting after quarterbacks, the less time those quarterbacks will have to find receivers, which takes some of the pressure off the cornerbacks and safeties, positions at which St. Louis doesn’t have quite as much talent.
Continuing to bolster their front seven, the Rams also signed Akeem Ayers to a modest two-year deal, worth $3MM annually. After starting his career strong in Tennessee, Ayers’ role become muddied under the team’s new coaching staff in 2014, and he was jettisoned off to the Patriots at the trade deadline last fall.
Ayers’ performance in New England showed that he can still be a solid NFL player, as he recorded 22 tackles, four sacks, and an interception in part-time action over the course of nine games. With some depth at the linebacker spot, the Rams should be able to pick and choose the right spots to use Ayers and potentially get the most out of him, like Bill Belichick and the Pats did.
Outside of Fairley and Ayers, many of the Rams’ notable signings were players who spent last season with the team, including Lance Kendricks, Kenny Britt, and a handful of restricted free agents (Rodney McLeod, Austin Davis, and Cory Harkey). Continuity has value, and none of those players are being significantly overpaid, but it’s fair to wonder if bringing back a number of starters from a 6-10 squad is the best course of action for the team. Still, McLeod is a productive safety and Britt had a nice bounce-back season in 2014, so the Rams could have done worse.
- Joe Barksdale, T
- Alex Carrington, DL
- Will Herring, LB
- Shaun Hill, QB
- Davin Joseph, G
- Kendall Langford, DL: Released
- Jake Long, T: Released
- Scott Wells, C : Released
Kendall Langford saw plenty of action for the Rams on their defensive line last season, and Alex Carrington saw a few snaps as well. However, with Fairley now in the mix, Long returning to full health, and Donald prepared to take on a larger role, those veteran linemen were expendable — particularly Langford, whose cap hit would have been $7MM if he had remained on the team’s roster for 2015. By releasing him and signing Fairley, the Rams have more upside at a lesser price.
Despite the fact that he started eight games last season in St. Louis, Shaun Hill isn’t an NFL starting quarterback, and with Davis returning on an affordable RFA salary, it didn’t make sense for the Rams to pay Hill the $3.25MM annual salary he got from the Vikings. As I observed when I previewed the team’s offseason earlier this year, retaining the younger, cheaper Davis made more sense for the Rams, considering his numbers across the board were extremely similar to Hill’s last season.
While the Rams’ losses on the defensive line and at quarterback don’t figure to have a significant impact, the offensive line will be worth keeping an eye on, after a handful of offseason departures. Of the 80 games started by offensive linemen for St. Louis last year – 16 per position – Joe Barksdale, Davin Joseph, Jake Long, and Scott Wells accounted for 52 of those starts.
Of course, not all of those players were particularly effective last season. Wells’ performance ranked dead last in the NFL among qualified centers, according to Pro Football Focus, and PFF also had Joseph in the bottom five among guards. Injuries and age have significantly reduced Long’s effectiveness, and while Barksdale was the best of the group, he wasn’t an elite right tackle by any means.
Having jettisoned most of their veteran linemen, the Rams didn’t add many new pieces in free agency, signing Garrett Reynolds and bringing back Tim Barnes. I had identified the offensive line as one of the most important areas of the roster for St. Louis to address this offseason, so the team’s lack of urgency on the free agent market was somewhat perplexing. Rather than relying on veterans, Jeff Fisher, Les Snead, and company appear set to roll the dice on an offensive line that’s heavy on youth and short on experience — it remains to be seen if the group will be more effective than last year’s underachieving veterans, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a whole lot worse.
- 1-10: Todd Gurley, RB (Georgia): Signed
- 2-57: Rob Havenstein, T (Wisconsin): Signed
- 3-72: Jamon Brown, T (Louisville): Signed
- 3-89: Sean Mannion, QB (Oregon State): Signed
- 4-119: Andrew Donnal, T (Iowa): Signed
- 6-201: Bud Sasser, WR (Missouri): Signed
- 6-215: Cody Wichmann, G (Fresno State): Signed
- 7-224: Bryce Hager, LB (Baylor): Signed
- 7-227: Martin Ifedi, DE (Memphis): Signed
“Upgrading at linebacker and/or cornerback is a possibility this offseason, but it would be a luxury, rather than a necessity,” I wrote back in March when I previewed the Rams’ offseason. “For the most part, the team should focus on its offense, where a number of positions must be addressed.”
After the Rams brought in two defensive players – Fairley and Ayers – as their two biggest outside free agents, it became clearer than ever that St. Louis planned to focus on offense in the draft, and the team did that almost exclusively. Eight of the nine players the Rams selected in the draft were offensive players, with the club waiting until the seventh round to pick its only defensive player.
Among all those offensive players, of course, the focus was on the offensive line — no team in the NFL drafted more than the four offensive linemen the Rams grabbed, and two of those players – Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown – are projected as Week 1 starters.
A year ago, the Rams used their No. 2 overall pick on Greg Robinson, and while the former Auburn had some growing pains as he adjusted to the NFL, the team is doubling down when it comes to throwing youngsters into the fire. Not only is the team planning on starting two rookies in 2015, but Robinson will also shift over the more demanding left tackle spot for the full season in his second year, suggesting the Rams believe he’ll cut back on those rookie mistakes this time around.
That young offensive line will be tasked with creating holes for one of the most explosive rookies in the NFL, running back Todd Gurley. After NFL teams passed on first-round running backs in consecutive drafts, the Rams showed just how much promise Gurley has by using a top-10 pick on him this year, despite the fact that he’s still recovering from a torn ACL. There’s no guarantee that Gurley will be ready to carry a significant workload right away, or at all in his rookie season, but his playmaking ability has the Rams drooling, and should provide a new dimension for an offense that has lacked big-play threats.
Meanwhile, the Rams used a third-round pick on quarterback Sean Mannion, out of Oregon State. By letting Hill walk in free agency and using a mid-round pick on Mannion, the Rams employed the same strategy they did for their offensive line, parting ways with a known quantity with limited upside in favor of a younger, cheaper developmental project. Mannion may not see the field anytime soon, but the fact that St. Louis was willing to use a third-rounder on him suggests he may get his shot down the road.
- Acquired QB Nick Foles, a 2015 fourth-round pick, and a 2016 second-round pick from the Eagles in exchange for QB Sam Bradford and a 2015 fifth-round pick.
- Eagles will acquire a 2016 fourth-round pick if Bradford plays less than 50% of Philadelphia’s snaps in 2015, or a 2016 third-round pick if Bradford doesn’t play at all in 2015 due to injury.
- Acquired QB Case Keenum from the Texans in exchange for a 2016 seventh-round pick.
- Acquired a 2015 second-round pick (No. 57; T Rob Havenstein), a 2015 third-round pick (No. 89; QB Sean Mannion), and a 2015 sixth-round pick (No. 201; WR Bud Sasser) from the Panthers in exchange for a 2015 second-round pick (No. 41; WR Devin Funchess).
- Acquired a 2015 seventh-round pick (No. 224; LB Bryce Hager) from the Jets in exchange for RB Zac Stacy.
Extensions and restructures:
Having addressed most of the Rams’ secondary moves, it’s time to dig into the club’s primary move, a shocking trade that sent Sam Bradford to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles. Bradford, the former No. 1 overall pick, never really got an opportunity to show what he could really do with the Rams, as he was frequently saddled with inconsistent offensive lines and a dearth of playmaking receivers. After two torn ACLs, it made sense for the Rams to move on, and they did well to get a player likes Foles, along with an extra draft pick.
Foles will almost certainly never repeat his 2013 season, when he racked up 27 touchdown passes to go along with just two interceptions, leading the NFL in yards per attempt and steering the Eagles to an 8-2 record in his starts. However, he has shown the potential to be a productive NFL quarterback, and will be an upgrade over the players the Rams were starting in Bradford’s absence.
While I wouldn’t have minded seeing the Rams wait until after the season to decide whether or not to extend Foles, the bridge deal the team worked out with him could benefit both sides. With an annual pay rate of less than $9MM from 2015 to 2017, Foles will be making significantly less than the salaries being earned by the league’s first- and second-tier signal-callers, and because it’s a short-term contract, the Eagles will be able to cut ties without taking on a ton of dead money if the marriage doesn’t work out.
I don’t expect Foles to play like one of the league’s top 15 quarterbacks for the Rams, but he’s still just 26, and has the potential to have a nice year if he can gel with players like Gurley, Britt, and Brian Quick. If he’s ineffective, the Rams could turn to Davis, Case Keenum, or – eventually – Mannion, whose 2015 draft slot (No. 89) was nearly identical to Foles’ 2012 slot (No. 88).
For St. Louis, there seems to be more long-term certainty and potential at the position than there was earlier this year, when two of the team’s top QBs were an underachiever coming off consecutive ACL tears (Bradford) and a 35-year-old journeyman (Hill).
While the Foles trade was the club’s biggest move of the offseason, St. Louis consummated a few other draft-weekend deals, including sending Zac Stacy to the Jets after selecting Gurley. Stacy had a nice rookie year in 2013, but he had slipped behind Gurley and Tre Mason on the depth chart, and may have been unhappy with his new role, so it made sense for the Rams to get what they could for him.
- Promoted Frank Cignetti to offensive coordinator to replace Brian Schottenheimer
- Exercised 2016 fifth-year option for DT Michael Brockers ($6.146MM).
- Declined 2016 fifth-year option for S Mark Barron ($8.263MM).
- Selected T Isaiah Battle in supplemental draft, forfeiting their 2016 fifth-round pick.
- Learned CB E.J. Gaines would miss the season with a Lisfranc foot injury.
- Learned RB Trey Watts would be suspended four games (substance abuse policy).
- Waived sixth-round pick Bud Sasser due to a heart condition; later hired Sasser as external football affairs coordinator.
- Signed seven players to reserve/futures contracts.
- Signed 15 undrafted rookie free agents following the draft.
In case the four offensive linemen the Rams drafted weren’t enough, the team added one more later in the summer, becoming the only team to nab a player in the supplemental draft. Isaiah Battle, a former Clemson lineman, remains very raw, but St. Louis felt he showed enough promise to warrant giving up a 2016 fifth-round pick. It remains to be seen whether Battle will develop into a solid NFL player, but the law of averages suggests that at least one or two of the rookie linemen acquired by the Rams this offseason ought to pan out.
Elsewhere, the addition of Fairley, the 13th overall pick in the 2011 draft, shouldn’t be an indictment of the performance of fellow defensive tackle Michael Brockers, the 14th overall pick in 2012. The Rams exercised Brockers’ fifth-year option for 2016, and while that $6MM+ salary doesn’t become guaranteed until next March, I expect the LSU product to remain very much in the club’s plans, and to see plenty of action this year. Having started every game for the Rams over the past two seasons, Brockers figures to split time with Fairley and Donald, creating a formidable rotation in the middle of that defensive line.
As good as the defensive line is in St. Louis though, there are questions about the secondary, and those questions only got louder when the team learned that E.J. Gaines will miss the 2015 season with a foot injury. A sixth-round pick in 2014, Gaines was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the 2014 campaign for the Rams, as he started 15 games for the club, recording 70 tackles, intercepting a couple passes, and notching 15 passes defended. With Gaines sidelined, the club will have to find another diamond in the rough, or hope someone like 2014 second-rounder Lamarcus Joyner steps up and plays a bigger role.
Top 10 cap hits for 2015:
- Robert Quinn, DE: $16,744,110
- Chris Long, DE: $12,500,000
- Jared Cook, TE: $8,300,441
- Rodger Saffold, G: $8,250,000
- Lance Kendricks, TE: $5,600,000
- Greg Robinson, LT: $4,837,295
- Nick Fairley, DT: $4,750,000
- William Hayes, DE: $4,480,000
- Kenny Britt, WR: $4,300,000
- James Laurinaitis, LB: $4,275,000
The Rams made some interesting changes to their roster in the offseason, with the swap of Bradford for Foles standing out as the most noteworthy move, and the one that will have the greatest effect on the team’s season. If Foles can recapture any of his 2013 magic and Gurley is healthy enough to make an impact, the defense is strong enough to make the team a playoff contender.
If things don’t break right, however, the Rams’ season could instead be dominated by speculation about the topic we tried to avoid in this space — potential relocation. With the NFL scheduled to make a decision within the next few months on a possible Los Angeles franchise – or franchises – for 2016, there’s a chance this season is a farewell tour for the Rams as we know them.