In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Los Angeles Rams, a surprise contender that captured the NFC West crown before suffering a defeat in the first round of the postseason.
Pending Free Agents:
- Connor Barwin, LB
- Malcolm Brown, RB (ERFA)
- Derek Carrier, TE
- Cody Davis, S
- Lance Dunbar, RB
- Dominique Easley, DE
- Troy Hill, CB (ERFA)
- Trumaine Johnson, CB
- Lamarcus Joyner, S
- Zach Laskey, FB (ERFA)
- Matt Longacre, LB (RFA)
- Cornelius Lucas, T
- Cameron Lynch, LB (RFA)
- Jake McQuaide, LS
- Aaron Neary, G (ERFA)
- Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB
- Garrett Sickels, LB (ERFA)
- John Sullivan, C
- Tyrunn Walker, DT
- Sammy Watkins, WR
- Darrell Williams, T (RFA)
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- Robert Quinn, DE: $12,399,770
- Andrew Whitworth, T: $12,166,666
- Alec Ogletree, LB: $11,600,000
- Michael Brockers, DT: $10,750,000
- Mark Barron, LB: $10,000,000
- Robert Woods, WR: $8,000,000
- Tavon Austin, WR: $8,000,000
- Jared Goff, QB: $7,619,365
- Rodger Saffold, G: $7,500,000
- Aaron Donald, DT: $6,892,000
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $51,012,500
- 23rd pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for RB Todd Gurley
1) Find a dynamic edge defender: We don’t need to tell you that defensive tackle Aaron Donald is an absolute monster. He earned a near-perfect 99.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, and was the only interior lineman who ranked among the NFL’s top 20 in quarterback pressures (his 52 were third-most in the league, behind only Demarcus Lawrence and Khalil Mack).
Thanks to Donald’s dominance and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips‘ scheming, Los Angeles posted a decent performance against opposing signal-callers: while the club ranked just 24th in sacks, it finished fifth in adjusted sack rate and 16th in pressure rate. Imagine what the Rams could do after improving on edge options Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, each of whom graded as bottom-20 pass-rushers in 2017, according to PFF. Quinn’s production has been dwindling for at least three consecutive seasons, while Barwin is now 31 years old and will hit free agency in March.
The only problem with trying to improve an edge defense through free agency is that most teams don’t let quality pass-rushers get away, meaning many players on the open market will come with some kind of flaw (age, injury, etc.). So the Rams may first need to look internally, and potentially give more playing time to backup Matt Longacre, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Longacre, 26, played more snaps in 2017 than he had in the previous two seasons combined, and came through with 5.5 sacks and 15.5 pressures. Cameron DaSilva of RamsWire recently looked at why Longacre was so successful last year, noting that stunts and twists were a large part of Longacre’s usage.
If Los Angeles does look at the free agent edge rushing market, they won’t find much. Demarcus Lawrence is overwhelmingly likely to stay with the Cowboys either through a long-term contract or the franchise tag, leaving the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah as the top defender available. Ansah has spent his entire career in a 4-3 scheme, leaving questions as to whether he could play in the Rams’ 3-4 front. If LA doesn’t think Ansah is a viable option, the club will instead have to look at incremental improvements.
The first call general manager Les Snead makes should go to veteran defender Julius Peppers, who is a free agent again after spending the 2017 season in Carolina. Peppers is 38 years old, but he hasn’t posted fewer than seven sacks in a decade. And the Rams shouldn’t necessarily worry about Peppers’ advanced age given that they’re in clear win-now mode. Not only can Peppers still be productive, but he played in a 3-4 look from 2014-16 — while Phillips and ex-Packers DC Dom Capers run different versions of the 3-4, Peppers has proven he can be effective in a stand-up role.
The other pass-rusher that should interest the Rams is Aaron Lynch, who will become a free agent in March after four seasons with the 49ers. Los Angeles should have a good idea of Lynch’s ability given that it plays San Francisco twice per year, but Lynch admittedly hasn’t been on the field much since 2016 (he’s averaged only 16% playtime over the past two seasons). The 24-year-old Lynch was reportedly overweight and in danger of getting cut last May, and while those are concerns, those issues could also mean Lynch will be cheap once he hits the open market. As recently as 2015, Lynch ranked fifth in the NFL with 34 pressures — that’s the type of upside that should interest the Rams, potentially on a multi-year deal.
A few other veteran players could be of note to the Rams this offseason, including a number that may be released in the coming months. Chief among them are two notable NFC North defenders, the Packers’ Clay Matthews and the Bears’ Pernell McPhee. Both are age-29+ and have dealt with injuries in recent season, but both also still have the potential to be play-making difference-makers. If they’re cut, the Rams should have interest. Los Angeles could also consider a trade, with the target being the Colts’ Jabaal Sheard. Sheard is coming off the best season of his career, but if Indianapolis is going to undergo something of a rebuild, it doesn’t need a 29-year-old edge defender, meaning he could probably be had.
If the Rams don’t land an impact edge rusher in free agency, they may be up a creek without a paddle, as the 2018 draft class of outside linebackers/defensive ends isn’t rife with top-end talent. NC State’s Bradley Chubb isn’t falling until the end of the first round, and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com only lists three other edge defenders — Arden Key (LSU), Harold Landry (Boston College), and Sam Hubbard (Ohio State) among his top-50 prospects. Adding insult to injury, Los Angeles doesn’t own a second-round pick in 2018 (ramifications of the Sammy Watkins trade), so it won’t be able to take advantage if one of those defenders listed takes a draft-day tumble.
2) Bolster the interior offensive line: The Rams’ 2017 offensive turnaround was one of the more discussed topics in the NFL last season, and the club’s improvement along the offensive line was a major part of that effort. After the 2016 campaign, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus graded Los Angeles’ front five as the No. 27 offensive line in the league, a ranking that almost seemed too positive given that the Rams had finished 29th in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate.
In 2017, after swapping out left tackle Greg Robinson for Andrew Whitworth and center Cody Wichmann for John Sullivan, the difference was obvious. By midseason, PFF listed the Rams as the NFL’s 12th-best offensive line, and the unit ended up finishing third in adjusted line yards and ninth in adjusted sack rate. Quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley were the beneficiary of the front five advancement, and Los Angeles can make its stars’ lives even easier by re-investing in its offensive line again this offseason.
The Rams’ two areas of concern are at center and right guard, but they are worries for different reasons. Sullivan regained his position as one of the league’s best centers after spending the 2016 campaign as a backup in Washington, but he’s 32 years old and a pending free agent. Right guard Jamon Brown, meanwhile, is still 24 years old and on his rookie contract, but he was the lone weak spot on LA’s offensive line a season ago. However, head coach Sean McVay recently indicated that he’s excited about Brown’s upside, and seems committed to using Brown as a starter again in 2018.
The optimal solution for the Rams, then, seems to be investing a draft pick on a young player who can manage both center and guard, and thus cover for a potential loss or decline from Sullivan, or a failure to live up to expectations by Brown. A dream scenario would see Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson falling to pick No. 23, but even given the league’s trepidation of selecting a guard early, it’s difficult to see Nelson — who is billed as a once-in-a-generation lineman — dropping to the end of the first round.
More likely, Los Angeles could use its first-round pick on someone like Billy Price (Ohio State), who is capable of playing anywhere on the interior of the offensive line. In his first mock draft of the year, Todd McShay of ESPN.com sent Price to the Rams at No. 23, noting that Price should be a “steady starter” from Day 1. If Price can come close to matching the production of Vikings center/fellow ex-Buckeye Pat Elflein, the Rams would be pleased. Mid-round options could include Frank Ragnow (Arkansas) or Skyler Phillips (Idaho State), the latter of whom Matt Miller of Bleacher Report calls the biggest sleeper in the 2018 guard class.
3) Shore up the secondary: The Rams can probably get by for another season by patching over holes on the edge of their defense and on the interior of the offensive line, but if Los Angeles doesn’t add to its defensive backfield over the next several months, the club could be in trouble. Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman are both ticketed for free agency, while Kayvon Webster‘s ruptured Achilles tendon could put his availability for the start of the 2018 season in question.
Let’s start with Johnson, who has been franchise-tagged in each of the past two years. A third consecutive tag is untenable, so it’s either a long-term deal or bust for Johnson and the Rams. Johnson is still only 28 years old and while he wasn’t superb last season (No. 68 CB per PFF), he was also adjusting to a man-heavy scheme for the first time. While a new deal seemed impossible at this time last year (Los Angeles reportedly tried to trade Johnson after tagging him), the Rams are now open to re-signing Johnson if the price is right. It’s a tough call, but given the defensive backs available on the free agent market, Johnson might be the best option at outside corner for Los Angeles.
Robey-Coleman, however, might be an even more pressing contract situation, as the Rams can’t afford to lose him after the season he just posted as the club’s slot cornerback. Surprisingly released by the Bills prior to last year, Robey-Coleman signed with Los Angeles on a one-year, minimum salary benefit contract and preceded to manage the best season of his career. Robey-Coleman, 26, ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ success rate and 14th in yards per pass, while the Rams as a whole finished seventh in DVOA against slot receivers.
If the Rams plan to add another outside cornerback, they’ll likely need to sign someone with experience playing man coverage. That means looking at free agents from teams who play extensive man schemes like the Titans, Chiefs, Cardinals, and 49ers. From those clubs, the best pending free agent may be Tramon Williams, but I’m not sure Los Angeles (or any NFL club) will be eager to sign a 34-year-old coming off his most productive season. Instead, the Rams could target corners such as Brice McCain, Terrance Mitchell, Justin Bethel, or Dontae Johnson, all of whom admittedly played poorly in 2017, but have experience playing press-man.
The draft is another avenue where the Rams can pursue a cornerback upgrade, and draft analysts have been making that connection in recent weeks. Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com sent Auburn’s Carlton Davis to the Rams in his first mock draft of the year, while Matt Miller of Bleacher Report gave Los Angeles Isaiah Oliver (Colorado). Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is regarded as the best corner in the 2018 draft, but he’s unlikely to fall to pick No. 23. Other options could include Josh Jackson (Iowa), Mike Hughes (Central Florida), or Donte Jackson (LSU).
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.