After back to back no-show games and a 1-3 record I wanted to take a look at the St. Louis Rams, some of their roster planning, and where they could be going forward. The Rams could easily be 0-4 right now and need to really turn this around quickly if they want to salvage their season. Luckily for the Rams no “secondary” team in the NFC has really jumped out with multiple zero loss teams atop a division so there is clearly still time for them, but it’s a uniquely constructed team that I think is worth a longer look.
Building it Up
Since the end of the Marshall Faulk era the Rams have struggled badly to remain relevant in the NFL. Their last winning season was 2003 and their last playoff appearance came as an 8-8 team in 2004. The Rams are an interesting collection of talent. They have made heavy investments in the draft, specifically on defense, but have also spent top dollar to bring in or retain free agent players, making them one of the more “capped out” teams in the NFL.
Of the 11 defensive starters, four were drafted in the 1st round, two in the 2nd, and one in the 3rd by the Rams. Only three starters came from other organizations, so this is a highly drafted “homegrown” unit. Offensively the team is built slightly differently as the commitment to high draft picks is not there. The only starting first rounder is Sam Bradford and there are just a total of four players drafted higher than the 3rd round compared to seven for the defense. Five of the offensive starters arrived in St. Louis via other organizations.
For the most part the credit or blame for the Rams status is going to go to Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead who took over the reins in 2012. 14 of the 22 starters on the team have either been drafted or signed as free agents since 2012. DE Chris Long and LB James Laurinaitis were both extended to large contracts following the takeover by Fisher and Snead.
The most critical decision that the pair faced came as soon as they had taken the job; the decision to move forward with or on from Bradford. Bradford was the last monster rookie contract of the old CBA. He was guaranteed $50 million dollars before even stepping foot on the field. He had a passable rookie campaign in which the Rams nearly stole a terrible NFC West division crown before regressing and then being injured in 2011.
Fisher was faced with the possibility of drafting Robert Griffin III with the 2nd pick overall in the 2012 draft and attempting to trade Bradford. Bradford at the time would have cost the Rams $14.38 million in dead money, but they would have saved $12 million in salary making the net cap hit just $2.38 million, a reasonable figure. Would there have been a market for a player with $20 million in guarantees and $48 million to be earned over 4 years? That’s a question that would be left unanswered as the Rams elected to trade the draft pick to the Washington Redskins and received a heist in the process.
The trade allowed Fisher and Snead to make the team over in their image. In return for Griffin they received three first round picks and a 2nd round pick. The Rams became extremely aggressive with trades after that move. They used pieces in the Washington trade to swap with both the Cowboys and Bears in 2012 and then again with the Redskins first rounder from 2013 in trades with Atlanta and Houston. Thus far the trade has turned into DT Michael Brockers, CB Janoris Jenkins, RB Isaiah Pead, G Rok Watkins, LB Alec Ogletree, WR Stedman Bailey, and RB Zac Stacy with a 2014 first rounder on the way. Of those seven players three are starters, one is a contributing backup, two rarely play, and one was released. Griffin had an electric rookie season but was injured late in the year and is slowly coming back to form in 2013.
The Rams would enter the trade market again in 2013, this time sending four picks to the Buffalo Bills to move up into the top 10 in round 1 and a few spots in round three. The main prize was WR Tavon Austin who has caught 20 passes for 124 yards through four games and has people questioning if the Rams can know how to use a unique player like Austin.
Capping It Out
Despite the large number of players on rookie contracts the Rams have almost no cap space to use on the season, primarily because the Rams are being as aggressive in signing players as they are in making draft day trades. I personally have not been a big fan of the big moves that the front office has made, which was something I mentioned when doing the best and worst contracts on the Rams. The Rams have overpaid significantly for players to attract them to the Rams. Perhaps it’s a calculated risk as the Rams were not exactly an ideal free agency destination as they worked their way through the bad years and some ownership questions. The following chart shows the big money moves made by Snead and Fisher, where I estimate their annual values at their position and the rankings Pro Football Focus gave to the players in 2012 and 2013 among players with at least 25% playtime.
Edit: the Jake Long data from PFF is based on LT and RT rankings. His corrected ranks should be 24 and 8. (Thanks to Ryan for pointing it out)
In 2013 these 7 players account for about $64 million dollars of the teams $122 million dollars allocated towards the salary cap. It’s a significant investment for the team and only Long has really lived up to his contract. When you include Bradford’s contract in the mix the Rams have 67% of their payroll in 8 players. Bradford ranks 31 out of 33 QBs that meet the 25% criteria according to PFF. It does not reflect well on a coach or GM when this is your legacy at least currently.
Moving to the future
Like I said above it is way too early to give up on 2013, but as we look ahead the Rams will have some major decisions ahead. Here are my estimates for the teams cap over the next few seasons.
If the Rams remain the status quo there is little room to improve. That brings up the important question as to “blowing it up” or revamping what you have. Though it is just 4 games into the season this is a plan that needs to actually be put in place now because of the Rams tight cap. As of the 27th of September the Rams only have $674,000 in cap room to work with for the next 14 weeks. That means they are two injuries away from potentially needing to create cap room to have a 53 man roster. Often cap space is created through restructures of big stars. Based on the performance of their stars they should not go there.
In some ways I think the Rams have planned for the inevitability that the season could have proven to be washed out. While I think the team has gone overboard with spending they have built in flexibility in most of their contracts. Though the Rams have significant cap dollars tied up in just a handful of players and limited cap space to work with that is only the case because the Rams have not compromised their future the way other organizations like the Saints and Cowboys have done.
All offseason many of us all believed it was a given that the Rams would have restructured some of these big money contracts for cap relief. The only one they touched was Chris Long’s contract when they converted a portion of his salary into a prorated bonus. Rather than restructuring the stars the Rams forced Harvey Dahl into a paycut to become cap compliant for the regular season.
The Rams position is a bit compromised because of large guarantees given to their players. Based upon information I believe to be accurate the following players have salary guarantees in 2014.
Chris Long- $13,200,000
James Laurinaitis- $9,000,000
Jared Cook- $6,000,000
Jake Long- $4,000,000($8,000,000 if 2013 finished on active roster)
Cortland Finnegan- $3 million
Of all these names the one with the least leverage is Finnegan. Finnegan is set to earn $9 million in salary, of which just $3 million is guaranteed, in 2014. His cap charge is $10 million and the Rams save $4 million by releasing him. Finnegan has little leverage because his play has been so poor since becoming a Ram. He would likely get the Nnamdi Asomugha treatment as a free agent, with a low base value contract and some incentives. Considering his $3 million guarantee contains offsets his max earnings anywhere for 2014 are going to be $3 million. That makes it realistic for the Rams to approach him to convert his $3 million roster bonus into a $2 million dollar roster bonus and $1 million dollar base salary for the season, all guaranteed, reducing his cap figure to just $4 million.
Many of the contracts that do contain the guarantees do contain limited prorated money making it possible to trade certain players. For example Laurinaitis’ contract was heavily frontloaded with low base salaries from 2015 to 2017. That could be attractive to a potential trade partner who would only have one year of a high cap charge, which could, of course, be lowered via a restructure. In turn the Rams could also do the same restructuring deal to create cap room if they want to keep him. Beyond trades releasing Wells, Dahl, and Langford would save $4 million each in cap space to give the Rams more breathing room.
The big decision then becomes what to do with Bradford. Bradford has two years remaining on his contract at cap figures of $17.6 and $16.58 million. The Rams have stated that they want to extend him, but considering his current level of play the situation would seem eerily similar to that of the Jets Mark Sanchez if they simply extend him for the sake of cap relief and guarantee more money in his contract. That’s just chasing sunk costs and putting more bad money on the books.
Conceivably the Rams could get a high draft selection either on their own or via the Redskins. Perhaps that will determine Bradford’s fate as well as decisions for long term planning. If the Rams end up with two top 10 picks they may feel that they can get two impact starters that can fit into the current structure allowing them to give it one more go in 2014 before it becomes reasonable to release most of the high ticket items before the 2015 season. If the picks end up in the mid first round they could begin looking at moving the veteran players if possible and building strictly for the future and letting those players gain experience while the team acquires more assets for future drafting.
It is certainly an interesting and important time for the Rams. They have drafted a number of young players, made very aggressive trades, and made big contract commitments but are sitting at 1-3, two years into their rebuild. Is this where they expected to be or is the plan currently a fialure? If its a failure how do they change the plan to learn from their mistakes. It is likely that this power structure will make the decision that impacts the organization for the next 5 years which is to stick with Bradford or to start again with a rookie and let him learn as all these other draft picks begin to enter the prime years of their careers. Its a huge decision and the wrong one could continue years of losing football.