Surpassing the expectations of many in 2020, the Los Angeles Rams captured a Wild Card playoff birth in the NFC playoffs with a record of 10-6. Finishing with a record of 6-2 at home in their first season at the brand new Sofi Stadium, the team also finished 9-3 inside their respective conference.
Backed behind the No. 1 defense in football and Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald, the Rams held their opponents to just 190.7 passing yards, 91.3 rushing yards, and 18.5 points per game. Ultimately advancing to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs after narrowly defeating their bitter rival Seattle Seahawks 30-20 in the Wild Card round, Los Angeles would fall short of returning to the NFC Championship for the first time since 2016 after a 32-18 defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Already among the offseason’s most active teams, the Rams sent shockwaves around the NFL after striking a deal with the Detroit Lions to acquire the former number one pick Matthew Stafford. Shipping out Jared Goff in return, Los Angeles also sent the Lions a 2021 third-round pick, 2022 first-round pick, and a 2023 first-round draft pick to complete the transaction. Forced to make changes to their coaching staff, the team said goodbye to defensive coordinator Brandon Staley after the Los Angeles Chargers hired him to be their next head coach. Filling their vacant role with longtime Atlanta Falcons coach Raheem Morris, the team also hired former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Joe DeCamillis to be their new special team’s coordinator. In addition to this, they also inked a deal with Kevin Carberry to serve as the offensive line coach.
Pending Free Agents
Currently projected to be over $34 million above the salary cap number, general manager Les Snead will have his work cut out for him to get below the league’s lowered cap number as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. With Todd Gurley and Goff carrying massive dead money cap hits, the Rams will need to cut ties with a few veteran players. They will also need to restructure a handful of contracts if they hope to have any activity in the NFL’s free agency period. With no first-round pick or third-round pick due to the trade for Stafford and Jalen Ramsey, here are pending free agents the Rams will hope to retain to return to the playoffs in 2021.
Leonard Floyd, Outside Linebacker
In jeopardy of losing their top pass rusher from a year ago, Floyd is set to hit the open market after a career year in 2020. Leading the Rams with a career-high 10.5 sacks, the 28-year-old also recorded career highs in quarterback hits with 19, along with tackles for loss with 11. Flourishing against the run off the edge in Staley’s defense, the former first-round pick earned a grade of 69.0 from Pro Football Focus, the second-highest total of his career. Currently projected to earn a value of $13.1 million on the open market according to Spotrac after signing a one-year $10 million deal with the Rams an offseason ago, look for him to end up elsewhere next year with little wiggle room left for the organization to re-sign him.
Troy Hill, Cornerback
A key contributor to the Rams defensive success in 2020, Hill recorded 77 tackles, three interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and one forced fumble for the team. Transitioning to a new role as the primary slot corner, the 29-year-old led the league with three defensive touchdowns while also providing Los Angeles with the versatility to play either on the boundary or in the slot. Set to become 30 by Week 1 of the 2021 season, look for the franchise to try and retain Hill with a need at cornerback. However, with him set to command a market value of over $6.3 million, the former undrafted free agent will have no shortage of suitors on the open market. This makes a divorce between the two parties more likely, with the Jaguars, Falcons, and Lions emerging as potential suitors.
Gerald Everett, Tight End
The first draft pick made by the team in the Sean McVay era, Everett has remained behind Tyler Higbee on the Rams tight end depth chart during his four-year NFL tenure. However, with a need across the NFL for pass-catching tight ends, expect 26-year-old to have a substantial interest in the open market. Solid once again in 2020, Everett racked up 41 receptions for 417 yards and one touchdown.
Furthermore, the University of South Alabama alumn also averaged over 10 yards per reception with over 24 first down passes hauled in. However, Gerald began to struggle with his hands at different points in the season, leading to a career-high seven drops, tying him for the 12th most in the NFL. Likely to earn a raise from his $1.9 million cap hit, look for the Rams to move on from Gerald with 2020 fourth-round pick Brycen Hopkins poised to step in at the vacant tight end spot.
John Johnson, Safety
A former third-round pick, Johnson has quickly blossomed into one of the elite safeties in the NFL. Leading the top defense in the league in tackles last season, the 25-year-old also added eight passes defended and one interception. In addition to this, he also earned the third-highest coverage grade for safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus at 86.6. Furthermore, the four-year veteran also remains one of the elite run defenders at his position, leading to just an eight percent missed tackle rate in 2020. The former third-round pick is likely to earn between $8-9 million on a long-term deal in free agency. With the position depth at the safety spot in Los Angeles, look for a parting of ways between the two parties.
Austin Blythe, Center
Landing with the Rams last year after a four-year stint in Indianapolis, Blythe took over the center job while providing a major upgrade for the team over the previous center Brian Allen. Playing all 1,119 snaps for McVay’s group, the 28-year-old surrendered just four sacks while committing one penalty all year long. In addition to this, he also provided Los Angeles with much-needed position versatility along the interior of the line. He can line up at both guard positions and the center spot, making him an integral piece to the team’s offensive line depth. With Stafford set to take over as the new starting quarterback in 2021, look for the Rams to try and retain Blythe. However, with the price tag at the position rising and a need across the league for centers, he could ultimately price himself out of Los Angeles.
Malcolm Brown, Running Back
A member of the Rams for six seasons, Brown could be on his way out of Los Angeles in a crowded running back room. Playing well in a tandem role once again in 2020, the 27-year-old racked up 419 yards and five touchdowns on 101 carries on the ground. He also added 23 receptions for 162 yards through the air, with a healthy 7 yards average per catch. Stuck behind second-year back Darrell Henderson and rookie Cam Akers on the running back depth chart, Brown remains a dependable option in short-yardage situations and on blitz picks up in passing situations. Nonetheless, with depth at the position and other positional needs across the roster, the veteran will clamp on somewhere else in 2021 on a short-term deal.
Darious Williams, Cornerback (RFA)
Quickly becoming more or more of a household name across the NFL, Williams put together a Pro Bowl worthy 2020 campaign. Starting in 10games for Los Angeles, the 26-year-old played over 800 defensive snaps for the team. He recorded 44 tackles, four interceptions, and 14 pass breakups, with just a 54 percent completion percentage allowed when targeted. The former undrafted free agent also made the play of the season for the team when he picked off Russell Wilson in the NFC Wild Card game and returned in for a touchdown to give his team a 10-point lead. With him and Hill set to hit free agency when the new league year opens on March 17, look for the Rams to place a restricted tender on Williams, keeping him in Los Angeles through next season.
Potential Cap Casualties
With many challenges presented to the team this offseason due to the over $20 million drop in the league-wide salary cap number, the Rams will face tough decisions in choosing to cut high-priced veterans. In one of the worst financial situations across the league, Los Angeles remains over $34 million over the cap number, along with $28 million dollars in top 51 contract money. While restructuring deals remains an option to help shed money and keep players on the roster, it remains practicable that a few players will likely become released if they refuse to take pay cuts.
Kenny Young, Linebacker (Saves $2.2 Million)
Acquired by Los Angeles from the Baltimore Ravens in the trade for cornerback Marcus Peters, Young has failed to become a true every-down linebacker for the team. Starting just six games this past season, the 26-year-old racked up 52 tackles, two quarterback hits, and one interception. However, the former fourth-round pick once again struggled in pass coverage, allowing a completion rate of over 82 percent when targeted, leading to a healthy 8.1 yards given up per reception. Achieving an overall grade of 41.6 according to Pro Football Focus. In addition to this, with both Micah Kiser and Troy Reeder under contract next season, look for Young to play elsewhere in 2021.
Rob Havenstein, Offensive Tackle (Saves $6.8 Million)
Bouncing back strongly in 2020, the Rams longtime right tackle started all 16 games for the team after an injury-riddled campaign 2019 season. Surrendering just four sacks against all year long, Havenstein also committed only four penalties on over 1,100 offensive snaps played. Helping the team achieve a top-10 rushing attack in the league, the 28-year-old finished as the 15th ranked tackle across the NFL according to Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 80.5. However, with estimated cap savings of over $6 million, if Los Angeles chooses to move on from the six-year veteran if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut. While a contract restructuring remains the most likely scenario, with Bobby Evans and David Edwards remaining on the roster, low-cost options remain available.
A’Shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle (Saves $3.8 Million)
A free-agent addition of the Rams an offseason ago, Robinson signed a two-year $17 million contract with the team. Playing in just eight games, the 25-year-old recorded 12 tackles and one quarterback hit in relief of star defensive lineman Donald and Michael Brockers. Offering little upside as a pass rusher, Robinson remains an exceptionable run defender in the middle of the defense. However, look for his contract to be restructured, freeing up an extra $1.6 million in cap space.
Michael Brockers, Defensive End (Saves $6.5 Million)
A surprise name that could find himself on the way out in Los Angeles after choosing to re-up with the team a year ago, Brockers remained good but not great in 2020. Racking up 51 tackles, five sacks, and 10quarterback hits, the soon to be 31 year old carries a massive $9.8 million cap hit in 2021. A solid run defender off the edge, the team could ultimately choose to walk away from one of their longest-tenured members with both Robinson and unrestricted free agent Morgan Fox offering cheaper options. Saving an estimated $6.5 million with a post-June 1 cut, look for Los Angeles to explore moving on from him his offseason.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
One of the most interesting teams across the NFL heading into free agency, the Rams catapulted themselves to the elite of the NFC after acquiring Stafford from the Lions. With limited draft picks after the trade for the longtime Lions quarterback and Ramsey, adding talent to their current player group and freeing up space will be essential if they hope to return to the playoffs next season. As a result of their ongoing salary cap issues, the franchise will likely remain out of the conversation for big-name free agents, instead of relying on veterans and players looking for cheap value deals. Among the teams’ needs heading into the period are outside linebacker, defensive end, edge rusher, and wide receiver.
Markus Golden, Outside Linebacker
An under-the-radar defensive free agent, Golden spent time with both the New York Giants and the Cardinals last season. Able to consistently generate pressure off the edge, the 29-year-old racked up 55 quarterback pressures, 33 tackles, and 4.5 sacks in 16 games played. A blend of both size, speed, and strength, he can win with quick footwork around the corner and power through the middle. Set to turn 30 before the start of the free agency period, the six-year veteran will likely be an affordable option for the Rams to bolster their pass-rushing core.
K.J. Wright, Linebacker
Productive once again during his age 30 season in 2020, Wright racked up 86 tackles, 10 passes defended, one forced fumble, and two sacks in 16 games in the middle of the Seahawks unit. Remaining one of the game’s best all-around linebackers, the 31-year-old transformed from his primary will spot on the defense a season ago in Pete Carroll’s 4-3 scheme to the strong side linebacker spot along the line of scrimmage. Finishing as the eighth highest player at the position in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus, he still posses both the football I.Q. and speed to make plays all across the field.
John Ross, Wide Receiver
Never able to latch on with the Bengals after they selected him ninth overall in the 2017 draft, Ross would provide a much-needed deep threat for McVay’s group. Playing just four seasons in Cincinnati, the 25-year-old hauled in 51 receptions for 733 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, the University of Washington alumn still averaged over 14 yards per reception, with 18.1 racked up per catch a year ago. Needing to improve their 22nd ranking in yards per attempt in the NFL a year ago, with the addition of one of the best deep-ball passers in the game in Stafford, look for the team to be aggressive in adding a field-stretching wideout. Likely to sign a short-term incentive-laden contract to reestablish his value across the league, Ross would be an ideal fit for Los Angeles at the right price.
Justin Houston, Outside Linebacker
Set to hit the open market after a two-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts, Houston still flashed the ability to get around offensive lineman and haul down opposing signal-callers last season. Recording 22 tackles, eight sacks, and one forced fumble, the 33-year-old remained one of Matt Eberflus’s defense’s most important players. With four straight seasons of over eight sacks, the 10-year veteran would provide both value and added stability to the team’s pass-rushing core for Morris with experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
Austin Reiter, Center
A mainstay along the AFC Champion Chief’s offensive line, Reiter has started 28 games for Kansas City at the center spot over the last two years. Rock-solid in 2020, the 29-year-old surrendered zero sacks while failing to commit a penalty all season long. In addition to this, the former seventh-round pick earned a grade of 70.9 from Pro Football Focus, the third-highest total of his career. Reiter would help solve the team’s need at the center spot with question marks surrounding Blythe and Allen’s returns in 2021.
Previewing the Draft
Without a first and third-round pick in the upcoming draft, the Rams will be without a top 32 selection for the fourth straight season. With over $70 million committed to Stafford, Ramsey, and Donald next season, along with the massive dead cap hits, the team is set to absorb; once again, it will be on Snead and company to find mid-round gems. Currently holding only the 57th overall selection in the first 96 picks of the draft, the team will also be awarded two compensatory selections as a result of the loss of Dante Fowler Jr and the hiring of Brad Holmes as the new Lions general manager through the NFL’s minority hiring policy.
Round 2, Pick 57: Offensive Lineman
A need for the Rams heading into April, the team will look to return tackles Andrew Whitworth, Joseph Noteboom, and Haveinstein, in addition to guards Austin Corbett and Edwards. However, with the interior of the offensive line struggling to hold up in pass protection a year ago, look for them to add much-needed depth at the position. Running play action at the highest clip across the league over the last two seasons, shoring up the protection in front of Stafford in 2021 should be at the top of the priority list for 2021. One of the deepest offensive line classes in recent memory, potential options include Alabama’s Landon Dickerson, Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, or Georgia’s Ben Cleveland.
Early 2021 Expectations
Surpassing the expectations surrounding them last season, the Rams qualified for the playoffs for the third time in four seasons behind one of the best defensive units across the NFL. The third youngest roster across the league, the team remains destined to be among the premier contenders in the NFC next season following the addition of Stafford. With current needs across the roster along the offensive and defensive lines and finding a vertical threat at wide receiver, expect Snead and the franchise’s front office to get creative in navigating the salary cap and adding pieces on the active roster. Furthermore, with both Cooper Kupp and Donald’s return to full health to begin week one, the future remains bright in Los Angeles.
Follow Chris Gallagher on Twitter @ChrisGally06
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