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Rams' old folks home for veterans is now part of the offseason strategy

Greg Beacham/AP

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- When the Baltimore Ravens released Eric Weddle, the veteran safety had a strong notion about where he wanted to go.

"I knew what L.A. brought and how I could fit," Weddle said. "... You want to go there first and see if it'll work out."

Weddle, who previously played for the Chargers, traveled to the Los Angeles Rams' headquarters before he visited any other teams, and never got the chance to think twice about returning to L.A. He signed a two-year contract on March 8.

It was a similar story for linebacker Clay Matthews, whom the Green Bay Packers did not re-sign after 10 seasons. "As soon as my chance to return to Green Bay was past me," Matthews said, "then I knew I wanted to come to the Rams." No visit necessary. Matthews, a Southern California native, agreed to a two-year deal.

And quarterback Blake Bortles? He said he was so sure after he was let go by the Jacksonville Jaguars that he wanted to sign with the Rams, that he did not need to visit, though his agent advised him a trip to L.A. would be wise. After a few minutes at the Rams' training facility, Bortles mind was more than made up. "I called my agent and said, 'Look, I'm done,'" Bortles said.

For a third consecutive offseason, the Rams have made a living attracting players in the final stage of their careers. Though that's not the case for Bortles, who is 26 years old and can serve as a backup, if not a starter, for seasons to come.

The attraction to the Rams is in part because of the weather, sunny and 75, and their Southern California location, where business opportunities off the field are available in excess. But it has more to do with Sean McVay, the 33-year-old coach who quickly developed a winning culture that resulted in back-to-back division titles, an NFC championship and a Super Bowl appearance.

"You look at the success and the organization, the way it's transcending, it's truly remarkable," Matthews said. "So from a football standpoint it makes perfect sense."

For the Rams, it makes perfect sense to pursue select veterans in free agency. They often come at a discounted price, or at minimum on a short-term deal, which relieves salary cap pressure when players the team has drafted earn big-time pay days. And the veterans can serve in complementary roles to a young, promising core that includes quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley II and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer and executive vice president, said acquiring veteran free agents has become part of their offseason plan.

"We went into our February discussions saying we don't know who it's going to be," Demoff said. "But there hopefully will be some players at these positions that will get cut that hopefully we'll get first crack at."

Following their release, Weddle, 34, and Matthews, 32, became clear targets. Weddle, who last season did not intercept a pass after combining for 10 picks the previous two seasons, will play on a deal worth $12.78 million. Matthews, who had a career-low 3.5 sacks last season, will earn $9.3 million over two years.

The Rams were first able to capitalize on aging veteran free agents, who some teams considered past their prime, in 2016 when the signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan. Both started every game the past two seasons (with the exception of Week 17 in 2017, when McVay rested starters), and each played a significant role in the Rams' ascension, while proving, despite their age, they still had solid seasons remaining. Or in Whitworth's case, it was an All-Pro season.

Last season, the Rams traded for veteran cornerback Aqib Talib, who blocked a trade to the San Francisco 49ers to orchestrate a move to the Rams, where he would reunite with Wade Phillips, whose defense he starred in during a 2015 Super Bowl run. Then the Rams courted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after he was released from the Miami Dolphins. Suh identified the Rams as a team that could make a Super Bowl run and signed a one-year deal worth $14 million.

Talib spent eight weeks on injured reserve but otherwise provided leadership in the locker room, and his communication proved key during the playoff run. For his part, Suh played uninspired throughout the regular season with 4.5 sacks but appeared every bit of his All-Pro self during the playoffs.

An argument could be made why the Rams should not pay players past their prime, even if the price is reasonable. But over the past two seasons, it has proved fruitful. Given the team's recent history, there’s little reason to question if Weddle and Matthews can't also find late-career success.

"What's opportunistic is, they want to come to us because they know they're in the twilight of their career ... and they want to go out winning," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "They think the Rams give them as good an opportunity as any to have a chance to win collectively, not necessarily get another Pro Bowl or another All-Pro, so I think that's the thing we've learned and it's the one thing in the building we talk about you can't take advantage of."

After next season, the Rams' budget will tighten because of a long-term extension that will be owed to Goff. Coupled with the record-breaking contracts for Donald and Gurley, cash could be tight. But the Rams seem to have a reliable plan in courting veteran players, so long as they keep winning.

"I think you can absolutely rely on the fact that you're going to have a chance to be their first choice," Demoff said. "We've seen that with the guys this year."