THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams' defense reached an optimal level well before their offense did. And now that the offense has finally caught up, that defense is getting significantly older and more expensive, making it increasingly difficult to keep it intact.
Welcome to the biggest challenge of the Rams' 2018 offseason.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a candidate to be tagged, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who could soon sign a lucrative extension, are the names that promise to absorb most of the attention. But the Rams' most pressing matters lie in figuring out what to do with a foursome of key defensive players who are either approaching free agency or coming up on flexible portions of their contracts.
Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay will reconvene with their executives and coaches immediately after the Super Bowl, and the conversation with the biggest impact will take place with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Rams made a transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Phillips last year, and along the way, Phillips made a couple of tweaks to fit his scheme, most notably moving Michael Brockers to defensive end and giving rookie safety John Johnson a starting job.
Another offseason will allow Snead another opportunity to fine-tune the defense to fit Phillips' principles, which will prompt some important decisions with four integral players.
The Rams kicked the can down the road as far as they could with Johnson, and now they're embarking on a fork. After keeping him with back-to-back franchise tags, it's time to make a decision: Do they pay him on par with the NFL's elite corners or let him sign elsewhere?
Snead said he could "definitely" envision a scenario where Johnson returns, and it sounds sincere after considering that cornerback is probably the Rams' weakest position at the moment. Nickell Robey-Coleman, who's really good in the slot, is also a free agent. And Kayvon Webster, the only solidified player returning, is coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
Johnson handled himself well this season, on the field and in the locker room. He was named a captain, and he held the seven elite receivers he covered to a 57.7 percent reception rate, 7 percentage points below the league average. Snead believed Johnson "fit" Phillips' scheme. But he also said that at the price he would command -- the top corners make between $13 and $15 million a year -- players must be an ideal fit. Is Johnson an ideal fit?
The Rams still have to figure that out.
The Rams were hopeful of extending Joyner last offseason, but couldn't come to an agreement.
Then his price went up.
In his first year as a full-time, every-snap starter, Joyner recorded his first three career interceptions and scored a touchdown. He finished as the NFL's third-highest-graded safety, according to Pro Football Focus, and also made an impact in the slot. Joyner is a fearless, all-business, instinctual player who makes a dynamic pairing with rookie safety John Johnson and adds an entirely different element to the Rams' defense. He's small, at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, but he has length, is a sound tackler and brings great ball skills.
The comps, though, are a little more difficult to come by, because Joyner is eligible for free agency after only one season as a full-time player. Joyner probably won't command a contract in the range of Eric Berry ($13 million a year) or Tyrann Mathieu ($12.5 million). Maybe something between Earl Thomas ($10 million a year) and Rodney McLeod ($7 million) makes more sense.
LBs Mark Barron & Robert Quinn
These two seem somewhat tied together as integral parts who also bring injury concerns and cap savings.
Quinn is scheduled to take up more than $25 million toward the Rams' salary cap over the next two years, but less than $1 million if he's cut. Barron would cost the Rams $28 million over the next three years, but only $6 million if cut. In 2018 alone, the Rams would save a combined $18.4 million by cutting both Quinn ($11.4 million) and Barron ($7 million).
Quinn stayed healthy all year and was at his best down the stretch, with six sacks from Weeks 12 to 15. But he was also limited to 17 games from 2015 to 2016 and previously underwent back surgery. Barron has played in 92 of a potential 96 games in his six-year career, but he battled an assortment of injuries in 2017 and might be a little undersized as an inside linebacker in Phillips' scheme.
The Rams will already have to add one outside linebacker if they don't re-sign Connor Barwin, which might prompt Quinn's return. They're high on the young Cory Littleton and already extended Alec Ogletree, which might make it easier to part ways with Barron.
But not if they can afford him.
"The goal is not necessarily to save money," Snead said. "The goal is to make sure we can fit everybody into the budget."