The Los Angeles Rams began the offseason with a significant amount of salary-cap space, but that money goes fast.
OverTheCap.com currently projects the Rams at nearly $41 million of cap space, 12th-most in the NFL. But that drops to roughly $35 million after accounting for the draft. Then you have to consider the needs that might not be addressed by the draft, most notably replacing a center, adding a run-stuffing nose tackle and a premier edge rusher, and shoring up depth throughout the secondary. Then there's that whole thing about making Aaron Donald the game's highest-paid defensive player.
The Rams have 14 players on track to be unrestricted free agents. Six of them played more than 600 snaps on offense or defense in 2017, and two of them look like prime candidates to be tagged, which would considerably cut into the Rams' budget. The window for teams to tag one of their players -- and thus keep a potential free agent with a one-year, guaranteed contract in line with the game's highest-paid players at the position -- runs from Tuesday to March 6.
Below, we take a closer look at two potential candidates. The non-exclusive franchise tag, which awards a player's original team with two first-round picks if it does not match an outside offer, brings with it the average of the top five salaries at a player's position over the previous five years. A transition tag, which amounts to the average of the top 10 salaries at a player's position in the current year, allows other teams to match and does not include compensation. Projections were provided by OverTheCap.com.
Projected price: $16.23M (franchise), $14.03M (transition)
Reason for: The Rams gave up a 2018 second-round pick -- not to mention a strong cornerback in E.J. Gaines -- to obtain Watkins, which should be reason enough to give him more than one season to fit in. Watkins' numbers weren't gaudy, but he entered camp near the middle of August and never had enough time to build any real rapport with quarterback Jared Goff. "He got on a roll with the guys that he had during OTAs," Watkins said after the season, "and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys." Watkins was referring to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, the new receivers who benefited from an entire offseason with Goff. There's no reason to believe Watkins can't benefit from the same. A multiyear extension could be risky because of his history of foot injuries, but the franchise tag could work out for both parties.
Reason against: Watkins' downfield presence helped open the middle of the field for Woods and Kupp, but Watkins himself finished with only 39 catches for 593 yards in 15 games. He scored eight touchdowns, but his 70 targets suggest that type of production might not be sustainable. Simply put: Watkins didn't produce enough to warrant a $16 million-plus price tag for the 2018 season, especially with so many needs upcoming on defense. A transition tag, which allows the Rams to match outside offers, would save some money. But the receiver market is dry enough that a team might overpay for Watkins, who has caught 67 of 122 targets for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The Rams suddenly are deep at receiver, with Woods (25 years old), Kupp (24), Pharoh Cooper (22), Mike Thomas (23) and a promising vertical threat in Josh Reynolds (23). They can lose Watkins and remain explosive in the passing game.
Projected price: $11.08M (franchise), $9.50M (transition)
Reason for: This might remind some of the Rams' situation last year with cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who was franchised a second time because the team simply could not afford to lose him to the free-agent market at that point in the offseason. The Rams similarly can't afford to lose Joyner. They've lost three key members of their secondary since the end of the 2015 season -- Rodney McLeod, Janoris Jenkins and T.J. McDonald -- and could lose a fourth if Johnson doesn't return. Joyner might be the best of them all. Pro Football Focus made him the third-highest-graded safety in 2017, his first year transitioning away from slot corner. He's small -- listed at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds -- but he hits big and brings great ball skills. A franchise tag makes sense because Joyner is coming off his first year as a full-time defensive player, and one more season in that role would allow the Rams to get a better sense for his fit in the market.
Reason against: Franchising Joyner might mean running the risk of not bringing back Watkins. It also might mean not locking up Joyner long term, and the Rams have appeared willing to do that dating back to last offseason. Joyner's price has risen significantly since then. But in that time, he also fit perfectly into Wade Phillips' system and established himself as the Rams' best defensive player outside of Donald. The highest-paid safeties make somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million a year, and Joyner has that kind of skill set, small as he might be. In an ideal scenario, the Rams would agree to a long-term deal with Joyner before the start of free agency, on March 14, which would then allow them to use their franchise tag on Watkins if they so choose. But the ideal scenario hardly ever presents itself. And if they don't sense enough willingness from Joyner's side to get something done, they might need to act by burning their franchise tag on him.