Gauging future cost of Robert Quinn

ST. LOUIS -- Here's a scary thought for 31 quarterbacks around the NFL who don't play for the St. Louis Rams: defensive end Robert Quinn is only 23.

Having just completed a monster season that's already earned him one notable defensive player of the year award and could still yield the big prize, Quinn is not only one of the league's most dominant defenders but also one of its biggest bargains.

In exchange for the modest salary cap hit of a little more than $2.5 million, the Rams received 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles from Quinn in 2013. Drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2011, the first year of the new collective bargaining agreement, Quinn has already provided an astounding return on investment. In his three seasons, Quinn has 34.5 sacks and seems to only now be reaching his immense potential.

Quinn's cap hit for 2014 is scheduled to be slightly more than $3 million, meaning he'll once again be a bargain. But sooner rather than later, the Rams are going to have to pay up for their best player.

While Quinn's combination of youth and ability should terrify other teams around the league, it also could provide scary thoughts for the Rams as they head toward what will almost certainly be a bank-breaking contract extension.

First things first, the Rams actually do have a short-term decision to make on Quinn before we dive into the long term. Quinn is eligible to talk extension now but the Rams also hold a fifth-year option on his rights. Under the rules of the CBA, the Rams have until May 3 to decide whether to pick up the option on that season.

The compensation for that year is not written into the contract and rather operates on a sliding scale based on the average salary of the third through 25th highest paid defensive ends in Quinn's fourth season. While it seems like a no-brainer to simply pick up the option, there is a little bit of risk in the sense that picking up the option guarantees the fifth year of salary should the player suffer an injury. Of course, that is the only condition in which the salary becomes guaranteed.

Given that the average salary of the third through 25th highest-paid ends in the league will be less than what the franchise tag number would be, exercising the option seems like the clear decision for the Rams. It would also buy them more time should they choose to begin negotiations on a contract extension for Quinn.

Of course, that time is going to come sooner than later no matter what. Quinn is clearly the team's best player and given his relative youth, the team would be wise to get him locked him for the long term as soon as possible. Chances are that Quinn is still only scratching the surface of his potential and will only continue to ascend from here. His prime is still coming and the Rams can ill afford to let him spend those years elsewhere.

So with that in mind, what are some comps for Quinn at the position around the league?

In 2012, Buffalo signed end Mario Williams to a six-year, $96 million deal with about $40 million to be paid out in the first two years that allowed the Bills to make decisions year to year after that. Either way, Williams' contract remains the standard for defensive ends.

More recently, the Rams signed end Chris Long to a four-year contract extension (plus the original year for a five-year deal), worth $58 million and a little less than $37 million guaranteed before the start of the 2012 season. Long has since tweaked his contract a couple of times to free up cap space for the Rams though those tweaks add a little to his cap numbers in the coming years.

For Quinn, the more likely comparison is with Williams or Chicago's Julius Peppers, both of whom were considered among the top rushers in the league and were entering their primes at the time of the deal. It seems $40 million guaranteed is about the height to reach among defensive ends but it wouldn't be a surprise if Quinn's deal surpassed it when the time comes.

The Rams could have difficult decisions to make when that time comes in terms of the salary cap. What happens with the Carolina Panthers in a similar situation this offseason could be instructive for the Rams. The Panthers signed end Charles Johnson to a six-year, $72 million deal in 2011 but now have Greg Hardy about to hit free agency. That should sound familiar to the Rams in that Carolina has the lesser (though still very good) player signed to a big deal but now needs to pay the elite one.

Technically, St. Louis can put off a contract with Quinn for a little longer and it would probably be wise to do just that. Of course, there's one other way the Rams can protect themselves on the defensive end front: drafting South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney if he drops to No. 2 in May. That would give the team insurance should striking a deal with Quinn prove difficult or allow them to part with Long if his contract becomes untenable under a new deal for Quinn.

The good news for the Rams is they don't have to do anything right away and can see where they stand after free agency and the draft. Just how much Quinn costs remains to be seen but there's little doubt the Rams will have to reach financial heights previously unknown to them to keep him.