Will Rams use the franchise tag? And other post-combine questions answered

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay kept his trip to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis brief.

In the span of two days, the Rams' coach tended to a few meetings, fulfilled media obligations, then returned to Los Angeles, where his new offensive and defensive coordinators remained as they install plans to improve on last season's 9-7 record.

Those plans, however, could still be impacted by roster moves made this offseason via free agency, the draft, trades and possibly cuts.

The new league year is scheduled to begin on March 18 and several key starters are pending unrestricted free agents. Among them, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker Cory Littleton and kicker Greg Zuerlein.

After trading for Jalen Ramsey last October, the Rams do not hold a first-round pick in the draft, having sent their 2020 and 2021 selections to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for the star cornerback.

And after awarding megacontracts over the past two years to quarterback Jared Goff, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, running back Todd Gurley and receiver Brandin Cooks, the Rams have about $21 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management.

McVay and Rams general manager Les Snead expressed confidence about their core group of players under contract. But don't be surprised if creativity and boldness -- traits Snead has demonstrated the past three years -- are keywords again this offseason as the general manager embarks on retooling the roster.

All options are on the table, including the restructuring of contracts to create cap space, trades and free agency acquisitions.

With that in mind, let's take a swing at answering some of your post-combine questions:

Will the Rams use the franchise tag?

The deadline to designate a franchise or transition player is March 10. The franchise tag is a possibility for linebackers Fowler or Littleton.

Both players are expected to earn significant multiyear offers from other teams if they reach free agency.

"All options are on the table," Snead said.

Last season, Fowler produced a career-best 11.5 sacks. Littleton has led the Rams in tackles the past two seasons and has intercepted five passes over that same span.

The price to tag a linebacker this season is expected to surpass last year's $15.4 million mark, making it a less-than-ideal option for a team with limited cap space and several needs that must be addressed.

It's unlikely that both players will return.

Who is available to trade?

The phone lines are open, the Rams are willing to listen and it seems only a couple of players are entirely safe from being included in any discussion.

"Usually, Aaron Donald is off the table," McVay said, with a smirk, when asked who would be available to trade. "I think, to answer your question, I think you kind of know who are the guys that there's not something that would be worth it, but those are ongoing conversations and I think we're always open to being able to explore things that can upgrade us as a team.

"What we have done a nice job of is identifying those foundational pieces to try to build around."

Goff also is included in the short list of unavailable players. But it remains to be seen if Gurley and Cooks, along with their cumbersome contracts, remain in that category.

"This time of year, it is interesting," Snead said. "You get calls on a lot of players. There's a new era, in that somebody may call and ask about your best player, which in the past, I don't know that phone call would be made. ... But usually the answer is 'No.'"

Is Whitworth returning?

McVay and Snead expressed optimism that a deal will be reached with Whitworth, who earned a base salary of $10.3 million last season.

"We're pretty confident," McVay said, when asked about reaching a deal. "He still played a really high level last year. His impact isn't exclusive to just playing the left tackle position."

Whitworth is 38 and will be entering his 15th season if a deal is struck.

Signing Whitworth to a new contract remains the Rams' best option with no obvious choice for a successor on the roster.

What about the other starters who are entering free agency?

That would include Brockers, offensive lineman Austin Blythe and Zuerlein.

Brockers, who played eight seasons with the Rams since he was selected with the 14th overall pick in 2012, will test the market in free agency. It is expected the veteran will earn a solid multiyear contract elsewhere.

Blythe proved himself as a valuable asset to the offensive line over the past two seasons as he started at guard, then took over at center last season following a season-ending knee injury suffered by Brian Allen. He also is expected to test the market.

As for Zuerlein, who has come to be known as "Mr. Automatic" and "Greg the leg" during his eight seasons with the Rams, a new deal is not beyond reach -- though the Rams will do some homework.

"He's done so many things and he's a great kicker and I think those established veterans are so important, especially when every time he takes the field, there's points at stake, unless he's kicking off," McVay said. "But we want to make sure we're evaluating the guys in the draft and then we're going to have free agency."

Will a trio of young stars sign extensions this offseason?

Paydays loom for Ramsey, receiver Cooper Kupp and safety John Johnson III. Each player is entering the final season of his rookie contract.

Ramsey is scheduled to earn $13.7 million this year and is expected to command a record-breaking extension. Leverage is on his side, given the Rams traded two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick to acquire him.

"There's really no timeline on that, like when the deal gets done, at this point," Snead said. "But we'd definitely like to have Jalen helping the Rams for more than just the 2020 season."

Kupp, a third-round pick from Eastern Washington, has quickly developed into a core piece of the Rams' offense. Johnson, a third-round selection from Boston College, has cemented himself as a staple in the locker room and in the secondary.

"The goal would be, let's say guys like those two, if we do want them to get back, it would be great to have that box checked," Snead said. "What we have to do now is, because we have, I call it more urgent guys whose contracts actually expire, get through that process first and then move on to -- I don't want to call them less urgent -- but less urgent than the players whose contracts are expiring."

Who are the Rams targeting in the draft?

Without a first-round pick, it's difficult to project whom the Rams are specifically looking to draft. However, among their top needs are offensive and defensive linemen and linebackers.

"Knowing our roster and having a lot of veterans you're probably in the phase of, 'Hey, can you find players that you can develop to maybe replace veterans on our roster?'" Snead said.

Expect some, if not several, draft-day trades as the Rams try to collect picks, a method they've readily used in recent years.