The timing for both players couldn't be better as they speed toward their first crack at unrestricted free agency this offseason. That Jenkins and Johnson have played so well in the final year of their contracts could put the Rams in a difficult position as the calendar has turned to 2016.
Among the many, many roster questions the Rams have to answer this offseason, there's quite a few that will center on the cornerback position. What will it cost to re-sign one or both players? Can they afford to keep both? Do they want to keep both? If they have to choose between them, which one will be a better value? If they have to choose between them, which one do they like more?
Those answers will have to wait until the offseason but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made it clear on Thursday that he'd like to see both players back in Rams uniforms in 2016 and beyond.
“I love them, and they’ve done a great job," Williams said. "I would love to be able to coach them for as long as I can. I’d love to be able to coach them their whole career, but that’s the nature of our business. We understand that. When free agency came in, I was in this league for a long time and there was no free agency. When that started, it’s like college. You graduate guys and you’ve got to have guys behind them getting ready to roll, but those guys have been really, really fun to coach. They’ve done well, and I think you guys have seen them improve every single year of their careers. So, I’d love to be able to coach them for the rest of their career. Hopefully, we’ll see.”
Since we don't yet know the exact figure for the 2016 salary cap, we can't pinpoint the precise amount of money the Rams will have available to spend but we can safely say that they will have a large chunk available considering they have 17 players scheduled to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. And the Rams could potentially have even more room if they decide to part ways with high-priced veterans like end Chris Long, tight end Jared Cook or offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.
So the case can be made that the Rams can afford to bring both Johnson and Jenkins back. And they'll probably try. But that begs the question of whether that would be the most efficient use of their resources given their needs to significantly improve the offense and re-sign other key defensive free agents. With E.J. Gaines working to return from his season-ending injury and fellow corners Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Roberson taking steps forward this year, the Rams might have to make a difficult choice between Jenkins and Johnson.
Entering the season, the Jenkins was one pending free agent the Rams intended to re-sign before the year ended. That never came to pass as the Rams were unable to meet Jenkins' price and he cut off contract talks at the Week 6 bye. Jenkins said at the time that he'd be "glad" to sign back with the Rams after the year but he wanted to focus on the rest of his season.
It's a season that hasn't had as many big plays or defensive touchdowns as some of his previous three but it's been his steadiest as he's been able to stay healthy (aside from a concussion) and consistent. Jenkins' price has gone up accordingly and, considering deals given to the likes of Byron Maxwell in recent years, it's possible his price could approach the $10-11 million annual average.
Like Jenkins, Johnson has also put together his best season. Although he's had some injury issues the past two years, Johnson has flashed an impressive knack for making plays on the ball, coming up with seven interceptions and making 61 tackles. In Pro Football Focus' metrics, Johnson ranks No. 1 in quarterback rating against (47.4) and grades out as the league's fifth-best cornerback.
Given those numbers plus Johnson's size advantage (he's listed at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds; Jenkins is 5-10, 198), a price tag that once figured to make him a bargain relative to Jenkins has also probably gone up.
“Tackling very well," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Playing very smart. Jumping routes. Understanding route concepts, formations, splits, alignments and things like that. He’s doing a great job with that. The ball security ... the hand-eye coordination is extraordinary. He can make plays on the ball. We can go back and look at the interception highlights from this past year and a couple that Janoris made and a couple that 'Tru' made were outstanding plays.”
There are far worse problems to have than a pair of emerging young cornerbacks heading toward free agency. But for the Rams, the key is making sure that whatever route they choose to go not only ensures their long-term future at the position but allows them the flexibility needed to improve elsewhere.