EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The Los Angeles Rams have a lot of business to take care of this offseason with 18 players scheduled to be restricted or unrestricted free agents on top of a move halfway across the country and all that goes with it.
But much of that work, at least when it comes to the roster, will be determined by what happens in the secondary. Among the many pending free agents the Rams have, none are more important than the four starters in the defensive backfield slated to hit the open market.
"We have a lot of decisions to make," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We’ve got some key free agents that we have to get back. That’s going to be our focus, especially in the secondary. We’ve drafted well there. They’ve produced. We’ve developed them and we don’t want to develop them for anyone else. So, we want to be sure that we’re able to get them back. We’re confident we can do that.”
The Rams have indeed put a lot of work into developing cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson and safeties Rodney McLeod and Mark Barron. All four took a step forward in 2015 with the two corners and Barron, in particular, producing at a high level for most of the season. That was a good sign for a group that held the Rams back from improving in previous seasons.
Now, Jenkins, Johnson, McLeod and Barron are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins in March. The Rams want to keep all four and have had some discussions to that end but it might be hard to get them signed before they're able to at least see what the market could have to offer.
Safety T.J. McDonald, who is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, is the only starter in the Rams secondary under contract for 2016. That also makes him the person who most hopes his fellow defensive backs return to the fold.
"I just hope we get them all back," McDonald said. "We definitely built some good chemistry. I hope we get them all back. I understand there is a business side of it, too, so we’ll see how it goes but I definitely hope we’ll all stay here together."
The hardest part of the equation might be retaining both Jenkins and Johnson. Aside from that duo, the Rams have Lamarcus Joyner set as the nickel corner as well as youngsters E.J. Gaines (coming off a foot injury) and Marcus Roberson. It's a solid trio but the Rams must keep at least one of Jenkins and Johnson, if not both, in order to have the type of dominant defense they want.
That could be a difficult proposition as Jenkins and Johnson both enjoyed their most consistent and productive NFL seasons in 2015. Jenkins didn't make as many big plays as his first three years but he also cut down on the mistakes that led to big gains and touchdowns for opponents. He finished with 64 tackles, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Johnson made an even bigger leap as teams tested him more regularly than Jenkins. He tied for third in the NFL with seven interceptions and led the team with 12 pass breakups. In his four NFL seasons, Johnson has 15 interceptions, the fourth most in the NFL in that time and the most among players taken in the 2012 draft.
While Johnson once looked like a cheaper alternative to Jenkins -- and perhaps he still could be -- he played his way into what figures to be a lucrative payday of his own in free agency. For his part, Johnson said he wants to return but acknowledged that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to free agency.
"This is my first time going through it, going through free agency," Johnson said. "It is a business. The last few years seeing it, being in this locker room seeing guys go, people taking money, people taking pay cuts, you have got to do what’s best for you and your family when it comes down to it. So we’ll see.
"I love those guys. I love my teammates, man. I love my coaches. Like I said, there’s a chemistry from four years. We’ll see. It’s out of my control."
At safety, McLeod has steadily improved from undrafted rookie to solid if unspectacular performer as the free safety. By the end of the season, McLeod had extended his streak of consecutive starts to 48 and had 81 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and three forced fumbles. While McLeod might not be flashy and still makes the occasional costly mistake, competent free safeties can be hard to find, which makes keeping him more of a priority.
Barron essentially played weak side linebacker for most of the season but did it well, leading the team in tackles and coming up with three forced fumbles and five passes defended. Fisher has already said the team "desperately" wants Barron back whether it's in a role similar to what he played before Alec Ogletree's injury or somewhere else.
To be sure, the Rams will have plenty of cap space this offseason and they intend to devote a chunk of it to keeping their young secondary intact. But that's a task that will likely be easier said than done.
"I feel like earlier in the season we were one of the best secondaries in this league," McDonald said. "We have two great corners and me and Rodney have been working together in tandem. We felt confident going into every game no matter what quarterback we were facing so coming into next season, we have high expectations for ourselves, especially if we can all stay together."