EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Not that there was ever any doubt but if further emphasis was needed that the Los Angeles Rams' offseason will be shaped by what happens with their pending free agents in the secondary, general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher offered it at the NFL scouting combine.
"If I were to prioritize what's going on in our building, and there's a lot of things going on, that is priority A right now, even at this combine," Snead said. "We'll meet with their reps, maybe more than one time at the combine, and I'm not going to say anything gets done, but we’ve got a lot going on here and that’s priority A."
"I’d like to try to sign our secondary first, if we can," Fisher said.
More specifically, the Rams are trying everything they can to retain cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as well as safeties Rodney McLeod and Mark Barron. Given their production and relative rank among the forthcoming free-agent class, Jenkins and Johnson figure to be the toughest retentions in that group.
Which is why the Rams look poised to use a tag for the first time since 2009 to ensure that one of them remains with the team. The NFL's deadline to use the franchise or transition tag is Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. With both Johnson and Jenkins all but certain to wait until the March 7 free-agent contact period to see what their market will look like, the only way for the Rams to exert some sort of control over either corner is to use the tag.
Which player and which tag they use is still up in the air. There were early indications that the Rams would use the transition tag, which carries a one-year tender of $11.9 million for cornerbacks. But the transition tag only provides the right to match an outside contract offer and no compensation if the team declines to match.
Given the amount of money that teams have to spend this year and the league-wide need for talented corners, it's entirely possible a team will be willing to throw big money at Jenkins and/or Johnson, which could mean the safer play is to use the franchise tag.
This year's franchise tag for a corner comes at a price of $13.9 million on a one-year deal, but the franchise tag also means that if a player signs elsewhere without a matching offer, the Rams would receive two first-round draft picks. They could also use the "exclusive" franchise tag, which means Johnson or Jenkins wouldn't even be allowed to negotiate with another team, though that comes with a slightly higher price.
Snead said in Indianapolis that the Rams hadn't yet decided whether to use the tag or which one to use if they do, but signs are pointing to that happening barring a surprise deal with one of the corners before Tuesday morning.
"We haven’t determined that yet," Snead said. "It is a tool we can use. So we’ll figure it out, we’ve got a few hours to figure it out so we’ll figure it out."
Part of that figuring out is which player to use the tag on. Johnson has emerged as the more likely candidate, but there are some in the building who believe Jenkins is the better player. Johnson offers more size and is younger. Jenkins has a longer history covering top wideouts and has been more durable. Both have had past disciplinary issues.
Regardless, if the Rams do use the tag, it's a safe bet they'll continue to aggressively pursue the player who isn't tagged. The ultimate idea, of course, is to keep both of their starting cornerbacks for the long haul.
With more than $58 million in cap space, that's not out of the question.
"That is the goal," Snead said. "I think it is realistic. It’s a tough task but it is realistic. I don’t think it’s not realistic, especially considering the cap room and things like that."