This week, with the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, the Los Angeles Rams’ front office reconvened at the team’s headquarters to map out the 2018 offseason. And that process begins by focusing inward. The Rams have as many as 14 potential unrestricted free agents, including the center, a primary receiver and possibly four defensive starters.
But some of their most fascinating decisions could come with players they already have under contract, and we’re not even talking about potentially making Aaron Donald the game’s highest-paid defensive player. The Rams prefer to pay most of the guaranteed money on their extensions up front, which maximizes their flexibility on the back end. Because of that, they stand to save a significant amount toward the 2018 salary cap — they now have roughly $40 million of space — by cutting ties with three big-name players.
A look at each case below.
WR Tavon Austin
Cap savings: The Rams can save $3 million in 2018 by parting with Austin, who comes with an $8 million cap hit and a $5 million dead cap, according to Spotrac. If he’s still on the team by March 16, Austin is paid a $5 million roster bonus. The sixth-year gadget receiver is under team control through 2021, but the Rams can get out from under his contract without paying him a dime after this season.
Why they might cut him: Austin no longer has a role on this team. He went into 2017 looking to establish himself as a vertical threat, but the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins. Austin remained the team’s punt returner, but Pharoh Cooper replaced him after a handful of early-season muffs, and Cooper went on to the Pro Bowl. Austin salvaged his place on the roster — though it didn’t justify his $15 million cap hit — by serving as something of a decoy, coming in motion to provide the threat of a jet sweep to open holes for Todd Gurley. But that role steadily diminished as the season went on. In the playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Austin played two offensive snaps. Telling.
Why they might keep him: The only reason might be that the team gets only a 37.5 percent savings this year (it’s 100 percent thereafter). There might be some ego involved, too, since it was only 17 months ago that Austin signed a four-year, $42 million extension that perplexed the industry. It might be hard to admit a mistake so quickly. But that is not a sensible reason to keep a player who no longer appears to serve much of a purpose. The Rams praised Austin’s unselfishness throughout the season, but they’re very deep at receiver. Cooper can do a lot of what Austin does at a much cheaper price.
ILB Mark Barron
Cap savings: By cutting Barron, the Rams save $7 million in 2018, $7 million in 2019 and $8 million in 2020. He carries a $28 million cap hit during that three-year stretch, but only $6 million in dead cap. Like Austin, Barron is owed a roster bonus by March 16 — of $2 million.
Why they might cut him: The Rams might have signaled which inside linebacker they prefer long-term when they signed Alec Ogletree, a two-time captain, to a four-year, $42.75 million extension in October. Ogletree and Barron now combine to make nearly $20 million annually. It’s hard to envision the Rams continuing to commit that much to inside linebacker, not when Ogletree and Barron are relatively undersized for the position — a reason the Rams allowed 4.76 yards per carry between the tackles in 2017, second highest in the NFL. Barron also dealt with a series of injuries last season.
Why they might keep him: Barron is still a very solid player and a major contributor, his athleticism an important weapon when dropping into coverage. If the Rams get an elite, run-stuffing nose tackle — or simply move Michael Brockers back to that position and find someone else to play the 5-technique — then perhaps they would be just fine with Ogletree and Barron inside. But those cap savings might prove too difficult to ignore.
OLB Robert Quinn
Cap savings: The Rams can save more than 96 percent of Quinn’s salary over these next two years. He is set to cost $25.3 million toward the cap in 2018 and 2019, but will cost only $955,354 if he is cut — all of it this season. The Rams save nearly $11 million by cutting Quinn this year alone. His roster bonuses these next two years — both, like Austin and Barron, to be paid on the third day of the new league year — total $2.23 million.
Why they might cut him: Because those are some major savings, and Quinn has a checkered injury history, most notably back surgery in 2015. Quinn racked up 40 sacks while playing in all 48 games from 2012 to 2014, establishing himself among the game’s elite edge rushers. But he played in only 17 of 32 games in 2015 and 2016, compiling nine sacks. He managed to stay healthy for most of 2017, thanks to a very conservative maintenance program. But can the Rams really count on that again?
Why they might keep him: Because when Quinn is right, he’s still a force, one who can take full advantage of all the attention Donald draws right next to him. The Rams’ new coaching staff got a sense of that toward the latter half of the 2017 season, with Quinn totaling seven sacks over his last six games (including the playoffs). Quinn might no longer be the type to consistently generate double-digit-sack seasons. But when healthy and right, he can still take the Rams’ pass rush to another level
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