Rams apply franchise tag to safety Lamarcus Joyner

Perhaps no player on the Rams’ roster made a bigger transition than Lamarcus Joyner, who went from disgruntled cornerback to “franchise” safety, a move the Rams made official Tuesday.

Joyner received an non-exclusive franchise tag from the Rams, which means they are all but guaranteed to keep him under control for the 2018 season and not lose him to free agency this month.

The use of the non-exclusive tag, rather than the exclusive-rights tag, means Joyner can negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team this month. The Rams then would have the right to match the offer sheet or decline it and receive two first-round picks, a hefty sum which makes an offer sheet unlikely.

The Rams debated internally whether to tag Joyner or receiver Sammy Watkins, who now becomes a top candidate to leave when the league’s free-agent negotiation period begins Monday. It remains possible the Rams could re-sign Watkins, and other pending free agents, before that day.

In tagging Joyner, though, the Rams ensured a valuable part of their 2017 defense will return, during a time of some tumult. The Rams already have traded veteran linebacker Robert Quinn and could lose linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Trumaine Johnson to free agency.

Joyner, who is set to enter his fifth NFL season, has been slowed at times by minor injuries but is coming off a breakthrough season in which he recorded the first three interceptions of his career.

Undersized, and listed at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Joyner is aggressive and looked comfortable at free safety last season. A year earlier, Joyner expressed frustration to then-coach Jeff Fisher, and even mentioned the idea of quitting football, due to unhappiness with his role. Joyner settled in nicely in 2017.

Joyner is expected to remain in a safety partnership with John Johnson, who rose into a starting role last season after being drafted in the third round.

The Rams had hoped to sign Joyner to a new long-term contract by now. The franchise tag includes a contract worth almost $11.3 million. Even if (as is expected) Joyner accepts that tendered contract, the Rams still have until mid-July to reach a new deal with Joyner that would override the tag tender.

Matters are less complicated for Watkins and the Rams’ other pending free agents, a list that also includes Barwin, center John Sullivan and cornerbacks Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman.

After two trades, which brought in cornerback Marcus Peters and sent out Quinn, the Rams have approximately $46 million in salary-cap space, and they can add another $3 million to that if, as expected, they cut receiver Tavon Austin in the coming weeks.

That’s a solid amount of cap space, but many other teams also have plentiful space, so the market for free agents should be strong. The Rams also must keep in mind star defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who is under contract for 2018 but seeks a massive new deal.

Among the Rams’ high-profile pending free agents, Robey-Coleman and Sullivan seem most likely to return. The Rams now run the risk of losing Watkins, whom they acquired ni August in a trade that sent cornerback E.J. Gaines and this year’s second-round draft pick to Buffalo.

If he reaches the free-agent market, Watkins will be highly coveted, even though he totaled only 39 receptions and 593 yards last season. Watkins did catch eight touchdowns, and the Rams would like to retain him, with the belief a full season in their system will lead to on-field improvements.

The Rams hope to remain in contact with players such as Johnson and Watkins, even if they’re unsigned when the negotiation period begins Monday. That period lasts 48 hours, and then on March 14, players officially become free agents and can sign new contracts.

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The Rams FINALLY had a true # 1 receiver in Watkins, and he is going to walk. Mistake.