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Contract Year Report: Which L.A. Rams will be back in 2019?

Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters are both players the Rams will have to make a financial decision on this offseason.

The Los Angeles Rams spent the offseason trading for Pro Bowlers, signing high profile players, and extending some of the team’s top talent. The moves have paid off this season as the Rams have gotten out to an 10-1 start.

When you have a team this good and this young, it’s never too early to start thinking about the future. The Rams will have to make a decision on a number of key players this offseason. Here’s a list of notable players that the Rams will have to deal with following the season. This includes both free agents and players with early termination options.

Note: I wrote an in-depth article a few weeks back and concluded that the Rams will have roughly $39 million in salary cap space next offseason. I’ll be using the same numbers in my thought process in this article. For more info on what the Rams long-term money looks like, feel free to give it a read!

Good As Gone

It would come as a huge surprise to see these players back with the Rams next season:

RB Malcolm Brown

While Brown has been a more than capable backup for the Rams, I can’t imagine the team is going to invest any real money in a backup running back at this point. There’s no need to sink much money into Todd Gurley’s backup. The Rams have proven they can find quality players through the draft at this position. Expect Brown to get a nice payday elsewhere while John Kelly slides in to the backup role.

QB Sean Mannion

I hope I’m not wrong on this one. Mannion has shown no promise whatsoever during his four years with the Rams. If the Rams were to invest money in this position, he should not be the guy they invest it in. They can find better talent through the draft.

One Foot Out The Door

The following players are trending towards playing elsewhere next season:

KR/PR JoJo Natson

There’s a decent chance Natson is on the team next year, but the major roadblock to me is Pharoh Cooper’s contract. Cooper has one more year left on his deal at a bargain of a price. Natson isn’t likely to demand a ton of money on the open market, but the Rams already have an All-Pro on the books at the same position. I don’t see both guys being on the team next year, and the Rams won’t need to negotiate with Cooper to keep him here next year.

This is a position to keep an eye on as the season goes on. Natson has been impressive, but Cooper was an All-Pro last year. He’ll have to really show out in the final stretch for the Rams to move on from Cooper next year.

S Lamarcus Joyner

Joyner has been a solid player for the Rams ever since joining the team in 2014. He transitioned from being a solid slot cornerback to safety flawlessly. The unfortunate truth is that Joyner will probably be looking for a long-term deal worth eight figures annually next spring, and the Rams are unlikely to pony up. If Joyner were to remain a Ram, the team would probably be forced to franchise tag him. Joyner’s 2019 tag number is expected to be $13.54 million. Frankly, he isn’t worth that much. This may be a position the Rams choose to fill in the draft.

ILB Mark Barron

Mark Barron’s contract situation is a bizarre one. The safety-turned-linebacker is under contract until 2020, but the team has the ability to opt-out of the contract with little penalty – if they wait until after June 1. Cutting Barron before June would cost the team $3.3 million in dead cap space, whereas it would only cost the team $1.6 million post-June 1st.

Barron’s cap number is $9.6 million next season. There’s no way he’s on the Rams at that number. Then again, we all said the same thing heading into last offseason. I don’t expect Barron to be a Ram next year, but there’s certainly a chance the Rams choose to restructure rather than cut him due to financial implications and the overall lack of depth at the position.

OLB Matt Longacre

Longacre has been a serviceable starter for the Rams, but I’d expect the team to be looking for a little more from this position. Trading a third-round pick for Dante Fowler proves they aren’t fully confident in their outside linebackers. Unless Longacre was available around his current price of $1.7 million, expect the Rams to move on. He’ll likely find a bit more money on the open market than the Rams have to offer.

OLB Dante Fowler

Fowler’s short tenure with the Rams has been a roller coaster of emotions so far. Fowler cost the Rams late in the battle with Seattle last week with a silly penalty, but he saved the day later on with a massive forced fumble and recovery. It’s clear trading a third-round pick for a competent edge rusher was a risk worth taking.

A big factor of this trade is Fowler’s upcoming pay day. The Jaguars had no intention of re-signing him. If the Rams only want to bring him in as a rental, they’ll get a compensatory pick in return if Fowler nets a big payday this spring. The Rams may want to bring back Fowler, but it will be tough to make the money worth. He’d have to dominate down the stretch to justify franchise tagging him at a price around $14 million.

CB Troy Hill

It feels like Troy Hill has been the Rams backup cornerback for about a decade now. He’s been buried deep in the depth chart every season and somehow claws his way into the rotation due to injury. In his defense, he has proved to be capable at times when thrust into playing time. But it’s hard to imagine the Rams spending anything more than near-minimum money on a fourth-string cornerback. They certainly won’t pay Hill like a starter. Expect him to look for his bag elsewhere.

If the Rams were to bring back a cornerback for very little money, I’d expect it to be Sam Shields, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if neither one were Rams next season.

Too Soon To Tell

CB Aqib Talib

Many have written off Talib as a one year rental, but I’m not so sure. The Rams have proven in Talib’s absence that the current group of cornerbacks is not going to cut it. Marcus Peters looked much better with Talib playing alongside him. They need him to play at a high-level upon returning from injury to make a deep run in the playoffs.

The Rams have Talib under contract for $8 million next season. They can opt-out of the contract and save every penny of that price. But if Talib returns to the level he played at early in the season, why not just run it back for another season? You won’t find a cornerback that brings what Talib brings to a team in the draft. We’ll have a more clear view of this case once we see the team captain back on the field this year.

If the Money is Right

The Rams should prioritize bringing back the following players, if they can get them at a price that works with their cap constraints.

DT Ndamukong Suh

Suh prioritized team success over long-term money last offseason when he joined the Rams. It wouldn’t surprising to see him do it again. The Rams can’t offer Suh a massive long-term deal, but they can fit him in the cap at his same price of $14 million pretty seamlessly. It would make sense for both sides should Suh be okay with another one year deal and if the Rams think he’s worth his current price.

G Roger Saffold

Saffold is having the best year of his career, which is a win/lose situation for the Rams. He’s been a major factor in the success of both Jared Goff and Todd Gurley and will continue to be a key player for the team down the stretch. Unfortunately, it comes in a contract year. I wrote that Saffold could be back on a team-friendly deal a few weeks back. That thought is getting tougher to imagine every week.

The Rams paid major money to bring in Andrew Whitworth and bolster their offensive line back in 2017. Another team may be looking to do the same with Saffold in 2019. Still, Saffold is the longest tenured player on the team and may want to end his career with the Rams. He’s been through the bad times and might not want to leave during the good times. A deal similar to the four-year, $32 million deal given to Rob Havenstein may bring Saffold to the table. Anything more than that might be tough for the Rams to pony up.

ILB Cory Littleton

Littleton has been the undisputed breakout player for the Rams this season. He’s shined in pass coverage, been a terror on special teams, and is second in the league in total tackles. The third-year pro has suddenly become one of the most valuable players on the Rams defense.

That’s almost certainly not what the Rams were expecting. I would have thought the Rams would keep Littleton on a nice, cheap contract for a few more years. Now I’m not so certain. Littleton will be a commodity on the open market. He plays a position where the Rams lack depth.

Luckily for the Rams, inside linebacker isn’t the most expensive position to fill at the moment. Only five ILB’s make eight figures annually. Littleton probably won’t hit that mark. Expect the Rams to try and bring Littleton back at around $6-7 million per year. If he demands more than that, the Rams may not be able to fit him into the budget. But bringing Littleton back should be a priority this offseason.

OLB/DE Dominique Easley

Easley may not even be in the NFL next season, but I do think there’s a chance that the financial risk could be so incredibly low that the Rams might bring him back. Nobody is going to put in much, if any, guaranteed money on a guy coming off back-to-back season-ending knee surgeries. If the Rams could bring him back on a minimum, non-guaranteed deal, why not try it out?

Expected Back

The following players are all currently under contract for the 2019 season. While the Rams can opt-out of these deals, don’t expect them to.

OT Andrew Whitworth

Whitworth has a massive $15.9 million cap number for 2019, but he’s been worth the money. The team’s shift in offensive line production has been night and day since Whit joined the team for the 2017 season. Additionally, cutting Whitworth would cost the Rams around $5 million in lost money. It would be shocking if Whitworth wasn’t on the team next season.

DE Michael Brockers

Like Whitworth, Brockers is due a hefty $10.75 million in 2019, but he isn’t going anywhere. Brockers was named a team captain for the first time in his career this season and has not disappointed. He’s the kind of player who’s impact goes beyond the box score. If it comes down to the Rams having to choose between Brockers and Suh this offseason, I’d bet my money on Brockers being the one back with the team.

Unfortunately, money is going to get a bit tight heading in 2020, so it could end up being his final season with the Rams.

CB Marcus Peters

Peters is the most polarizing player of the group. The two-time All-Pro has had a roller coaster of a year with the Rams, doing everything from giving up over 200 yards against Michael Thomas to snagging a crucial interception late against his former team. Peters has had a wildly inconsistent season, but he’s been a player the Rams have needed on this defense.

There’s a chance Peters comes back from the bye and continues to struggle with Aqib Talib back. There’s also a chance Talib lights a fire under him and he returns to his All-Pro self. I’d bet on the latter, and that’s why I firmly believe he’ll be a Ram once again in 2019. There’s no reason to not bring back a guy of his talent at $9 million in a contract year. They invested too much in him to cut bait now.

Before the season, I anticipated Peters being the player the Rams prioritize an extension for next offseason. I’m not sure of that anymore given how inconsistent he’s been this year. He’s a guy to keep an eye on down the stretch for the Rams.

K Greg Zuerlein

Zuerlein missed six games and three different players kicked field goals for the Rams during that stretch. He’s not going anywhere unless the Rams desperately need to clear $2.325 million dollars in cap space. I can’t imagine they will.

Others

Guys like John Sullivan, Austin Blythe, Tyler Higbee and Pharoh Cooper have contracts the Rams can opt-out of in 2019, but there would be absolutely no benefit from either a depth or financial perspective. They’ll all be back.

Steve Rebeiro is a staff writer and host of the Butting Heads podcast for Rams Talk. He is an alumni of Marquette University. For more of his opinions, follow him on Twitter here.

All salary cap info in this article can be found on OverTheCap.com

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