Trumaine Johnson’s tenure with the Los Angeles Rams appears to be over, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora. If so, Johnson will leave the Rams as one of the NFL’s top available free agents this March. His departure would potentially gut the Rams’ secondary entering the 2018 offseason, which is why I’m not sold that Johnson is really gone.
Trumaine Johnson’s value
The Rams chose Johnson over fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins two years ago. Since then, the Rams have franchised Johnson two straight years without reaching a long-term agreement. Now they are in a position where they have to pay him or let him go.
The question comes down to what Johnson is worth. Sportrac lists Johnson’s market value at $11 million per season, which is about $5 million below what he made per year under the franchise tag. Johnson’s market value is similar to what he and Jenkins were both listed at entering free agency in 2016. However, while their listing brings some idea of what Johnson’s going rate will be, Sportrac does not set the market. NFL teams set the market, which means that while $11 million is a solid baseline, that number could change drastically. That’s what happened with Jenkins and Johnson two years ago.
It’s Economics 101. There is always demand for high-level cornerbacks in the NFL, but every year is different. Several factors play a role in the market, including the which players are free agents and the depth of the upcoming draft class. That’s the supply end. The current free agent crop of cornerbacks isn’t strong, but the draft is loaded this year. The different mix of depth in relation to free agency and the draft makes it hard to measure what Johnson’s dollar value really is.
What we know
The usual statistics don’t show Johnson’s full value. He’s recorded more than three interceptions only once in his career, including two as the Rams’ No. 1 corner in 2017. Johnson compiled a career-high of seven interceptions as the No. 2 cornerback behind Jenkins in 2015. His other numbers are rather pedestrian as well. He finished with 13 passes defended last season, which ranked him outside of the NFL’s top 20. In fact, Johnson has never recorded more than 17 passes defended in a season.
However, the baseline stats don’t show Johnson’s full effectiveness. According to Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton, Johnson allowed only 43 yards passing in press coverage last season. His 84% position rate ranked him first in the NFL. Bleacher Report also placed Johnson 15th overall in its cornerback rankings, which factored in coverage, reaction, recovery, tackling and position value. Given those numbers, Johnson is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Issues with re-signing
The Rams are in a tough position this offseason. There are several critical positions that need addressed. The Sammy Watkins conundrum also plays a role here. The Rams must choose to re-sign him based only on what they believe he can do with a full year in the team’s offense. If they do keep Watkins, then Johnson’s departure appears much more probable. His value in press coverage and as an overall corner is there, but maybe not for the Rams. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips doesn’t rely on press coverage in his defense. It might make sense to let him go if the price is too high.
The reality is that it comes down to price. The Rams paid Johnson over $30 million combined in the last two seasons. That’s top five cornerback money for a top 15 cornerback. It’s hard to imagine the Rams paying him that number again with so many other needs on the roster.
Yet Kayvon Webster probably won’t be ready for the season opener and isn’t a No. 1 cornerback. Troy Hill is a restricted free agent and didn’t perform his best until the end of the season. It’s possible that the Rams will need to replace their second and third options on the depth chart. That’s why I’m not sold the Rams are parting with Johnson. Replacing nearly the entire cornerback position is a tall task. The team likely wants to avoid that problem.
In the end, it will come down to Johnson. How much does he want to be a Ram? How much of a hometown discount, if any, is he willing to give? The Rams haven’t always been great decision-makers when it comes to re-signing players, but the front office has proven time and time again that it knows how to work and re-work contracts to help the salary cap. If Johnson is open to a hometown discount, don’t be surprised if the Rams “find” the money to keep him.