The Los Angeles Rams capped off a wild summer in style by handing Aaron Donald a cool $135 million over six years. While the move has received mostly praise, some experts have noted that it’s a crazy amount of money to pay a non-quarterback. The core argument is that Donald’s deal could cripple the Rams salary cap long-term, especially after signing both Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley to big contract extensions.
Is there any truth to this? Just how bad will the Rams’ cap situation be next season, or after they extend Jared Goff? Rams Talk decided to dig into the numbers and get to the bottom of this, for the 2019 season and beyond.
Setting the Table
Aaron Donald’s contract extension is what I like to call “middle-loaded.” While many contracts pay players more upfront or more on the back end, Donald’s number peaks in 2021, right in the middle of his contract. For the 2019 season, Donald’s cap number is actually a team friendly $17.1 million.
Other notable contract extensions from the 2018 offseason include Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks. Cooks is set to make around $15.3 million in 2019, while Gurley’s extension won’t kick in until the following season, so he’ll make $9 million in 2019.
As it currently stands, the Rams will have $34.85 million in cap space heading into the 2019 offseason. Obviously, we need to consider rookies. According to Over the Cap, the Saints needed $5.76 million to pay their draft picks this year. Considering they didn’t have a second round pick and the Rams won’t next year, this is a good number to base it off.
We also should factor in the salary cap increase. The NFL’s salary cap has increased by at least $10 million in every season after 2013. It’s safe to assume that will be true once again in 2019. Let’s say for all practical purposes the Rams will have around $39 million to spend in free agency next season.
The Rams have a couple players that the team could terminate early to save some money:
Big Whit comes in as the second biggest cap hit in 2019 at $15.9 million. Should Whitworth be released, the the team would save $10.7 million in cap space, but would also lose $5.1 million in dead money. Expect Whitworth to be back on the team unless the Rams have secured another elite talent at tackle long-term. He is yet to show any signs of regression in 2018.
The Rams could cut Brockers after this year and only lose $750,000 of his $10.75 million number for the 2019 season. The first-year team captain is somebody to continue to watch this season. Right now, I’d bank on him being a Ram again for the 2019 season, but if Suh continues to play well the Rams could try and negotiate with him instead and let Brockers walk.
Peters’s entire $9 million salary for 2019 could be gone if the Rams choose to cut him. Assuming Peters plays as we expect him to in 2018, I’d be stunned if the Rams chose to walk away here. That’s a great cap number for a cornerback as young and as talented as Peters.
Like Peters, the Rams could cut Talib’s entire $8 million contract and not have any dead money attached. Talib is another name to keep an eye on here. Since he is currently waiting to return from injury on the IR, we won’t have any clarity on whether he’d be worth $8 million next season until we see him back on the field. Talib is a likely candidate for the Rams to seek out with a restructured contract, it it wouldn’t be shocking if they just brought him back on his current deal. It all depends on his health.
It came as a surprise to many when the Rams decided not to cut Barron before this season despite the easy cap savings. The team would save $7 million in cap space next year against $2 million in dead money should they cut Barron. Even though linebacker is a position of need for the Rams, Barron seems like the most obvious candidate to be cut after this season. Linebacker may be the Rams’ target should they decide to keep their 2019 first round pick.
If the Rams get desperate, cutting Zuerlein would save them $2.325 million against $250,000 in dead money. This would surprise me. The special teams unit is too dominant to risk breaking up over such a small cap number.
If I had to bet on who would get cut here, I’d say Barron and one of Talib or Brockers. The team’s cap number would rise to $55 million if they cut went Brockers and Barron, $53 million if they cut Talib and Brockers, or $45 million if they only cut Barron. All of those numbers are factoring in our rookie estimate and the salary cap bump.
Contract Year Guys
The Rams have a few players currently playing out the final year of their contract. Here are a couple guys the team may look to bring back.
The Rams chose to use their franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner this offseason and let the polarizing Sammy Watkins walk. The Rams will have enough cap room to franchise Joyner again next offseason if they want to run it back. Joyner’s number would increase to $13.54 million on a 2019 franchise tag. The Rams would have some wiggle room to extend Joyner long-term, but it would add to a rising cap bill in the coming seasons. If he’s a Ram next year, I’d expect him to be back on the franchise tag.
Out of all the moves the Rams made this offseason, the Suh signing is most likely to be a rental. Somebody will be willing to pony up some cash for Suh next year, and he doesn’t seem like a guy the Rams would invest long-term in at his age. Don’t be surprised if Suh comes back on a similar deal in 2019 though. If he enjoys playing for the Rams and the team enjoys having him, it would make sense to run it back on a deal in the $12-14 million range. The Rams should be doing as much as they can to keep their window wide open.
Saffold is the Rams’ longest-tenured player, having been with the team since 2010. If there is a guy who would potentially take a hometown discount to play for a contender, it could be him. If Saffold wants to find himself a pay raise from his nearly $8 million cap hit, he’ll have to go elsewhere. But there may not be a huge market out there for the 30-year-old guard. Don’t be surprised if Saffold returns on a team-friendly deal.
Littleton has been a bit of a breakout star for the Rams through the first four games of the season. The third-year linebacker has been the de facto leader of the group with Mark Barron still recovering from an injury. Littleton has a team-leading 35 tackles and will continue to grow as the season progresses. The Rams may take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to a new contract for Littleton this offseason.
Let me break down one potential scenario for the Rams next offseason:
- Franchise tag Joyner at his expected number of $13.54 million
- Re-sign Suh to a one year, $14 million deal.
- Re-sign Saffold on a two year, $10 million deal.
- Keep every single one of the players mentioned in the opt-out candidates.
The Rams can do this. The team would come in with $6 million to spare and retain at least 20 of their expected 22 opening day starters. The extra $6 million could potentially be used to bring back Cory Littleton and Matt Longacre. The team could have even more cap flexibility should they choose to cut some of the opt-out candidates. Again, keep an eye on how Talib performs when he returns near the end of the season.
This gives the Rams two years to keep the bulk of their roster together. That’s two years to chase this thing as best as you can. The Rams needed to keep Aaron Donald around for that run.
Donald’s contract won’t have any real negative impact over the next two years. Will it after that? Let’s keep digging.
The Fifth-Year Option
The NFL allows teams to exercise a fifth-year option on first round picks during their fourth season to retain them for a fifth. This seems like something that the NFLPA would shoot down during CBA negotiations, but this option usually gives the players a generous raise. For example, Marcus Peters had his option exercised for 2019 and will see his salary increase by roughly $7.3 million.
The number on the fifth-year option is the equivalent of the transition tag number for the given position. Explaining the transition tag in its entirety isn’t necessary. All we need to know is that the number is equal to the average salary of the top 10 players at the position. For Peters, the cornerback number came out to $9,069,000.
All this info is relevant because Jared Goff will be entering the fifth year of his contract in 2020. Marcus Mariota received the fifth-year option for the 2019 season and is set to make $20.9 million that season. The number will likely rise slightly for 2020, so Goff’s cap number will be, at worst, $21 million.
The Core Four
As it currently stands, the Rams will be building around four players for the next few years: Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Jared Goff. If Goff’s cap number is $21 million, these four will cost the Rams $80 million in cap space for the 2020 season. If the cap continues to rise at $10 million per year (not a guarantee), the four players will take up 40% of the salary cap and leave around $120 million to be spent on other players. For reference, the Rams top four players in 2018 are currently taking up 27% of the salary cap.
The Rams will still have more players under contract for the 2020 season than one might expect. Including the core four, the Rams will still have 11 of their expected starters under contract, and 13 if you include Johnny Hekker and Jake McQuaide. Notable backups locked up who could become starters by 2020 include Joseph Noteboom, Micah Kiser, Brian Allen, and John-Franklin Myers. This doesn’t include Mark Barron, who would somehow still be under contract in 2020 if the Rams haven’t released him by then.
We can expect at least one of the guys mentioned in the 2019 section of this article to be extended. The most likely would be Marcus Peters, who’s just 25 years old this season and fits the age timeline the rest of our core is on. Our friend Trumaine Johnson received a nice hefty pay day this offseason, earning an average of $14.4 million per year. Johnson’s contract is back-loaded and a similar format would benefit the Rams if it would only cost them $10 million in 2020.
Another potential outcome is that the Rams lock up Lamarcus Joyner to a long-term contract next offseason and franchise Peters in 2020. The franchise tag for cornerbacks in 2018 was a hair under $15 million. Joyner will most likely draw eight figures per year if he continues to produce this season. If this scenario happens and the Rams owe the duo, say, $26 million combined in 2020, they’d have over 50% of their cap space locked up in six players and would have $45 million remaining in cap space
Even factoring in the somewhere in between $13-15 million the team will be paying incoming rookies from the next two drafts, they could still have $30 million to play with in free agency, and $39 million if Barron is gone. That’s not bad. The team could easily fill the remaining nine starting roles between the Noteboom/Kiser type guys, incoming draft picks, and the remaining cap space. There’s no reason to believe the Rams won’t be Super Bowl contenders through 2020 barring unforeseen circumstances.
2021 and Beyond
The looming cloud over the Rams title window is the inevitable Jared Goff extension. Even though keeping a star quarterback on the books is always a good thing, these kind of extensions have crippled team’s cap situations and even closed a title window at times. We saw this first hand with the Seahawks. While a variety of factors contributed to their downfall from perennial Super Bowl contender to fringe playoff contender, it started in 2015 when they had to stop paying Russell Wilson like a third round pick. The Seahawks have lost a number of guys due to injuries, but also due to not being able to pay everyone. They haven’t made the NFC Championship since 2014.
It’s inevitable that the Rams won’t be able to pay everyone. The Donald contract was the start of it, but the day Goff inks his extension in 2021 is the day the Rams cap will really be in trouble. Let’s break down two contracts that will give us some indication of what Goff’s contract may look like.
The first is Kirk Cousins. Washington chose to place the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins for two consecutive seasons. While Cousins collected some major change over these years, the second franchise tag effectively ended the relationship between the two sides. Cousins signed a three year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. This will pay him an average of $28 million per year. Kirk Cousins is 30 years old.
The second is Jimmy Garoppolo. The former Tom Brady disciple started just seven career games during the first four years of his NFL career. The 49ers traded a second round pick for him last season and backed it up by signing him to a five year deal worth up to $137.5 million. The contract includes a heavily front-loaded first year that will net Jimmy G a cool $37 million. Still, Garoppolo will net around $25 million per year during the final four years of his contract. Garoppolo is 26 years old.
Now let’s talk about what 2021 Jared Goff will look like. He’ll be 26 years old entering the season. Goff will likely have a few deep playoff runs under his belt and maybe a Super Bowl ring or two, and he’ll likely have made a few more Pro Bowls. He’s a California grown kid at the center of the (presumably) hottest football franchise in the state. My point is that his resume will be much stronger than Garoppolo’s or Cousins.
Quarterback market value increases more and more after every season. It’s safe to say that a Jared Goff extension in 2021 will be worth at least $30 million annually. It could be even more, but a five year, $150 million contract for Goff seems like a real possibility. It could end up being more than that. The last decade and a half of Rams football taught us that these guys aren’t easy to come by. Even if Goff is only slightly better than he was last season in 2021, he’ll see a big payday. if he lives up to his potential, he’ll see a big payday.
The Rest of the Rams
There’s only a few certainties we can have barring trades for the 2021 season and everything past it. We know that Aaron Donald is set to have a cap number of nearly $28 million (that’s means at least $58 million invested in Goff and Donald for 2021 if Goff extends) and that he’s locked up until 2024. Now, the team can easily opt-out of his contract after the 2022 season, but it’s too early to tell if that’ll happen. We know that both Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley will be locked up through 2023, and will make a little over $30 million combined in 2021. We know that Rob Havenstein, Johnny Hekker, and Robert Woods will all be here in 2021, but each of the three have relatively easy contracts to opt-out of. The Rams will also have the 2018 rookie class locked up through this season.
That’s all the players we know will be here. If Goff is making $30 million, the Rams already have $118 million locked in for the 2021 season. The expected salary cap will be $207 million. We didn’t even factor in a potential Peters/Joyner extension and three more years of rookies. The Rams will still have a ton of talent around in 2021, but the real era of having absolutely no cap flexibility will begin in this season.
If there is a year to point to as the most likely end of the Rams run, it’s 2023. The Rams will still have Donald, Gurley, and Cooks locked up in this season, but they can opt-out of all three contracts. Donald and Gurley won’t generate any dead money and Cooks will have just $3.4 million. It isn’t hard to imagine the Rams cutting all three guys loose after a nice run.
Les Snead had one hell of a summer. If you take anything from this article, take the fact that the current iteration of the Rams will be around for the next two seasons, a very similar version will be around till 2021, and the core four will likely be around until 2023.
The Rams will surely be in cap hell at some point, but that point hasn’t happened yet. The team will have a lot of flexibility in the 2019 offseason. They’ll have less in 2020, and they really won’t have any in 2021. But the Rams needed to keep this window open as long as they can. They need to bring a contender with starpower into their brand new stadium in 2020. The next three years are crucial for just for building a strong fanbase in Los Angeles, but for building a strong fanbase nationwide.
When I walk around town in New York City and see basketball fans, I always see the adults wearing Knicks gear. The kids? They’re rocking Steph Curry jerseys and LeBron shoes. Adults are the local fans you need to bring in. Kids will latch on to whoever is good when they’re kids. You think I became a fan of the Rams during the Scott Lenahan era? The next three years of Rams football could shape the fanbase for the next 30. We’ll need to keep our stars around to make them worth it.
All salary cap info in this article can be found on OverTheCap.com