Free agency begins next week, but the Rams have already acquired two All-Pro cornerbacks and shed millions from their cap figure. After the young Rams (lambs?) completed one of the most pronounced one-year turnarounds in recent memory by going from 4-12 to 11-5 and an NFC West title, GM Les Snead has used the weeks leading up to free agency to try to move Los Angeles firmly into Super Bowl contention. Let’s look at the whirlwind of moves the Rams have made over the past two weeks and what they mean.
The Rams started their trading spree by sending a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters and a 2018 sixth-round pick. A week later, the Rams flipped defensive end Robert Quinn, who could have been released to save the Rams $11.4 million against their cap, to Miami for a pick. Later that week, the team used the franchise tag to retain safety Lamarcus Joyner, flipped inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and his $39 million cap hit over the next four years for fourth- and sixth-round picks, signed former Packers cornerback Sam Shields, and traded for Aqib Talib.
[Exhales] Here’s the net result of those deals:
Rams Added: CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib, CB Sam Shields, Giants’ 2018 fourth-round pick, Giants’ 2018 sixth-round pick, unknown Dolphins mid-round pick, Chiefs’ 2018 sixth-round pick
Rams Lost: DE Robert Quinn, ILB Alec Ogletree, 2018 fourth-round pick, 2018 fifth-round draft pick, 2018 seventh-round pick, 2019 second-round pick, 2019 seventh-round pick
Let’s Get Ready to Ramble
My goodness, this defense is going to force so many turnovers. Since he entered the NFL in 2015, Peters has grabbed 19 interceptions, the most by any player over that span. He also might be the best fumble forcer of any cornerback in football.
Now Peters will be paired with Talib, a.k.a. 2 Chainz, who has notched the second-most interceptions (34) since he entered the league in 2008, just behind the retired Charles Woodson. The Rams will likely lose CB Trumaine Johnson, one of the best press-coverage artists in football, in free agency, but press is also Talib’s specialty and he’s far more affordable.
Rams are going from the No. 1 press corner (Trumaine Johnson) to the No. 8 press corner (Aqib Talib), and the No. 35 off-man corner (Kayvon Webster to the No. 2 off-man corner (Marcus Peters) in my #CoverageProductivity numbers https://t.co/HIYfDTC3bK— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) March 9, 2018
Of course, there’s risk that comes with these moves. While the football aspects of these two deals are no-brainers, both Talib and Peters are strong personalities. Peters threw a penalty flag into the crowd last year, while Talib might be best known for repeatedly stealing Michael Crabtree’s chain.
While the locker room may be more colorful this year, pairing Peters and Talib under Wade Phillips seems like a worthy gamble. Phillips’s scheme helped win the Broncos a Super Bowl after the 2015 season, and Talib made the Pro Bowl each year under Phillips in Denver, including first-team All-Pro in 2016. The only defensive coordinator in football who is better at putting his defenders in position to make plays is Bill Belichick, which might be why Talib reportedly limited his trade destinations to Los Angeles and New England.
Phillips’s scheme forces quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly, evidenced by Aaron Donald’s league-leading 91 pressures last season, which creates opportunities for defenders to jump routes. Now, Phillips has two of the best ball-hawking corners in football to integrate into that game plan, and that’s before considering the team added Shields, who hasn’t played since suffering his fourth diagnosed concussion in Week 1 of 2016. Unlike Quinn and Ogletree, who had big price tags but skill sets that didn’t dovetail with Phillips’s game plan, Peters and Talib complement what Donald and Michael Brockers do on the defensive line. Together, the sky is the limit for this defense. Literally. Teams won’t be able to throw on these guys.
L.A. Might Not Be Done Yet
The modern blueprint for an NFL contender is a core of high-level players on rookie contracts that allows a GM to use extra cap space to plug holes elsewhere on the roster. Donald and Gurley, the defensive and offensive players of the year last season, have a combined cap hit of $11.3 million. Jared Goff takes up just $7.6 million of the cap this year. The Rams front office understands those bargains give them the flexibility to compete now. Los Angeles led the league in points scored in 2017, but the team is betting that defense wins championships. It’s an old-school move for one of the youngest teams in the league.
The Rams seem to have gone all in for a Super Bowl run, but they’ve managed to keep some of their resources. While L.A. lost its next two second-round picks in trades for Sammy Watkins and Peters, flipping Quinn and Ogletree both replenished the team’s draft stock and improved its cap situation in anticipation of a record-breaking Aaron Donald megadeal. With free agency and the draft still to come, the Rams still have plenty of chips left to play with.