NFL teams aren’t waiting for the draft, free agency, or even the official start of the league year to begin fixing their biggest holes. The Rams entered the offseason needing a new cornerback, as free agent Trumaine Johnson — who was franchise-tagged by Los Angeles in back-to-back years — no longer appears to be part of the team’s future. Johnson’s play slipped some in 2017, and many have speculated that the Rams would draft a corner to replace him in April.
It turns out they didn’t need to wait nearly that long. The Rams have reportedly agreed to send a package of not-yet-revealed draft picks to the Chiefs in exchange for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters. Though the trade isn’t official until the league year begins on March 14, Peters will be a Ram.
He is an immediate upgrade for the Rams’ secondary. Peters is three years younger than Johnson and graded out higher than him in Pro Football Focus’s ratings in each of the past two seasons. A classic ballhawk in the secondary, Peters recorded 19 interceptions and recovered five fumbles in his first three years in the NFL. And while he has a reputation for occasionally giving up big plays, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the best cornerback in the league.
And Peters gives the Rams more than just on-field talent — he also aides Los Angeles’s cap situation. Johnson earned more than $30 million in his last two seasons on the tag, while Peters will carry just a $1.7 million cap hit for the Rams in 2018. L.A. can also exercise Peters’s fifth-year option in 2019, projected at about $9 million, after which he’ll be set to hit free agency. Assuming the team lets Johnson walk, Los Angeles will have over $39 million in cap space, a considerable amount of which will likely go toward Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald’s massive upcoming contract extension. The franchise may even have enough space to hold on to defensive end Robert Quinn, who carries an $12.4 million cap hit this season and who the Chiefs were reportedly pushing to include in the deal.
With their hole at corner effectively plugged, the Rams can be more flexible in the draft, depending on which picks they sent the Chiefs. Los Angeles owns the 23rd pick this year, but no second-rounder — that pick was sent to Buffalo last year in exchange for Sammy Watkins. They could now go after an offensive lineman, a linebacker, or just the best player available.
Peters, who has a reputation as an unwieldy personality, is not without risk for the Rams. In college, he was booted off his Washington team after feuding with coaches. Last year, he threw a penalty flag into the stands, for which Kansas City suspended him one game.
For the Chiefs, trading away Peters represents their latest move to retool their roster. At the end of January the team traded quarterback Alex Smith to Washington, with second-year pro Patrick Mahomes II set to start under center. The team also announced last week that it won’t re-sign longtime defensive leader Derrick Johnson. That leaves Kansas City relying on a defensive rebuild and an unproven quarterback in 2018.
While the Rams have set themselves up for flexibility this year, the Chiefs have done the same — but for the long term. The Chiefs entered the offseason with little cap flexibility, but managed to get Smith’s contract off the books. (In January, Washington reached a deal with Smith on a four-year, $94 million extension.) And while Peters wouldn’t have hurt the team’s cap in 2018, he’s in line for a monster deal should he keep up his current level of play.
With this deal, the Rams have filled an immediate need on their roster while the Chiefs clearly have their eyes on a long-term vision. For one team this is a relatively win-now move — for another, it’s a sign of a reset.