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By Signing Brandin Cooks, the Rams Have Locked in the First Piece of Their Young Core

The 24-year-old wide receiver is set to earn nearly $16 million annually. Now for the next question: When will Aaron Donald get his contract?

Brandin Cooks AP Images

With reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald expected to sign the biggest contract for a defender in NFL history before training camp, the Rams finally announced Tuesday that the team had signed … Brandin Cooks. FALSE ALARM, EVERYBODY!

It’s a five-year, $80 million extension for Cooks, who is now under contract through 2023. Cooks, 24, is expected to line up on the outside and replace Sammy Watkins, who walked in free agency after the Rams had traded a second-round pick for him. In March, Watkins signed a three-year deal with Kansas City with $30 million guaranteed. The deal could be worth as much as $48 million, averaging out to the same $16 million annual figure that Cooks signed for—not that they’ll be compared or anything.

It’s way too early to parse the value of this contract (the guaranteed money for Cooks has yet to be reported), but the deal put a bow on the Cooks trade, which was the eye of the Rams’ offseason storm. In the last five months, L.A. acquired cornerbacks Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and lost Watkins, defensive end Robert Quinn, and linebacker Alec Ogletree. The Rams already had one of the best collections of young talent on their rookie contracts in Jared Goff, Donald, and Todd Gurley entering the offseason, but adding Cooks and Peters gave them perhaps the best yet-to-be-paid core in the league. The Rams have been figuring out who they want to pay, and who to send on their way.

Letting Watkins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson go in free agency were the first two dominoes (as well as a tacit admission that the Watkins trade failed). The third domino likely fell Monday, when the team failed to reach a long-term deal with the franchise-tagged safety Lamarcus Joyner, who is set to become a free agent in 2019. The fourth domino was Cooks’s deal, with the Rams following up the April trade with the Patriots that netted him and a fourth-round pick (no. 136 overall) for first- and sixth-round picks (no. 23 overall and no. 198 overall).

The fifth domino will likely be Donald, which should be a record-setting boulder, probably before training camp. If the Rams can’t sign Donald to a deal before the season after they traded for and paid Cooks, it could send an odd message to the locker room. If the deal happens without a hitch, however, it will secure one of the best balanced cap situations in the NFL’s medium-term future. The Rams still have Peters and Gurley under team control for two more years and Goff for three, plus the potential to franchise-tag any of the three. Right now, their combined 2018 expenditure for those two All-Pros and their starting quarterback is just over $7 million. That collection of young, affordable talent gave the Rams tremendous short-term flexibility, something that allowed the team to add Suh on a whim to pair with Donald.

The Rams have one glaring, short-term hole left to fill. Once they sign Donald to his record-setting deal, all will be quiet in L.A. … at least, until the next guys need to get paid.