The St. Louis Rams, being as close to the salary cap as they are, will not be able to bring in six starters through free agency like they did in 2012.
Most estimates suggest that the Rams will have roughly $10 million in cap space once the free agency signing period begins on March 12.
But keep in mind they will need to use a sizable chunk of that money to sign their draft picks and any of their own free agents they wish to bring back.
The Rams need to fill seven holes in their roster this offseason: offensive tackle, offensive guard, safety, tight end, wide receiver, running back and kick returner. Fortunately for them, they possess four of the first 78 picks in the draft—more than any other team.
With another solid draft, the Rams should get four starters out of those picks, and they may kill two birds with one stone if they draft a wide receiver who could also perform kick return duties (Cordarrelle Patterson?).
But that still leaves two to three holes the Rams will have to fill with free-agent signings.
Let's see if we can help them out by prioritizing the needs they should look to address through free agency.
The Madden curse has to end sometime, right?
Ever since the 2010 season in which he ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 61 passes for 477 yards, Peyton Hillis has been a shadow of his former self.
Like all victims of the fabled Madden curse, Hillis has been plagued by injuries since appearing on the infamous video game cover. He missed six games in 2011 and suffered a high ankle sprain early in the 2012 season that limited his effectiveness in nearly every game he played afterward.
Hillis' 2012 stats (85 carries for 309 yards and one touchdown) are weak enough to ensure that he won't make much if any more than the league minimum in 2013. If the Rams need to replace Steven Jackson with a big bruiser, Peyton Hillis could potentially fill that role quite nicely while only requiring a minimal financial risk.
Sure, Hillis has earned the reputation as a less-than desirable teammate, but if the Rams were willing to take a chance on Titus Young, why not Hillis? The upside is huge and the risk is practically nonexistent.
However, the Rams may be perfectly happy to enter the 2013 season without making a move to add another running back even if Jackson opts out.
Jackson's exit could pave the way for the New York Jets' 2012 sixth round selection, Terrance Ganaway—whom the Rams picked up after the Jets cut him just prior to the 2012 season—to assume the big, bruising running back role.
Ganaway was no joke in college. In his final season at Baylor, he led the Big 12 in rushing before putting an emphatic exclamation point on his season with 200 yards and five touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl.
But, if Jackson opts out and the Rams aren't entirely sold on Ganaway's ability to contribute in 2013, Peyton Hillis is the type of back they will need with a price tag that will fit their narrow budget.
As a team need, wide receiver ranks No. 1 or No. 2.
But, considering the Rams salary cap situation, the considerable price tags that are likely to be attached to Greg Jennings and Dwayne Bowe and the enormous drop-off in value after the top three free agent wideouts (including Mike Wallace, whom the Rams shouldn't consider because they already have a burner in Chris Givens), the Rams are not likely to be major players in the wide receiver free-agent market.
But, if they can somehow free up the cash and come to realize the benefit of bringing in an established No.1 instead of drafting another rookie who may or may not meet expectations, Greg Jennings would look awfully good in the blue and gold.
Despite their indisputable need for more explosiveness on offense, the Rams are reportedly not interested in pursuing Jennings or Bowe (per Sports Illustrated's Don Banks):
If St. Louis does lose Amendola, it doesn't mean they're going to be in the chase for a big-name, big-money free agent receiver like Greg Jennings or Dwayne Bowe. That's not in the plan for the Rams, who consider Jennings an injury risk himself after his 2012 season, and like many teams are wary of Bowe's decreased effort level after he earns a big payday.
It's hard to fault their logic with Bowe, as he has displayed a disconcertingly low level of effort multiple times throughout his career, but proclaiming Jennings to be an injury risk is a bit of a reach.
Yes, Jennings missed three games in 2011 with a knee injury and eight games in 2012 with a sports hernia, but before that he played in 16 games for three straight years.
If they are willing to give $6 million or so for Danny Amendola (who has played in 16 games only once) it would be illogical not to instead give Jennings $2 to $3 million more to come in and be an immediate upgrade over anyone the Rams have had at the wide receiver position since Torry Holt left for Jacksonville in 2009.
There is no denying the Rams' need for a safety. They could possibly need two of them if Quintin Mikell becomes a salary-cap casualty.
In 2012, Mikell proved himself to be one of if not the best "box" safeties in the league. Ideally, the Rams would pay him his 2013 salary and then use the draft to provide a "center fielder" at the free safety position.
The 2013 NFL draft is rich in safety talent, so rich, in fact, that even if the Rams cut ties with Mikell, they may choose to fill both safety positions with rookies.
However, if the brain trust is reluctant to have rookies at both starting safety positions, there is one free agent at whom they would surely take a hard look.
William Moore played strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons in 2012, but his 11 interceptions in three seasons as a starter have shown he has the range and the ball-hawking proclivities to excel at the free safety position.
And he couldn't have stronger ties to the state of Missouri. He grew up in Hayti, a small town on the eastern edge of Missouri's boot heel, then spent his college years at Mizzou.
What separates Moore from Jarius Byrd, the prize of the free agent safeties, is Moore's injury history. He has missed eight games in the last three seasons, not Danny Amendola-like, but concerning nonetheless.
His injury concerns may cause him to fall into the Rams' price range. If the Rams cut ties with Mikell, they couldn't find a more talented, versatile replacement than William Moore.
With an offense nearly devoid of explosiveness, field position is a hugely important factor for the Rams. The best way to "flip the field" on the opposing team is to have a dynamic kick returner who can make people miss with the ball in his hands, something the Rams have not had in a very long time.
This is a need the Rams may have a good chance to address via free agency; There are a few quality names out there who shouldn't require a steep financial commitment to reel in.
Ted Ginn Jr. represents not only a proven and dynamic return specialist, but also an opportunity to weaken a divisional opponent. Ginn is coming off of a one-year $1.375 million contract and his worst year as a receiver statistically. If the Rams can lure him to St. Louis with a similar if slightly larger contract, it might be the steal of the offseason.
Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs is also a free agent. His recent concussion issues may give some teams pause, but they may also drive down his asking price.
Leodis McKelvin, ranked as the most effective kick returner in the league by Pro Football Focus, is also a free agent. His contract will likely be the steepest, but he would be worth it if the Rams have the cash.
Be it through the draft or free agency, the Rams have to find someone who can not only fill this role, but excel in it.
All Lance Kendricks criticism aside, the Rams need him to become an offensive force in 2013. With the NFL having become a league in which two tight ends capable of functioning as legitimate offensive weapons are necessary, they also need to add another player at the position who holds that potential.
There are two top-tier tight end prospects in the draft: Stanford's Zach Ertz and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert. With the Rams having more pressing needs at offensive line, safety and wide receiver, they are not likely to use a first-round pick on either player, and neither player is expected to be available when the Rams second-round selection (46th overall) comes up.
Consequently, the Rams could be serious players in the tight end free-agent market.
Tennessee's Jared Cook is the most intriguing prospect of the group. Jeff Fisher selected him in the third round of the 2009 draft, so we know the coaching staff likes him. His play-making ability and athleticism have both been widely lauded, and it's possible that he is no longer very happy in Tennessee, having finished a disappointingly-low 24th among NFL tight ends in targeted passes.
It is well established that Jeff Fisher has never taken an offensive tackle in the first round of the draft, preferring instead to coach up a later-round pick.
But what about bringing one in through free agency?
If this is an avenue that Fisher and Rams' GM Les Snead choose to pursue, they will doubtless take a long look at Minnesota's Phil Loadholt.
Loadholt stands 6'8" and weighs 343 pounds, a mountain of a human being.
He is known as a prolific run blocker who struggles at times in pass protection, not exactly ideal—with protecting Sam Bradford being high up on the Rams list of priorities, but those pass protection struggles combined with the general sense that Loadholt (per Tom Pelissero of ESPN1500.com) "doesn't appear to be ascending among the NFL's best at his position," could cause his contract demands to fall into the area of affordability for the Rams.
Loadholt also played with Sam Bradford at Oklahoma, part of the stellar offensive line that played a major role in Bradford's success by keeping his jersey clean thereby allowing him to carve up opposing defenses.
New England's Sebastian Vollmer is another tackle whom the Rams may consider, though his contract demands are expected to be higher than Loadholt's.
Cincinnati's Andre Smith was recently arrested for attempting to board a plane with a loaded gun in his carry-on bag. He's not going to win any awards for his intellect, but the incident may have lowered his value enough to allow the Rams to contend for his services.
Other options for the Rams include Detroit's Gosder Cherilus and the New York Giants' Will Beatty.
The Rams' top two offseason priorities revolve around Bradford. Providing him with more weapons and better protection are both equally essential pieces of 2013 success for St. Louis' gridiron heroes.