At 6-8, with two regular-season games left to play, the St. Louis Rams once again find themselves playing for the future.
The good news is that they are playing competitive football week in and week out with a backup quarterback and the youngest roster in the NFL. Things may have been different for the Rams if signal-caller Sam Bradford wouldn't have torn his ACL against the Carolina Panthers, but injuries happen.
Nonetheless, the Rams have some tough decisions to make over the course of the next few months.
Chances are they don't want to continuously be the youngest team in league, yet with little wiggle room in terms of salary, they may end up being the NFL's most inexperienced team for a few more years. This could work out for St. Louis, but the team has to shed some of the veteran fat to move forward.
Let's take a look at four veteran contracts the Rams—who currently have $561,040 of cap space with which to work—need to move on from in 2014.
Salary cap numbers are courtesy of Spotrac.com.
When the St. Louis Rams signed center Scott Wells in free agency, he was coming off the most productive season of his career. In 2011, as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Wells was nominated to his first Pro Bowl. Additionally, he was viewed as the fourth-best center in the league, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead were hoping Wells would bring that same high level of play to St. Louis. Unfortunately for the Rams, the veteran’s tenure with the team has been marred by injury.
Over the course of the last two seasons, Wells has missed 11 games due to injury. And that number will total 13 by the end of the season, due to the fact that he was placed on injured reserve following St. Louis’ Week 13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Injuries aside, Wells is an average player at best. His skill set has declined to the point where his brightest moments almost always come in pass protection. He doesn’t have the get off or speed to be an effective run-blocker anymore. His better days are behind him.
With such a hefty contract that carries a high cap number, the Rams would be smart to move on from Wells.
The organization can’t afford to pay him $6.5 million in 2014 and 2015. Yes, he is still owed $3 million in guaranteed money after this season, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $13 million St. Louis would have to pay him to keep him around.
Remember when Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins were supposed to be a top-notch cornerback duo? Jenkins is doing his best to continuously improve and keep the notion alive, but Finnegan is a lost cause. He is a liability in pass coverage, and he can’t hold his own against the run.
Before the veteran corner was placed on season-ending IR in late November, opposing quarterbacks targeted Finnegan 34 times through the air in 2013. Of those 34 targets, he surrendered 26 completions, 353 yards, 176 yards after the catch and four touchdowns. Moreover, quarterbacks registered a 136 quarterback rating when throwing into his coverage area.
There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. The Rams signed Finnegan a few years too late. Like Wells, his better days had already passed him by. Yet, St. Louis had no way of knowing his decline would be so sharp. In 2011, PFF graded him out as the NFL’s second-best corner.
Heading into 2014, Finnegan still has three years left on his contract. Next year he carries a $10 million cap number. In 2015, it slightly decreases to $9 million, and then in 2016, it jumps back up to $10 million. St. Louis can either pay him $29 million dollars or cut him loose.
Odds are the Rams cut him loose. Of the $29 million remaining, only $6 million of it is guaranteed.
With Finnegan on the sideline, second-year corner Trumaine Johnson is taking the opportunity and running with it, outperforming expectations, making it even easier to consider parting ways with Finnegan. In his eighth year in the NFL, he no longer has the ability to play at an All-Pro level.
The dead money associated with Finnegan’s contract will hurt the Rams, but they will be better off in the long run because of it.
Thanks in large part to defensive end Robert Quinn, the Rams’ defensive line is establishing itself as one of the most dominant units in the NFL. Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford have all enjoyed success under defensive line coach Mike Waufle.
Even though Long isn’t as consistent as Quinn at defensive end, he is still garnering plenty of quarterback pressures. At defensive tackle, Brockers is a force in the run game who flashes from time to time as a pass-rusher.
Then there is Langford.
Langford is a player who easily excels versus subpar offensive linemen, yet he tends to struggle when matched up against the best of the best. To be fair, few defensive tackles regularly win every matchup inside, but the most impactful ones win more often than not.
The truth is Langford doesn’t win enough on the inside against guards and centers to warrant a $6 million payday in 2014. That is the cap number he carries. If that number was closer to $2 million, then St. Louis could afford to keep him.
Without a doubt, the Rams could find a defensive tackle in the draft who could replace Langford’s level of play at a fraction of the cost. The only problem is moving on from Langford would cost St. Louis $3 million in guaranteed money.
However, it would be worth it down the road. The sixth-year pro isn’t getting any younger, and his play is too inconsistent to warrant the combined $13 million cap number he carries in 2014 and 2015.
Langford is a prime example of a team overpaying for mediocre talent in free agency.
There is a good chance guard Harvey Dahl would have had a future in St. Louis if it weren’t for the emergence of Rodger Saffold at right guard. After Dahl went down with an injury against the Seattle Seahawks, Week 8, Saffold stepped in for the 32-year-old offensive lineman and played his way into the starting lineup.
Since his emergence, Saffold has earned a plus-nine overall grade from the folks at PFF. In addition to his fine grade, he has only allowed seven quarterback pressures, three of which were quarterback hits.
In 543 snaps this season, Dahl hasn’t played horrible, yet he’s not outperforming Saffold. This, in turn, makes him expendable. In 2014, he carries a $4 million cap number. That is too much money for someone who rides the pine on a weekly basis.
Yes, the Rams could ask Dahl to take a pay cut, yet he has already done that once. Odds are he won’t do it again. He still has the ability to be a starter in the NFL, but not at the rate of $4 million a year.
With no dead money left on his four-year, $16 million deal, St. Louis will move on from him and use the cap space elsewhere.