On March 11, draft talk will come to a temporary halt as the NFL free-agency market opens for business.
It was initially assumed that the cash-strapped St. Louis Rams would be forced to watch from the sidelines as other teams gobble up the top free agents, but recent developments have altered expectations. Now, it appears St. Louis will have the opportunity to make some noise after all.
Here are some recent tidbits from around the web that will have major implications on St. Louis' salary-cap situation, and by extension, its ability to sign free agents.
New Salary-Cap Figure Exceeds Even the Most Liberal Estimates
This is by far the most relevant and exciting piece of offseason news to surface since the end of the season. For the Rams, this changes everything.
According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, the salary-cap figure for 2014 will reach an estimated $133 million—an approximate $7 million increase over the initial estimate of $126.3 million published by USA Today.
The NFL has notified clubs that the salary cap for 2014 will be $133 million.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 28, 2014
For St. Louis—a team initially thought to be severely short on cash—this is very good news. Maybe even good enough to land Alterraun Verner (we'll get to that later).
My recent prediction of St. Louis' salary-cap situation concluded that the team will have about $4 million to play with in free agency after cuts and expenses. Add that extra $7 million to the pile and it leaves the Rams with over $10 million in cap space.
Rams beat writer Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported a similar number. His figure is even more optimistic, as it doesn't factor in potential cuts and contract renegotiations.
With official cap number of $133 million, Rams are more than $10 million below the cap without cutting anyone.— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) February 28, 2014
This doesn't mean Rams management will ignite a reckless spending spree. The team still has to consider potential ramifications of big-time spending and how inking a player to a monster contract today may prevent the team from re-signing a keystone player two years down the road.
Thanks to this latest news, however, the Rams now have the freedom to fortify the roster with a solid signing or two.
The Cortland Finnegan Situation
A month ago, it was assumed that the Rams would eventually cut veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan in order to avoid his outrageous $10 million cap hit due in 2014.
It's still doubtful that Finnegan will be playing for such a high price in 2014, as cutting him will save $7 million in cap space, but apparently Finnegan's fate is not as clear as we initially thought.
Jeff Fisher recently told reporters that he expects Finnegan back in 2014. "He overcame a difficult situation," he said. "I understand he's healthy now. And so we expect him back in the offseason program."
That doesn't mean Finnegan will be playing at his current price tag. It simply means that St. Louis wants him back. In all likelihood, a renegotiation is imminent.
At least, that's what we're hoping. Surely, Fisher's loyalty to Finnegan will not prevent the team from making such an obvious roster adjustment.
But what if it does?
If the Rams do the unthinkable and retain Finnegan at his current price, it certainly sends a positive message to potential free agents. If the Rams are willing to pay Finnegan big bucks after a horrid season, other free agents will admire that kind of security and appreciation.
In the end, though, the NFL is a business. The thought of retaining Finnegan surely makes Fisher feel warm and fuzzy on the inside, but it will force the team to settle for a mid-level free agent instead of a game-changer such as Verner.
Fisher's loyalty to his players is one of his more admirable traits as a coach, but cutting or renegotiating Finnegan's contract is a must.
Is Verner Within St. Louis' Reach?
Verner is a member of Fisher's final draft class in Tennessee and the All-Pro cornerback was coached by Gregg Williams, who is now St. Louis' defensive coordinator, this past season
Verner is a perfect fit in St. Louis. The Rams have two solid starters in Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, but the team is certainly in need of a third starting-caliber corner. Two capable cornerbacks is simply not enough in today's NFL.
If St. Louis cuts Finnegan and center Scott Wells, it will free up approximately $11.5 million in cap space, which is enough to cover the first year of Verner's contract without tapping into $10 million in cap space currently available.
So, not only can the Rams afford Verner, but the team will have enough left over to either sign Rodger Saffold or pursue several other mid-level free agents.
Rodger Saffold Will Help Determine Draft Strategy
Saffold is the only major in-house free agent for St. Louis, and he's a player the Rams certainly want around in 2014.
Whatever happens with Saffold, it could very well be an indicator of things to come.
If the Rams re-sign Saffold, he'll start at guard and be the No. 3 tackle on the depth chart. This would allow St. Louis to focus on other positions, such as defensive back and receiver, with its two first-round draft picks.
If Saffold walks, the team can always draft a replacement at No. 2 (Greg Robinson) or No. 13 overall (Taylor Lewan, Jake Matthews).
Like Saffold, Vasquez entered free agency in his mid-20s and is a proven above-average starter. And like Saffold, Vasquez also has issues with staying healthy.
If this comparison holds true and Saffold is willing to sign for nearly $6 million on average, the Rams will surely attempt to retain him.
New Cap Figure
If we go off of Jim Thomas' $10 million prediction as stated above, here's a look at St. Louis' overall financial situation after factoring in the variables:
- St. Louis will spend approximately $8.5 million on draft picks.
- Since the rookies will be replacing veterans on the roster, much of that $8.5 million will be offset.
- Saffold will cost an estimated $6 million to retain.
- Cutting Finnegan, Wells and Harvey Dahl will save approximately $15 million.
- An additional $4 million can be saved by cutting Kendall Langford, but he's a player the Rams would likely prefer to retain.
In conclusion, the current $10 million is cap space is basically enough to sign the draft picks and possibly even re-sign Saffold as well.
The $15 million from cuts—possibly $19 million if Langford is cut—can be used to sign Verner along with several lesser free agents.
All in all, the next few months should be very interesting for the Rams.
All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.