St. Louis Rams' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

Steven Gerwel@Steve_GerFeatured Columnist IVMarch 2, 2015

St. Louis Rams' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

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    With free agency kicking off in just over a week, we're all excited to see what the St. Louis Rams have in store. With a proper blueprint to success, the team can reach the next level and compete in 2015.

    Success in free agency will hinge on three key areas of focus: Retaining key in-house talent, maintaining hefty veteran contracts and finding new talent.

    If the Rams utilize a proper game plan for each area, it will certainly be a profitable free-agency period for both the team and the fans. That's not to say St. Louis will lead the way in a spending frenzy, but if the money is handled correctly, the team will have the means to secure an exciting name or two. 

    If you want to know what it'll take for St. Louis to shine once the market opens, read on. This article will cover what the Rams must do in order to win free agency. 

    Note: All contract info is according to Spotrac.com.

Re-Sign the Key Players

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    More often than not the most important free agents are the ones within the team's own building. Retaining key in-house free agents is important for ensuring continuity.

    The Rams have several players hitting the open market, but two of them must be retained at all costs—wide receiver Kenny Britt and offensive tackle Joe Barksdale.

    Britt was the team's top receiver with 748 yards and three touchdowns—the second-highest yards total of his career. With few other options at receiver, it's important that Britt is retained. He has the potential to be a 1,000-yard go-to-guy or at the very least a reliable No. 2. 

    It's tough to say what Britt is worth. There's no way to predict if a team will overpay. For now, a deal similar to Riley Cooper's $4.5 million per year sounds about right. His price tag could exceed that, but the Rams need to avoid falling into a frivolous bidding war. 

    One thing working in St. Louis' favor is the saturated wide receiver market. This year's crop features plenty of options—Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, Wes Welker, Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, Michael Crabtree—to draw interest away from Britt. That should give St. Louis an edge at the negotiating table. 

    As for Barksdale, the offensive line market is less impressive. Out of all the mid-level offensive line free agents, Barksdale is among the most impressive and should attract a decent deal. The Rams should plan on matching a deal that averages nearly $4 million per year, but the team should not exceed that number. 

    Between Barksdale and Britt, neither will be cheap to retain. However, these are two key players who make the Rams a better football team. 

    There are several lesser in-house free agents the Rams must discuss—tight end Lance Kendricks and safety Rodney McLeod—but Britt and Barksdale are the big ones. 

Make Something Happen with the Sam Bradford Contract

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    The Rams are tight against the cap and will be greatly restrained in free agency if the Sam Bradford contract is not addressed. St. Louis will accomplish nothing of substance until it's taken care of. 

    Bradford's 2013 cap hit exceeded $12.5 million in 2013 despite him appearing in just seven games. His 2014 cap hit was for an absurd $17.61 million, yet he didn't play a single down. With a $16.58 million hit due in 2015, the Rams simply cannot afford to have history repeat itself. 

    Cutting Bradford outright would free up approximately $13 million in much-needed cap space, but that's not the answer. Given Bradford's potential, he's worth keeping around in case he happens to overcome his injury woes. The Rams just need to restructure his deal to make that possible. 

    That might require a contract extension, given that this is the last year of Bradford's rookie deal. The ideal scenario would be to re-sign Bradford to a two-year deal that reflects his current value—something that averages slightly above $5 million per year. If he plays healthy and productive football during those two years, then he'll be extended again in 2016 with a true starting-quarterback contract. 

    Whatever the Rams decide, they must come to terms with the fact that paying Bradford $16.58 million in 2015 is not an option. 

Keep the Cuts Coming

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    According to Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com, the Rams parted ways with veteran defensive tackle Kendall Langford. The release of Langford frees up $6 million in cap space, and St. Louis is (hopefully) just getting started. 

    In addition to the Langford release and the potential Bradford renegotiation discussed in the previous slide, the Rams will also be looking to cut ties with center Scott Wells and tackle Jake Long. 

    Cutting Long will save the team $8 million in cap space, while the release of Wells will free up $3.75 million. At this point, it should be an easy decision for the Rams. 

    Wells struggled with injuries early in his St. Louis career, missing 13 starts in his first two years. He managed to suit up for 16 games in 2014, but he was a consistent weak spot on the offensive line. Pressure from the pass rush frequently came from the inside, and a bad Wells snap practically cost St. Louis a win against the Dallas Cowboys

    Long's career has been equally troubling. In 2014, Long suffered his second torn ACL, per NFL.com, and his play was questionable even before the latest knee injury. He struggled against top-notch pass-rushers and was frequently a liability. 

    Cutting Wells and Long appears to be the obvious move, but there's no guarantee the Rams will go that route. It's rather curious that the team has yet to release either player. Perhaps it is waiting to gauge interest from potential free-agent replacements before making any cuts. 

    If the Rams cut both veterans as expected, we can assume the team will make the offensive line a high priority this offseason.

Go Heavy on the Offensive Line

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    Long and Wells will likely be cut, and there's no guarantee Barksdale will be re-signed. That means the Rams could be finding replacements for three starting offensive linemen. Considering the line was a weak spot to begin with, it's safe to say that the situation is rather drastic. 

    Along with re-signing Barksdale, one of the major goals in free agency should be signing a big-name talent on the offensive line. It's not a great free-agency class for teams in need of offensive line help, but there are several decent options. 

    Mike Iupati of the San Francisco 49ers is an obvious choice. The three-time Pro Bowler is still in his prime at age 27, and he'd immediately be the best offensive lineman on the team. He hasn't been healthy for 16 games since 2012, which is something to be concerned about, but he still has a lot to offer. 

    Iupati will have a rather large price tag. Given his decorated career, he has every right to demand top-tier money. For a guard in the current market that should average out to over $8 million per year in a deal similar to Jahri Evans or Logan Mankins.

    A less costly but equally exciting option is center Stefen Wisniewski of the Oakland Raiders. Since being drafted in 2011, Wisniewski has slowly earned a reputation as one of the top centers in the game. And given St. Louis' need to immediately replace Wells, it seems Wisniewski would make the most sense. 

    The Rams can likely avoid paying Wisniewski elite money, but he'll still require a large contract. It will likely end up around $6 million per year on average, similar to Max Unger

    It's true that St. Louis hasn't had great luck with veteran offensive linemen in the past. The team must do a better job addressing the position in the draft.

    However, it would be greatly beneficial to use free agency to fill at least one offensive line position. That way the Rams will have much better flexibility on draft day.  

Find the Mid-Level Gems

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    Even if the Rams can only afford one or two big names in free agency, the improvements don't have to end there. In fact, the low-level free-agent signings can often be the most profitable. 

    Modest signings such as Britt, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and defensive end William Hayes have actually produced better on-field results than some of the recent big names signed by the Rams—Long, Jared Cook and Cortland Finnegan. 

    The Rams must continue searching for those under-the-radar gems. 

    Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly of the Arizona Cardinals is one possible candidate. The 34-year-old defender played his most productive years with the Oakland Raiders under defensive line coach Mike Waufle, who happens to be St. Louis' current line coach. The Rams are in need of a No. 3 tackle following Langford's departure, so the move would make sense. 

    Guard Willie Colon of the New York Jets is another intriguing option. At age 31 his play has declined slightly, but he's a starting-caliber player at a position of need. At the very least he's a solid upgrade over Davin Joseph and is capable of providing solid depth. 

    The big-name players earn the majority of our attention, but it's the mid-level free agents who truly make a difference. Finding some hidden gems could finally put St. Louis over the edge. 

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