The Rams are a team that is reported to have a surplus of cap space this year, but is that really true? When this was first being reported back in late December this proclamation should have raised some red flags for many loyal Rams fans. For some reason it is a subject that has gone mostly untouched and poorly described. Last year, while appearing on a 101.1 ESPN (a local ESPN affiliate in St. Louis), Rams COO, Kevin Demoff made the following statement regarding the current cap space, “we will actually have very little to work with next year, we will have to do a good job developing our draft picks this year, because next year we might not get to be as active in free agency”. Wait a minute, that sounds contradictory to what was reported a mere several months later by almost every major media outlet, so what gives?
First off, cap space is very difficult to discuss this time of year because there are so many moving parts. There is not really a fair number you can put on it because a lot of this depends on personnel decisions that will happen over the next 6-7 months. Even after the Rams cut players, re-sign players, sign free agents, and finish the draft there still will not be a clear picture of the cap until the first pre-season game.
The Rams will start this off-season with close to $10 million in cap space. This doesn’t include many of our own free agents who may be resigned, or our draft picks, which alone will account for close to $7 million. Before you spit out your coffee- yes, you did the math right. After resigning our own free agents and draft picks the Rams could, in theory, have used up all of their cap space. But hold your horses and put the gun down, there are a lot of decisions the Rams can make that will allow them to free up a lot of space. These decisions may be easy to make, and frankly, have probably already been made. By restructuring a few contracts and releasing several players the Rams could stand to gain between $8-19 million in extra cap space. That’s why you saw media outlets saying the Rams would have close to $30-40 million total in cap space. They were reporting numbers that had decisions tied to them. Perhaps many of these cap decisions have the writing on the wall. Jason Brown for example, he was benched last year after being paid top-free-agent money to come to St. Louis several years ago. He could help save the Rams close to $2-3 million if he were to be released.
There are other players that would appear to be easy decisions for this new staff. Fred Robbins could be cut to save the team a clean $4.5 million. He played through a back injury and was non-factor most of the year. It’s easy to see why many journalists see the cap-room upside with the Rams, they have players that they can easliy afford to release. At 2-14 there are few players who can form a strong argument to stay on-board with a large contract, and those without significant bonuses will be inclined to restructure, or face the street.
That leads me to one of the greatest and most significant myths this year around the Rams cap space which is that of Jason Smith. Smith was the #2 overall selection in 2008 draft, and has aptly earned the “bust” title since then. Jason Smith has graded out very poorly when he has been on the field, and has fought injuries every season since he was drafted. As a guy who is eating up $13-14 million in cap space, it is justified that many would see him as a casualty. Unfortunately, poor reporting and misguided fans have unrealistic expectations for what can be done here. Contracts are still worth something in the NFL, albeit not very much, and Smiths contract says he is guaranteed to close to $11 million in 2012. So even if the Rams cut him they will be on the hook for a lot of money with Smith. Many fans are pounding on their chests saying that he should restructure, but why would he? Why not collect $11 in St. Louis and get picked up by another team hoping he turns a corner, and then collect two paychecks this year? It pains me to say it Rams fans, but Jason Smith is going to be the winner here. It may be time to cut our huge loss and take comfort in saving $3 million on his departure.
The bottom line is that the Rams will have a lot options as it relates to the salary cap this year. They should be able to release some aging players, and restructure some undesirable contracts to benefit themselves in 2012. I would expect the Rams to be responsibly active in the free agent market, and to be close to the maximum in cap spending in August. The Rams organization appears to have a commitment to winning, and that often means spending big money when it’s needed. In this case, it is. Let’s hope they can get a good return on thier investment.
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