Unlike most occupations in the world, almost every player in the NFL is competing for his job on a yearly, or sometimes weekly, basis. While most of the St. Louis Rams are locked up into the foreseeable future, there are a handful of players that will be in their “show me” year, or the final year of their contact. In total, there are 12 Rams currently on the roster whose contract expires in 2014 (i.e. after this year). So, who needs to show the Rams “what they’re made of” in order to make their living next season in St. Louis?
Rodger Saffold, RT
Saffold is in the final year of his 4-year/$6.3 million rookie contract. To this point in his career, the Rams’ one-time blindside protector has been a mixed bag, in terms of production. He has showed significant improvement in each of the last three season… at least when he was on the field. His only full year in the league was his rookie season, starting all 16 games at left tackle, and allowing only 3 sacks, 10 hits on the quarterback, and 27 hurries. However, in 2011, Saffold played in only 9 games before finishing the season on the IR. Last year, in 2012, Saffold played in only 10 games, including the Week 2 matchup against the Washington Redskins where he was sidelined after 13 snaps. With the signing of Jake Long, the Indiana alum was moved to right tackle, the position that the Rams likely envisioned him at when they took him with the 33rd overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft. With one-time Pro Bowlers in Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, and Jake Long, the St. Louis Rams have their best offensive line, on paper, since Orlando Pace was manning the blindside and Kurt Warner was under center. Saffold will need to not only stay healthy, but perform admirably if he wants that big-money, second contract!
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, OLB
The St. Louis Rams snagged Jo-Lonn Dunbar from the dungeon-esque depth chart of the New Orleans Saints for mere pennies on the dollar last season, paying the man roughly $1.5 million per year. In return, he recorded 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles for the Rams, making a case for himself as the MVP of the St. Louis Rams defense last season. With the drafting of Alec Ogletree, Dunbar will inevitably see his role in the defense decrease, with St. Louis now having the ability to effectively run out of their 4-3 base scheme. However, if Dunbar can replicate his dominance from last season, he could be certainly be staring down a nice pay-raise.
Chris Williams, OG
The Rams’ most understated, relatively-large contract move of the offseason was Chris Williams, with St. Louis handing the 2012 mid-season signee a 1-year/$1.3 million deal for the upcoming season. The move was a bit puzzling, considering Williams played on 82 total snaps last season in the gold and navy, and was never listed as a “starter” on the depth chart. However, with the Titans’ stealing Rob Turner and the one-game suspension of Rok Watkins, the Williams’ move appears to be a smart one, for now. The one-time first-round offensive tackle (picked 18th overall by the Chicago Bears in 2008) will likely start the season at the top of the depth chart in 2013, and will give him the opportunity to finally live up to his draft status. Playing between Jake Long and Scott Wells at left guard should increase his chances of success, especially if the entire group can maintain their health. However, unlike Saffold or Dunbar, this will likely be Williams’ last shot in the NFL at a starting role. If he can acclimate to playing on the interior of the line with success, the Rams will likely hand him a longer-term deal at the end of the season. If not, Williams may be banished to “backup” status for the rest of his career.
Darian Stewart, S
Quintin Mikell was outstanding in the secondary last season for the Rams, grading out as one of the Top 10 defensive backs in the league in 2013. However, on an up-and-coming squad like St. Louis, big-money contracts to aged players have no place. As a result, Mikell was cut as a cap-casualty. With Mikell released and Craig taking his talents to San Francisco, both safety spots are currently wide open for the taking; enter Darian Stewart. Last season, Stewart missed essentially all of the year with soft-tissue injuries. However, he did start 13 games the season before, managing 3 sacks, 7 hits on the quarterback, 65 solo tackles, and 30 defensive stops. Jeff Fisher mentioned early in the offseason the Stewart would have a shot at the starting role his year. However, with the drafting of T.J. McDonald, the signing of veteran Matt Giordano, and the apparent “wow-ing” from the undrafted Cody Davis, it is anyone’s guess to who will be the eventual starters in the secondary. He will also have to contend with Rodney McLeod and the returning Matt Daniels, two pickups from last year’s UDFA class. With immeasurably better talent around him on the roster, Stewart could certainly improve upon an above-average 2011 season. However, like Williams, this will likely be Stewart’s final shot as a starter in the NFL.