The Rams face yet another off-season with the same kind of resigned optimism that characterizes a string of losing seasons. Despite the record, there is a prevalent feeling among fans that the franchise is only a few key pieces away from being competitive in the NFL, even after the re-awakening of the once-dreadful NFC West. With one last high draft pick courtesy of the RGIII robbery left, Rams fans can look at the next few months with enthusiasm that these final pieces will be added, thereby completing Jeff Fisher’s vision.
The problem is that, despite being a rebuilding team, the Rams do not have the salary cap space that might be required to complete such a project. Victims of high draft picks before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that regulated rookie salaries, as well as of some questionable free agency pick-ups, the Rams have surprisingly little latitude when it comes to assembling these final pieces. That means, in the near future, the franchise might have to off-load some of its current stars in order to make room for future ones. Just six players alone account for almost $70 million (close to 55% of the estimated salary cap for 2014), and only one of these – Cortland Finnegan – could be considered dispensable in Fisher’s immediate plans. While the situation might not be dire, it is nonetheless troubling for a team that is still falling short of .500 and has to battle the 49ers and the Seahawks twice a year each. It is time for someone to step up and take one for the team.
Enter Sam Bradford. Sam is the heir apparent for next year’s quarterback slot (probably his last chance) and I think it unlikely that the Rams will draft a high-profile replacement in April. Despite this vote of confidence, as well as his encouraging performances before his season went the way of his ACL, it is not unfair to suggest that, because of a variety of factors (injury, changes at offensive coordinator, a transitional O-line, inconsistent play), Bradford has delivered on neither his status as a first overall pick, nor on his contract. The Rams inked their quarterback to the tune of almost $80 million, with $50 million of that guaranteed. This is the 11th-highest for the position, and almost four times as much as the post-CBA contracts of Andrew Luck, also a first pick. Depressingly, the combined contracts of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson do not add up to $10 million.
From his rookie contract, Sam has already made over $26 million, excluding the additional endorsement opportunities that might arise from being a starting quarterback in the NFL. In other words, he is made for life and, unless he hires Vince Young’s investment banker or adopts Latrell Sprewell’s family, he is never going to be short of cash. He no longer has to play for money, but for his own athletic pride, the pride of leading the franchise that drafted him to the Lombardi Trophy. So, Sam needs to go to Les Snead’s office and make a proposal: to either imaginatively re-structure his contract (a la Tom Brady), or to offer to take a pay-cut, one that will give his team the freedom to add further building blocks around him and give him the chance to become a winner. By doing this, he will silence many detractors and maybe buy himself a few more years before he is chased out of the Gateway City.