Yesterday, organizations around the league had the opportunity to “tag” their franchise players, keeping them around for another year under a massively inflated contract. Those in Rams Nation are probably not familiar with the concept, as the team hasn’t had a “franchise” player to tag in recent memory. However, that doesn’t mean that yesterday wasn’t potentially meaningful to St. Louis, particularly defensive-minded coaches like Gregg Williams and Jeff Fisher.
In terms of players that did get tagged, there were few, if any, that would have interested the Rams’ coaching staff. Jimmy Graham is a more developed version of Jared Cook, Greg Hardy
is was a poor-man’s Robert Quinn, and Jason Worilds is… actually, who is he? However, the more intriguing aspect of yesterday was the handful of notable players that didn’t get tagged by their respective teams.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills
In light of the non-tagging of the now-inarguable top 2014 free agent Bills’ GM Doug Whaley had this to say,”We remain open to getting a deal done with Jairus, but we have chosen not to use the franchise tag on any of our impending unrestricted free agents.”
Sadly, at least for Buffalo, Byrd is as good as gone, likely following Mike Pettine to Cleveland, where he would be surrounded by comparable talent for the first time in his career.
The former Oregon Duck was ranked 8th overall among safeties in 2013, allowing an impressively low 50.0% catch rate in coverage, while snagging four interceptions and deflecting two other pass attempts. He will likely look to be made the top paid safety in the NFL; another sign that points to the Cleveland Browns, who have as much cap space as any team in the NFL this offseason. Luckily, the signing of Byrd could signal the end for another player who was surprisingly not tagged yesterday…
T.J. Ward, S, Cleveland Browns
With the Browns being so far under the cap, it was a bit surprising to see that neither Alex Mack nor T.J. Ward got the franchise tag yesterday. Cleveland’s Pro Bowl center did get slapped with the transition tag, which it essentially putting Mack on a long chain; allowing him to “test the waters,” but ultimately still be signed or matched by the Browns prior to the draft. With speculation that Mike Pettine will heavily pursue Jairus Byrd in free agency, it leaves the door open for Ward to walk; enter the St. Louis Rams.
While T.J. Ward might be more closely matched to a strong safety than a free safety, he is the type of hybrid-skill set player that Jeff Fisher wants, and needs, in his secondary scheme. Stacking 210 lbs. on a 5’10 tall frame, Ward is a load in the box, recording the highest-overall grade against the run among safeties last season. The former 38th overall pick led all defensive backs with 45 defensive stop (i.e. plays resulting in an offensive failure), including two sacks and two interceptions. More impressively, Ward allowed only 8.6 average yards per catch in coverage, 5th-lowest among safeties with 750+ defensive snaps.
The soon-to-be ex-Cleveland Browns safety is exactly what the St. Louis Rams need in their secondary. Ward is an All-Pro veteran, who has demonstrated the ability to sit back in the zone, play man coverage, effectively rush the passer, and, most importantly, make his presence known against the run. Gregg Williams would love to get his hands on a four-dimensional star like Ward (who converted from cornerback to safety in college), especially one with ample experience in the AFC North against star talents like A.J. Green, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin (former Raven), Mike Wallace (former Steeler), and Antonio Brown. Let’s hope they have the money!
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
In his first year in Gregg Williams’ defense, Verner put together arguably the best secondary performance in the league last season. He allowed an impressively low 49.4% catch rate on 79 targets (7th), and finished the season with five interceptions (T-5th) and 23 pass deflections (T-1st). Verner obviously benefited from coaching and overall stability in the secondary last season, with both Bernard Pollard and fellow cornerbacker Jason McCourty putting together phenomenal years in Williams’ scheme. However, following his defensive coach to a team with a Top 10 front-seven and the talent (and picks in the 2014 NFL Draft) to formulate a Top 10 secondary, Verner could certainly replicate his 2013 production.
Unlike the other two players, the “situation” at cornerback is less dire than in the deep secondary. Both Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins have performed admirably on the outside, which begs the question: Who would be shifted to nickelback? Moreover, the Rams still have Cortland Finnegan’s contract on the roster, which is slotted to pay him $10 million this season. Keeping both a “new” Verner contract and the “old” Finnegan contact on the books is not feasible for a team with plenty of other players/positions to worry about on the roster. Therefore, Verner coming in would have to signal Finnegan heading out… and the Rams front office has done nothing to suggest the latter will be happening.