Most of the attention in free agency is focused on the “new” pieces that teams hope to add to their existing roster. Last season, the St. Louis Rams made major waves, signing the top offensive tackle and, arguably, the top pass-catching tight end in the free agent class. This year, the Rams will likely step more calmly into those waters, with limited funds (i.e. cap space; at this point) to truly make any massive impact through new signees. However, the under-rated aspect of free agency is the re-signing of players already on the roster. Maintaining the talent currently on your roster is just as, if not more, important than adding new talent.
As the NFL barrels towards the opening week of the free agency period, the St. Louis Rams will have a number of decisions to make in terms of re-signing players. As it currently sits, there are 12 players slotted to “test the waters” next week, include seven players who played a significant number of snaps during the 2013 season. Several of those players are not expected to be re-signed to the St. Louis roster, including TE Mike McNeill, LB Will Witherspoon, S Matt Giordano, and WR Justin Veltung. Several other will likely be re-signed to minimal contracts as special teamers or depth players, such as Tim Barnes and Quinton Pointer. That leaves the Rams with six pending free agents, who just so happen to be the most “expensive” of the 12 original players in the exiting class.
As it currently sits, the St. Louis Rams are roughly $7.3 million under the 2014 salary cap. While there is some expectation that a handful of “big contract,” veteran players will be released to give the Rams some room to maneuver, nothing has officially been announced; nor will it until the start of free agency, if the past is any indication. So, keeping that in mind, we wanted to play a little game of buy or sell with our remaining players. Starting from the bottom…
Shelley Smith, OG: BUY
Shelley Smith was arguably the best offensive guard on the roster last season, especially if you are fond of road graders on the interior of your offensive line. In 371 snaps, Shelley posted the 4th-highest run blocking grade among all guards in 2013, performing on both the right and left sides of the line. While pass blocking may still be an issue for the soon-to-be 5th year interior lineman, he complimented Joe Barksdale (i.e. the pass protection specialist) extremely well on the right side, recording his highest run blocking grades in his two “starts” at right guard versus the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shelley should be a “no-brainer” re-sign, and will certainly not break the bank, considering he cost the Rams only $575,000 in cap space last season.
Kellen Clemens, QB: BUY
Clemens showed last season that he has the wares to competently back-up Sam Bradford for the St. Louis Rams. As long as Brian Schottenheimer is the offensive coordinator, Clemens should be on the roster. Even with the expectation that the Rams will take a “groom-able,” young quarterback in the upcoming draft, there is no denying the value of having a humble, veteran leader with unmatched knowledge of the offensive playbook on your roster. Clemens shouldn’t cost any more than $575,000 to $675,000 to maintain, and he certainly proven to be well worth that price last season.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB: BUY
While Dunbar did nothing to excite the St. Louis Rams last season, he is, by default, one of the Top 3 linebackers on the current roster. The former-Saint showed a glimpse of breakout brilliance in 2012, prior to his four game suspension, which could force the Rams to give the veteran another one-year contract to “show his stuff.” On a less performance-based note, Dunbar is also the only player on the roster with any genuine experience in Gregg Williams defensive system. With that in mind, his potential to ease the learning curve for this young defensive unit might be enough to merit a modest $650,000-$850,000 “show me” contract.
Darian Stewart, S: SELL
Around this time last season, we were heavily pushing the idea Stewart could still be a competent starter in the NFL. Despite a handful of semi-impressive outings, Stewart showing nothing to suggest that he had progressed as a defensive back in the league. His significant injury history and the mere fact that he is a Spagnuolo-era player should point to the Rams letting the on-time average safety walk in free agency. If that weren’t enough, both the free agent class and the 2014 NFL Draft are filled with intriguing safety options, making Stewart doubly expendable…
Chris Williams, OG/OT: BUY
Much like Shelley Smith, there should be little thought put into whether or not to sign Chris Williams to another one-year deal. His numbers were certainly not impressive, by any stretch of the imagination, but considering he played the lion’s share of snaps at left guard on an offensive line that 1) ranking 12th in fewest sacks allowed, 2) nearly got Zac Stacy to 1,000 yards rushing in only 12 games, and 3) was forced to operate with an overly play-extending, non-starting quarterback for most of the season, he showed enough to be retained for depth, at the very least. Moreover, Williams “meh” performance should reduce his $1.37 million contract from last season into the sub-$1 million range. His potential as an interior lineman and purported ability to kickout to right tackle in a pinch are more than worth that minimal cap hit.
This “buying of the guards” is also coming under the assumption that the St. Louis Rams will cut Harvey Dahl, a seemingly no-brainer move that would free up $4 million in the cap without any dead money ramifications. It also suggests that… wait for it!
Rodger Saffold, OG/OT: SELL
For the St. Louis Rams, it may be time for the “games” surrounding Rodger Saffold to officially come to an end. The tackle-to-guard convert has managed only one full season in his four-year NFL career, rightfully earning him the “fragile” tag. He was demoted last offseason on two separate occasions (left to right tackle for Jake Long, then right tackle to guard for Joe Barksdale), and, by all reports, did not take either particularly well. In fact, for much of the offseason, there was speculation that Saffold would “demand” a trade; a story that was eventually smothered by some brilliant PR patch-working.
Mediocre performance and injury history aside, Saffold has consistently maintained that he wants to be an offensive tackle in the NFL; particularly a left tackle with a left tackle-sized contract. Some have smoke screened that Saffold will demand a “larger contract than Jake Long” and that “multiple teams are interested in paying him like a left tackle.” While that sounds more akin to a player’s agent building up the market value than reality, it still points to Team Saffold likely wanting more money that he is actually worth.
To ballpark a figure, the Top 12 guards (in terms of average salary) in 2014 will make somewhere north of $5.5 million per season, while the Top 20 offensive tackles will make $6.0 million, with the the vast majority of those being blindside protectors. The average yearly salaries for right tackles in 2014 are heavily skewed downward, with most of those being second- or third-year players still on their CBA-friendly, rookie contracts. However, at least for next season, the Top 5 right tackles will make, at minimum, $5.5 million (with Eric Fisher, the 2014 No.1 overall pick, setting the low bar for that grouping).
At this point, it would be hard to make a rational case that Saffold could justifiably fit into any three of those categories (i.e. Top 12 guards, Top 20 overall offensive tackles, or even Top 5 right tackles). Even with six phenomenal starters on the interior of the Rams offensive line, Saffold still barely graded out among the Top 20 guards in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus; and he has certainly never proven to be in the discussion among the top tackles in the league.
So, with only $7.3 million in the salary cap bank at this point, the Rams would likely need to cut bait with at least one veteran simply to be able to re-sign Saffold and pay their incoming rookie class. With enticing defensive players like CB Alterruan Verner and S T.J. Ward in free agency, and plenty of top tier interior linemen prospect projected to be available between picks No.25-45 in the upcoming NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams would be wise to spend their money elsewhere. Let some other team over-pay for a twice-demoted, newly-converted interior lineman with a long, long history to substantial, reoccurring injuries.