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The Rams are better than you think: An extensive St. Louis cap analysis

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You asked for it – and you got it. Taking a look at the cap structure of the Seahawks' NFC West rivals...

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not saying the Rams are Super Bowl bound. I’m not saying the Rams are a top tier NFL team. However, I do believe the Rams have one of the healthiest cap structures in in the NFL. Successful drafting of young core-franchise players and recent wise financial decisions have set the Rams up for an opportunity for potential future success – on and off the field.

As some of you know, just before the season started, I put an article up on Field Gulls giving an extensive review of the Seahawks salary cap. In this review, we discussed some salary cap basics, defined and compared terms like "cap space" and "cap flexibility", took deeper looks at specific player contracts, forecasted upcoming potential signings and extensions, and made reasonable predictions as to how the Seahawks could sustain their success while maintaining a healthy cap structure.

Many of you found it helpful and insightful and requested that we potentially take deeper looks at other teams (especially within the NFC West). One of you even asked that we rank all 32 teams by cap position. The problem with this is that teams’ cap situations are fluid – meaning, they’re always changing. Just this week, the Saints chose to convert $5.2M of Drew Brees’ contract into signing bonus – effectively lowering his cap hit by $2.6M this year but also essentially "kicking the can down the road" by adding $2.6M to his 2016 cap hit. This move did not help the Saints’ future cap position. Ranking all 32 teams by cap position isn’t impossible but it would be incredibly difficult.

A good amount of you requested that we take looks at the Niners, Rams, and Cardinals cap positions. And we’re going to do just that – starting off with the Rams. Just to give you a little background: I study the salary cap, do some side work for Over the Cap, and have spent way too much time recently reading the CBA. However, in order to provide the best take on an opposing team’s cap situation, one would need to follow the team consistently, know the "ins and outs" of their roster, and be able to identify and predict front office tendencies.

Truthfully, I don’t follow other teams nearly as closely as I do the Seahawks. As a result - I have contracted a couple experts to assist me in providing real, accurate analysis for you. Since many of you seemed to love the structure of the last analysis – this and future cap reviews will follow the same structure (or close to it). Additionally, all numbers will be pulled from Over the Cap. You can find out more about them here. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Let’s look at the basics

With a $144,111,787 cap limit due to rollover, the Rams currently have $3,674,822 in 2015 cap space. In 2015, the Rams will spend $56,333,899 on offense, $58,892,356 on defense, and $3,947,080 on special teams. Compared to the rest of the NFL, the Rams spend the 10th least on offense and are good for the 6th most money put towards their defense.

Most of the Rams’ defensive money is spent on the defensive line – as they bolster arguably the best defensive line in football (if not the best – one of the top). The Rams spend more than anyone else in the NFL on their defensive line – at $47M. They only spend $10M on their linebackers and $5.4M on their corners…which allows them to throw so much money at their defensive line. 79.8% of the Rams defensive money is spent on the defensive line. And it shows.

In terms of the Rams’ $56-57M spent on offense, $5,218,449 is spent on the quarterback position. $5,921,650 is spent on running back position, $12,642,426 on wide receiver, $15,554,641 on tight end, and $18,196,666 on the offensive line. Of course – the money spent on the quarterback position will rise in the years 2016 and 2017 due to Nick Foles’ extension. But for now – the Rams Offense is incredibly cheap.

The Rams have drafted some young pieces of talent that I believe will prove beneficial to the long-term health of the organization. Players like Gurley, Aaron Donald, and others are key to the future of the Rams. The front office of St. Louis has put together a more than competent business structure that has given them the ability to extend the players they view critical to their success and do a "wait and see" on players they believe could be more critical to their core in the future.

Space vs. Flexibility

If you’ve ever interacted with me here, read any of my cap articles, or conversed with me on twitter, you’ve probably heard me mention cap space and cap flexibility. Both these terms are critical to the understanding of how the NFL salary cap works. However, the latter is less known and arguably much more crucial. Let’s do a brief review so we get everyone on board.

Cap space is the difference between the NFL cap limit ($143.28M + any rollover amount) and the amount of money an organization has spent on player contracts for that year. Many fans, pundits, and experts always reference cap space as the defining factor towards determining the cap health of a team. However, I would disagree. It’s not a horrible way to look at things – but its quite simplistic. Let’s take a closer look.

Cap flexibility can be defined as the ability by NFL teams to open up cap space quickly and efficiently without large dead money repercussions. Cap space is temporary – cap flexibility is not. Strong cap flexibility allows the ability to open up cap space quickly. If you want to learn more about cap flexibility, you can read my article on it here. If I lost you here and you have no idea what I’m talking about – please take a second to scan that past article I wrote. It should really help you in your understanding of the salary cap. So…how do the Rams fare in terms of cap flexibility?

First of all, it’s important to note that a lack of cap flexibility is not necessarily a bad thing. A lack of cap flexibility solely indicates that a team has of a margin for error. In terms of the most recently updated cap commitment index by Bryce Johnston at Over the Cap, the St. Louis Rams currently have a net commitment of $49,186,082 (+ any guaranteed money after the Foles extension…which is around 8M).

So in reality – the Rams have about $57M in net commitments. This number is derived from $39M in future proration (all signing bonus money added up from all the contracts) and about $25M in future full guarantees (all fully GTD base salaries from all contracts). The Cap Commitment Index is pre-Foles extension…so I’m just adding my own numbers on top of what Bryce has in his index. This level of net commitments ($57M) puts the Rams right in the middle of the pack in terms of cap flexibility.

I asked Jason Fitzgerald from Over the Cap and he gave me some insight into the Rams’ cap flexibility:

"I think at this point the Rams have a pretty solid structure in place of early extensions for players they really like and then waiting on those who may play a part but are not viewed as critical. I think that has helped them be very flexible with their cap."

All in all, the Rams have put together a concrete foundation of core contracts and structures. In terms of cap flexibility, they fall right in the middle of the pack. Again, not a bad thing. Cap flexibility just indicates a lack for margin of error.

How much are the Rams paying these dudes?!

Note: I am equating Cap Hit and Actual Salary as the same in this section. Yes – I know they are different…but for the sake of easy comprehension of this article…they are treated the same.

The Rams’ highest paid player in 2015 is Robert Quinn with a $16,744,110 cap number. Quinn’s cap number reduces dramatically from here on out which will help the Rams mightily in the long run. Quinn’s large, early cap hit will be critical to maintaining a healthy business structure in the future. Jason Fitzgerald agreed:

"I think the Rams cap is very healthy in the short term. Being able to bite the bullet this season on Quinn's contract this year, really helps them moving forward. I would expect them to have one of the top 10 cap positions in 2016."

The next highest paid player for the Rams in 2015 is Chris Long with a $12,500,000 cap hit. Long’s contract is currently set to expire after 2016. The third highest paid player is Jared Cook at $8,300,441. The Jared Cook signing was interesting. I’m not sure how Rams’ fans feel about that one – but I was kind of weary of that signing from the beginning. It just doesn’t seem like his production matches his contract value. This is what Jason had to say regarding Cook’s contract, which is set to expire in 2017:

"I’ve never been a big fan of Jared Cook and thought that was a bad signing since day 1. Maybe he becomes a favorite of Foles, but I could see him going next year to create another $5.7M in cap."

Per Over the Cap, it seems to be that Cook has no future guaranteed money in base salaries past 2015. So like Jason said – I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rams cut Cook in 2016 to make way for a Chris Long extension…which they should probably get out of the way early. They would have to eat whatever is left on his prorated signing bonus – which is around $2Mish.

The fourth highest paid player is right guard Roger Saffold at $8,250,000. It’s important to know that Saffold’s cap hits only go down from here – plateauing down to $6M for the following couple years and then rising back to $7.5M in the last year of his contract. Tight end Lance Kendricks is slotted for a $5,600,000 cap hit this year after being signed to a four year deal earlier this year. Additionally, William Hayes is in the last year of his four year deal and is slotted to have a cap hit of $4,480,000 in 2015.

Who do the Rams still have to sign?

Chris Long is entering the second to last year of his contract – so getting his extension done would be beneficial. This is what Jason had to say regarding Long:

"I’d probably look to re-sign Chris Long early and get that out of the way and I think finding another wide receiver in free agency would be helpful. My gut feeling is they are more likely to target the top or close to the top players at a position in free agency only if the price point is somewhat low."

The Rams have many players who just signed extensions and are in the first and second years of their deals. The only main extension they should probably take care of this year is Long. Kenny Britt’s contract ends in 2016…so if they want to extend him…they will have the opportunity to soon. He logged 750 yards and 3 touchdowns for the Rams in 2014. Stedman Bailey’s contract is also up in 2016. They also have two starting corners that have contracts expiring after 2015: Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins. If they want to remain competent at corner – the Rams will likely want to extend those two. Maybe Rams’ fans want to let them go...who knows. Additionally - following the 2015 season, the Rams will likely be looking to sign any offensive pieces that might be available in free agency (as that is where they seem to struggle the most).

How does St. Louis create and sustain success in the future?

Everyone knows the Rams already bolster a stingy defense – especially on the defensive line. With Gurley now playing in the back field, if he can develop and if that offense can gain any sort of traction – the Rams could become a playoff contender. They have strong pieces of talent…they just never seem to be able to put it together. The Rams have put together a very solid business structure that has given them a future opportunity to make a run. They just need to make it happen on offense now. I’m not sure if Nick Foles is the answer to make that happen – but Todd Gurley has got to have Rams’ fans excited.

The area where the Rams’ front office has to be careful is free agency. Due to the structure of free agency, bidding wars and overpriced players are common bait for teams. Falling victim to this trap may prohibit the Rams from sustaining their effective contracts and business model. Jason had some thoughts on this:

"I do think the two areas where they might benefit is reduction of guarantees and certain price valuations. I tend to think there are certain players in the past, specifically in free agency, that they over-guarantee to bring them in. I think overall that hurts. I also think, perhaps in the same line, those players are also earning better than expected deals overall. In some ways I can see doing one but to do both seems to be too much."

If the Rams are careful to not overvalue and over-guarantee players, the Rams can sustain their cap flexibility. \

Overall, the Rams’ cap situation is incredibly healthy…and looks to be one of the healthiest situations come 2016. Watch out NFC West, the Rams might be a formidable foe in the future.