Lock ’em up or let ’em walk: What to do with Rams’ free agents
ST. LOUIS — The Rams are more than a week into the offseason, so you can bet coaches and administrators are hard at work studying game tape and statistics to determine the value of their players.
It’s an especially important evaluation for the 14 free agents whose contracts expire this year, a list that includes the team’s starting quarterback and top receiver for the final half of the 2014 season. All who spoke to the media indicated a desire to stay in St. Louis to be part of a rebuilding process they believe is on its way to success, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a good fit.
Obviously, Jeff Fisher and his staff have better resources at their disposal to make a more informed decision, and they also have the advantage of a closer look at how every Ram performs on the practice field, in the weight room and on the field. With that disclaimer in mind, let’s look at some notable names and the best course of action for St. Louis.
LOCK THEM UP
WR Kenny Britt — This one became a no-brainer in December, when St. Louis’ marquee 2014 free-agent signee stepped up to finish with a career-high 48 receptions.
The 6-foot-3 former Titans star never quite found the ideal chemistry with Austin Davis, who seemed to miss Britt more than anyone else on deep throws. As a result, he never surpassed 70 yards in Davis’ eight games and scored just one touchdown on a 30-yard completion in Philadelphia.
Then Shaun Hill took over at quarterback against Denver, and Britt caught four passes for 128 yards before halftime in a huge 22-7 win. That included a 63-yard touchdown, and he quickly became the clear go-to guy for a receiving corps searching for a way to replace the injured Brian Quick.
Britt matched a career high with nine catches against the New York Giants and finished with a team-high 748 receiving yards. Those numbers should count for even more considering he caught passes from two backups throwing behind a below-average offensive line.
Two more factors working in the Rams’ favor are Britt’s ties with Fisher from their Tennessee days and his relatively low contract of $1.4 million, the lowest of all St. Louis receivers. He’s probably due for a raise when the new league year begins at 3 p.m. on March 10, and Fisher should be excited about the possibility of Britt and Quick healthy together next season.
RT Joe Barksdale – Injuries contributed to a poor year for the Rams’ offensive line, leaving no standout performers.
Right tackle Joe Barksdale may have been the most reliable lineman as one of three players to start all 16 games. He made his share of mistakes as St. Louis finished near the bottom half of the league in rushing yards and sacks allowed, but the Rams don’t have many reasons not to keep the 27-year-old they picked up after the Raiders cut him in September 2012.
FS Rodney McLeod — The improvement of the third-year safety may have been one of the more underrated aspects of a young secondary that looked surprisingly good by the end of the season.
McLeod finished the year with 92 tackles and two interceptions, showing his worth both against the run and in coverage. His status as a restricted free agent should make the decision to keep him even easier, since it means St. Louis can make an early offer and gets the chance to match offers from other teams.
FB/TE Cory Harkey — Some lingering injuries kept Harkey from matching the output of his last season, when he caught 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Nonetheless, Harkey performed admirably as a blocker and on special teams to go along with his eight catches for 55 yards. He’s an exclusive rights free agent, so St. Louis can bring Harkey back for the league minimum.
QBs Austin Davis/Shaun Hill — The future of the Rams’ two starting quarterbacks in 2014 depends a great deal on what the franchise believes it can find around the league and in the draft.
St. Louis seems unlikely to find anything resembling a home run, unless it’s willing to make some big sacrifices for a higher draft pick. Fisher announced his intentions to bring another quarterback into the mix, but he also liked the work ethic and professionalism of both Hill and Davis.
If the Rams can find someone to legitimately challenge a healthy Sam Bradford for a starting spot, they shouldn’t hesitate to cut ties with either Hill or Davis. Still, they have the inherent advantages of familiarity with Brian Schottenheimer’s offense and a receiving corps that shouldn’t undergo any big personnel changes.
Davis should probably get the nod over Hill if the Rams have to choose just one, only because he’s a restricted free agent and nine years younger. The 25-year-old has the arm to develop into a solid player, even if he’s less reliable than his veteran counterpart at the moment.
TE Lance Kendricks — A team-high five touchdown catches will be the major selling point for Kendricks as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
If St. Louis can find a good deal here, it shouldn’t hesitate to bring back the former second-round pick out of Wisconsin. He provides a solid short-yardage option and can also be effective as a blocker in big sets.
At the same time, the Rams already have an excellent No. 1 tight end in Jared Cook. Although the two play distinctly different roles, Cook’s continued growth after gaining 634 yards on a career-high 52 catches could be enough to convince St. Louis to drop out if Kendricks’ demands get too high.
LET HIM WALK
G Davin Joseph — The 31-year-old veteran figured to play only in case of injury, with No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson slated find a spot on the line immediately.
Instead, the rookie didn’t start until the fifth game of the season and Joseph didn’t lose his spot in the lineup for long after, since Jake Long tore his ACL two weeks later. Unfortunately for St. Louis, Joseph generally showed why the Buccaneers cut him last spring after seven previously productive seasons.