Rams franchise tag CB Trumaine Johnson

Intent on retaining as many of their free agent defensive backs as they can – and cognizant of the delicate balance in making that happen given the NFL’s hard salary cap structure and a welcoming market across the league – the Rams today decided to use their franchise tag designation on cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

The fourth-year cornerback is guaranteed a salary of $13.9 million for the 2016, although the Rams and Johnson will continue to work on a long-term deal.

Johnson is free to also negotiate with other teams, but the cost to sign him is prohibitive. The team signing him will be required to relinquish two first-round picks to the Rams.

The Rams decision to franchise tag Johnson – it’s the first time they’ve used the designation on a player since 2009 – essentially came down to either Johnson or fellow starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins as both a regarded among the most coveted free agents at their position across the league.

And the most difficult of the Rams free agents to reel back in.

With the NFL’s free agency period opening next week – and both Jenkins and Johnson expected to draw considerable interest – the Rams wanted to protect their interests as much as possible.

They desperately want to retain both players – as they do fellow unrestricted free agent defensive backs Rodney McLeod and Mark Barron. Barron, though, is expected to move full time to the Will linebacker position if retained.
Johnson and Jenkins have clearly emerged as the top priorities, with the Rams understanding it will take a significant financial commitment to keep bother of them.

Which is why the franchise tag was mentioned as a distinct possibility for both.
The question being, which one?

Jenkins is considered the better player, with more experience defending the best opposing wide receiver. However, Johnson is younger, bigger and and an emerging player.

By locking in Johnson for at least one year, the Rams can turn their attention on locking up Jenkins to a long-term contract.

Jenkins fired his agent on Sunday, and is disallowed by NFL rules to hire a new agent until Thursday. The Rams are not allowed to negotiate with him in that time span.

Jenkins reportedly turned down a five-year, $45 million contract by the Rams last week – prior to firing his agent – and took to social media to express his displeasure with the Rams offer.

The Rams, though, have expressed confidence they can work out a deal with Jenkins, as they have their other coveted free agents.

They are projected to have close to $60 million in salary cap space, so they are strongly positioned to meet their objectives.

The franchise tag is essentially a last resort means by which teams can try to retain a coveted player, essentially locking a player into a one-year contract while also keeping open the widow for the team and player to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline to agree on a new deal is July 15th, otherwise the player is under contract for the upcoming season at a price reflective of the average of the top five salaries from his position or 120 percent of his previous salary.

The Rams had two types of franchise tags at their disposal: The exclusive tag, which allows only the existing team to negotiate with the player. Or the non-exclusive tag in which other teams can negotiate with the player – although the current team has the chance to match any offer.

Under the rules of the non-elusive tag, if a player signs elsewhere without a matching offer, the team gets two first-round picks as compensation.

As expected, the franchise tag deadline on Tuesday resulted in a flurry of movement, some of which could directly affect the Rams, who have expressed a desire to upgrade their quarterback and wide receiver positions.

One potential quarterback target – Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins – was tagged with the non-exclusive franchise tag, which means he is guaranteed $19.95 million next season but can also negotiate a contract with the Redskins or anyone else. If, say, the Rams agreed to a deal with Cousins, they would surrender two first-round draft picks to the Redskins.

The financial and draft-pick cost to signing Cousins, then, is extraordinarily steep. Especially for a player with just one-good year under his belt.

It’s seems much more likely the Rams will at least kick the tires on Cousin’s Washington teammate – Robert Griffin III – either as a free agent next week when the Redskins release him or perhaps by trading for him contingent on RG3 re-negotiating his contract.

Meanwhile, with the Denver Broncos franchise tagging Von Miller, the Rams could have a chance to pursue Broncos unrestricted free agent quarterback Brock Osweiler. While it seems dubious the Broncos will let Osweiler walk, they also hope to bring back UFA’s Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan.

The New York Jets took a potential Rams wide receiver target off the board by using their non-exclusive tag on Alshon Jeffery. The Rams could pursue Jeffry, but signing him would cost a hefty financial price tag plus relinquishing two first-round picks.