Five moves all 16 NFC teams should make this offseason
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Los Angeles Rams
1. Cut Tavon Austin and let Sammy Watkins walk. Let's start with the easy one: Austin, the former eighth overall pick, was signed to one of the worst extensions in the league before the 2016 season, with a fully guaranteed roster bonus of $11.5 million preventing the Rams from cutting him last year. This year, his guaranteed roster bonus is only $5 million, which the Rams will be forced to pay regardless. They can get out of his $3 million base salary by releasing Austin before March 16.
Meanwhile, the Rams paid a lot to acquire Watkins before the 2017 season, giving up E.J. Gaines and what was expected to be a high second-rounder to Buffalo in exchange for a sixth-round pick and a would-be No. 1 receiver. Many, myself included, figured that Watkins would either be productive or get injured.
As with many things related to the Rams this season, the crowd and I were both wrong: Watkins was mostly healthy but relatively anonymous, suiting up for 15 games while averaging just 39.5 receiving yards per contest. He did catch eight touchdown passes, a statistical fluke that doesn't really seem likely to recur; Watkins had previously scored a touchdown on 11.1 percent of his receptions in Buffalo and then racked one up on more than 20 percent of his catches in Los Angeles. You could attribute that to Jared Goff, but Los Angeles' other primary wideouts -- Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods -- caught touchdowns on only 8.9 percent of their targets.
Recent history tells us that the receivers most similar to Watkins weren't able to keep their touchdown rate up the following season, as we can see by looking at wideouts since 2000 who turned 20 percent or more of their targets (with a 50-target minimum) into scores and what they did the following year:
PLAYER YEAR REC TD TD% NEXTREC NEXTTD NEXTTD%
Randy Moss 2007 98 23 23.5% 69 11 15.9%
Dwayne Bowe 2010 72 15 20.8% 81 5 6.2%
Jordy Nelson 2011 68 15 22.1% 49 7 14.3%
James Jones 2012 64 14 21.9% 59 3 5.1%
Randy Moss 2004 49 13 26.5% 60 8 13.3%
Greg Jennings 2007 53 12 22.6% 80 9 11.3%
Robinson 2011 54 11 20.4% 24 0 0.0%
Torrey Smith 2014 49 11 22.4% 33 4 12.1%
Cotchery 2013 46 10 21.7% 48 1 2.1%
Ted Ginn 2015 44 10 22.7% 54 4 7.4%
Williams 2007 38 10 26.3% 37 3 8.1%
Kenny Britt 2010 42 9 21.4% 17 3 17.6%
Chris Henry 2006 36 9 25.0% 21 2 9.5%
Kenny Stills 2016 42 9 21.4% 58 6 10.3%
Javon Walker 2003 41 9 22.0% 4 0 0.0%
Williams 2014 37 8 21.6% 52 3 5.8%
Donte Moncrief 2016 30 7 23.3% 26 2 7.7%
Vincent Jackson 2006 27 6 22.2% 41 3 7.3%
McCants 2003 27 6 22.2% 5 0 0.0%
Our touchdown heroes turned 22.6 percent of their catches into six points in Year 1; the following season, the same guys converted just 9.0 percent of their catches into touchdowns.
For Watkins to justify a big new deal, his workload will need to increase, and it's not clear that his role in the offense should leap dramatically. Kupp and Woods are locked into long-term deals, and they both naturally assumed larger target shares than Watkins. Woods had 15 more targets than Watkins despite missing three additional games. Todd Gurley also outdrew Watkins. Watkins is a useful hedge if one of those guys gets injured, but is that hedge worth the cost of a franchise tag, which is going to top $16 million?
At this point, Watkins has produced 3,052 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns through four seasons, which is roughly equivalent to Mike Wallace (3,100 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns) or Jordan Matthews (2,955 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns) over the same time frame. Watkins has more upside based upon being a former No. 4 overall pick, but nobody is remotely suggesting Wallace or Matthews should sniff a franchise tag. If Watkins wants to come back on a one-year deal in the $8 million range, the Rams should bite and see if Watkins finally breaks out. If not, they should cut ties and use their assets elsewhere.
2. Franchise Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner, who enjoyed a breakout season under Wade Phillips in his first season playing primarily free safety, is a much better use of the franchise tag. The Rams have a secondary in transition: They promoted rookie John Johnson III to the starting lineup this season, lost cornerback Kayvon Webster to a ruptured Achilles, and have both lead corner Trumaine Johnson and third corner Nickell Robey-Coleman hitting unrestricted free agency.
Joyner's versatility has been a hindrance in the past, with the Rams seemingly unsure about whether to use him at cornerback or safety without ever getting him to master either spot. Phillips moved Joyner around but got more out of the Florida State product as a free safety than Jeff Fisher ever did. The Rams have a far greater need for Joyner than they do for Watkins, and the $11.5 million they'll guarantee Joyner for 2018 would be a good step toward keeping Joyner around for the long term.
3. Find a replacement for Trumaine Johnson. It's not out of the question that the Rams could bring back the 28-year-old on a long-term deal, but after franchising Johnson during each of the past two seasons, he won't be returning on a third tag. With Johnson and Robey-Coleman on different rosters and Webster in a hurry to return by Week 1, the Rams need to address the cornerback position this offseason.
While general manager Les Snead will add more than one player, one logical fit would be to reunite Phillips with one of his star cornerbacks from Denver. Aqib Talib is virtually guaranteed to be a cap casualty by the Broncos, and while he's not playing at the same level as the guy we saw during Denver's deep runs into the playoffs, the 32-year-old is still comfortably a starting-caliber NFL cornerback. A one- or two-year deal would give the Rams a reliable veteran on one side of the field while they draft and develop younger talent.
4. Pick up Todd Gurley's fifth-year option. It would be aggressive to sign Gurley to a long-term deal two years away from free agency, which the Rams did and regretted with Austin, and Gurley is probably going to be more expensive coming off of an MVP-caliber season than the sort of season he's likely to have in 2018.
5. Re-sign Aaron Donald. It's not going to be cheap, but it shouldn't matter in Donald's case. The two deals he's going to be looking at belong to a pair of dominant rushers. Ndamukong Suh's six-year, $114.4 million deal with the Dolphins guaranteed him $59.5 million at signing, while Von Miller's six-year, $115.5 million extension with the Broncos includes $70.1 million in practical guarantees.
Donald should expect to top both deals. It's hardly out of the question that the reigning Defensive Player of the Year will become the league's first $20 million-per-year defender and rack up $75 million in meaningful guarantees on his deal. If the Rams re-sign Donald for anything short of six years and $120 million, it will be a surprise.