LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Rams went six years without utilizing the franchise tag, until they designated it for cornerback Trumaine Johnson last offseason.
Will they use it a second year in a row?
Wednesday marks the first day for teams to designate franchise or transition tags on players, with the window closing at 4 p.m. ET on March 1. Johnson played under the non-exclusive franchise tag last season and made $13.952 million. Franchising him again would increase his salary by 20 percent, to about $16.75 million. The Rams are currently projected to have about $40 million in cap space, so they certainly have the financial means.
But is Johnson worth it?
Five players — defensive end John Abraham, kicker Phil Dawson, and linebackers Karlos Dansby, Terrell Suggs and Anthony Spencer — have been franchised in back-to-back seasons since 2005. The last cornerback to get that treatment was Charles Woodson with the Raiders, from 2004 to ’05.
The Rams chose to franchise Johnson instead of Janoris Jenkins around this time last year, prompting Jenkins to sign a five-year, $62.5 million contract with the Giants. That prompted Johnson to step in as the No. 1 corner. But his interceptions went from seven in 2015 to one, a career low, in 2016. Below is a look at the production Johnson allowed as the primary coverage defender and where those numbers ranked among the 81 cornerbacks who were on the field for at least 50 percent of defensive snaps, with stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus …
520 receiving yards (48th)
four touchdowns (tied for 24th)
60.7 completion percentage (42nd)
1 catch for every 11 snaps (37th)
0.93 yards per coverage snap (14th)
89.4 QB rating (34th)
In a vacuum, it’s easy to see that Johnson isn’t worth a second franchise tag; not when you consider that only one cornerback, Darrelle Revis, made more than $16 million on a base salary last year.
Here’s the problem: The Rams currently don’t have much depth beyond Johnson.
Their other outside corner is E.J. Gaines, who missed the entirety of 2015 with a serious foot injury and was limited to 10 starts with a few smaller ailments in 2016. Then there’s Lamarcus Joyner, who is better as a slot corner. And Blake Countess, a former sixth-round pick. And Troy Hill and Mike Jordan, two undrafted free agents. Gaines, Joyner, Countess and Hill are all 5-foot-10 or shorter. Johnson — listed at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds — isn’t only the most talented; he is the only one with real size and length.
With the Broncos, Wade Phillips was able to pressure the quarterback with an assortment of different linebackers because he had outstanding cover corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Johnson would be crucial to the 3-4 scheme Phillips will implement in L.A., and the Rams would love to find a way to keep him.
But Johnson is expected to be among the best cornerbacks available in free agency and will command significant dollars, regardless of the franchise tag. The Rams can get a couple of solid-yet-lesser corners with the money they would allocate for Johnson. They could also make what would be a surprising move and instead use the franchise tag on strong safety T.J. McDonald, which, based on a projected salary cap of $168 million, would cost $11,691,943.
The important thing is this: The Rams lost half of their starting secondary to free agency last offseason, and they can’t let that happen again.
I think Tru is a critical signing. The management decided to keep Tru over JJ and they knew the cost was only gonna go up…now is the time, they need to keep their good young building blocks while in their prime.
The cupboard is kinda bare behind him..if EJ comes back healthy, I think they can have a good tandem…if they let Tru walk the secondary is a disaster in the making.