With a new coordinator in Brandon Staley, the Rams defense is going to change.
The scheme itself might not be overhauled from the 2019 edition, but the same cannot be said of the players executing it.
On Tuesday, an exodus of Rams defensive players continued when linebacker Cory Littleton agreed to terms on a lucrative deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, and the Rams informed slot cornerback Nickell-Robey Coleman that they would not exercise their option for the final year of a three-year contract he signed in 2018.
The moves came a day after defensive lineman Michael Brockers ended his eight-year tenure with the Rams by signing a $30-million deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
Those departures, combined with safety Eric Weddle’s retirement, means the Rams must replace at least four key defensive players as they attempt to rebound from a 9-7 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time under coach Sean McVay.
The Rams, with little salary-cap space, attempted to keep Littleton, who began his career as an undrafted free agent and evolved into a Pro Bowl player. But they apparently would not go as high as the three-year, $35.2-million deal offered by the Raiders, which includes $22 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com.
Robey-Coleman would have carried a salary-cap number of $4.5 million had he returned for a fourth season.
Now, attention turns to edge rusher Dante Fowler.
The Rams on Monday opted not to place the franchise tag on a player who last season produced a career-best 11½ sacks while playing on what essentially was a one-year, prove-it contract. Fowler earned a base salary of $12 million and had $2 million in performance incentives.
Pass-rush specialists Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Yannick Ngakoue of the Jacksonville Jaguars were tagged by their teams with one-year contracts for $15.8 million and $17.8 million, respectively.
On Tuesday, the market for pass rushers continued to take shape. Former Rams end Robert Quinn parlayed an 11½-sack season with the Dallas Cowboys into a five-year, $70-million deal with the Chicago Bears that includes $30 million in guarantees. The Tennessee Titans gave Vic Beasley a one-year, $9.5-million contract that could escalate to $12 million.
Trade buzz surrounding running back Todd Gurley was more muted Tuesday as the NFL conversation centered on Tom Brady’s next move. But Gurley and, perhaps, receiver Brandin Cooks remain in play as trade capital for a franchise that is feeling the pinch from massive financial commitments made to Gurley, Cooks, defensive lineman Aaron Donald and quarterback Jared Goff.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey — for whom the Rams gave up two first-round draft picks — will earn $13.7 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract, and he will no doubt seek a record-breaking extension. The cornerback market rose Tuesday when the Miami Dolphins agreed to terms with Byron Jones on a five-year, $82.5-million deal that includes $46 million in guarantees.
The Rams are expected to speak with Goff’s representatives this week about possibly restructuring his $134-million contract to give the team more financial flexibility.
Contract guarantees and roster bonuses are due this week for Goff, Gurley, Cooks, Donald, tight end Tyler Higbee, offensive lineman Rob Havenstein, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Robert Woods.
The Rams will explore free agency and the draft to find linebacker depth to replace Littleton. Third-year pro Micah Kiser is scheduled to return after sitting out the 2019 season because of a chest injury suffered during preseason. Kiser had been on track to start before he was injured. Travin Howard gained experience last season as a backup.
Robey-Coleman proved valuable in former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ hybrid 3-4 scheme. His profile rose in 2018 after game officials missed an obvious pass-interference infraction in the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints. He also tipped Brady’s first pass — leading to an interception by Littleton — in the Rams’ 13-3 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
In addition to Ramsey, other cornerbacks on the Rams roster are Troy Hill, Darious Williams, David Long and Dont’e Deayon.
The Rams on Tuesday also tendered one-year contracts to tight end Johnny Mundt and center Coleman Shelton as exclusive rights free agents.