The Los Angeles Rams are getting better by the day, while the majority of NFL teams are waiting until the start of free agency to even take their first steps toward contention during the 2018 campaign.
General manager Les Snead agreed to a deal Thursday with the Denver Broncos to acquire five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib for a fifth-round pick, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal won’t be finalized until the start of the new league year on March 14.
The Rams front office is taking advantage of an inefficient veteran trade market in an attempt to usurp the Philadelphia Eagles’ throne as the NFC’s best squad and reigning Super Bowl champions. The latest move comes less than two weeks after the Rams agreed to another deal with the Kansas City Chiefs to obtain fellow cornerback Marcus Peters.
The reshaping of Los Angeles’ defense is nearly complete with an overhauled secondary and both Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree sent packing in recent days.
Snead dumped bloated contracts and unreliable performers in favor of those who are better fits in the team’s defensive scheme, while saving the organization money and improving the overall talent.
The 32-year-old Talib is a combustible personality on the downside of his career. Even so, he makes the Rams better in the short term, while the Broncos’ vaunted secondary took a hit and won’t be improved without him in the lineup this fall.
Winner: Wade Phillips
Wade Phillips’ fingerprints are all over the team’s recent moves.
The previous coaching staff helped players like Robert Quinn and Alex Ogletree receive massive contract extensions. But neither were the same performers last season than they were then. The sunk cost didn’t become a factor, though, and the organization moved on from both since neither is an ideal fit for Phillips’ scheme.
Instead, the acquisitions of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters along with the free-agent signing of Sam Shields provide a tremendous backstop with length and top-notch ball skills among the outside corners. If Shields returns to form after a year layoff due to a history of concussions, he can man the slot like he once did with the Green Bay Packers.
What’s even more fascinating regarding these moves is the fact the Rams’ financial cost is actually less than if the team attempted to retain Trumaine Johnson, who will be the top available free-agent cornerback. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Peters and Talib will make a combined $12.7 million in 2018 after Johnson’s franchise tag cost the team $16.7 million last season.
At worst, Talib and Peters are upgrades over last year’s starting cornerback, which will allow Phillips to be more aggressive overall after finishing 13th last season in pass defense. Pro Bowl corners on the outside make Lamarcus Joyner even more valuable at safety, in the slot or wherever Phillips wants to use the team’s franchise player since they can shut down an opponent’s wide receivers.
Phillips has to be the happiest coach in the NFL right now, because he has the makings of an elite secondary.
Loser: Denver Broncos
Chris Harris Jr. (25) and Bradley Roby (29) Associated Press
Aqib Talib can be described as many things. Foremost among them is being one of the league’s best cornerbacks. A defensive back doesn’t make five straight Pro Bowl by accident.
Yes, the Broncos needed to create salary-cap space for a potential run at free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins, but the secondary is not better without Talib. Denver wanted to clear his $11 million salary-cap hit so badly they were willing to trade him at a reduced price and hurt the defense’s overall depth.
Talib’s departure opens the door for Bradley Roby to start. The 2014 first-round pick enters the fifth-year on his rookie deal, and the Broncos must decide whether he’s worth an extension. General manager John Elway made a move knowing he already had a talented replacement.
Even so, NFL teams require three to four quality cornerbacks to compete against the league’s increasing spread tendencies. The issue isn’t Roby stepping into the starting lineup; it’s the quality the team loses with its third and fourth cornerbacks. Brendan Langley or Marcus Rios will now be thrust into more prominent roles. The three-headed-monster of Talib, Harris and Roby was formidable. Harris and Roby are still quite good, but the overall group isn’t nearly as difficult to face if one of the young players on the roster (or a potential offseason acquisition) doesn’t perform to the standard set during previous campaigns.
Denver finished top four overall in pass defense in each of the past three seasons. It safe to say the unit will take a step back this fall.
Winner: Rams Defensive Front
Matt Longacre Al Pereira/Getty Images
The front and back end of a defense form a symbiotic relationship. The longer a secondary can cover; the longer a defensive front has to get a sack.
Pressure doesn’t have to come from a defensive lineman beating a blocker clean or a blitz package. Coverage sacks occur on a regular basis as long as a team has the right personnel in place to counteract even the league’s most prolific passing attacks.
Playmakers can be found throughout the Rams’ secondary with Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters at corner. Nickell Robey-Coleman is an underappreciated slot defender. Josh Johnson emerged as a talented young safety, while Lamarcus Joyner can do everything. Adding veteran Sam Shields, if healthy, to this mix is icing on the cake.
Building a defense from front to back should allow the Rams to perform well even without massive investments among their edge rushers.
Of course, Aaron Donald is a human wrecking ball along the defensive interior, but the team already traded Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin is a free agent.
Matt Longacre, Morgan Fox and Samson Ekuban are now the team’s edge-rushers after combining for 10 sacks last season. Donald will create enough disruption by himself, but who will prove capable of providing a consistent edge presence? This is an area the organization can still address later in the offseason, whether it be through free agency or the draft.
A stellar secondary has the potential to make each of the aforementioned defenders better and provide them more time to create pressures since Los Angeles will feature the only defensive backfield with four players to receive grades of 85 or greater last season, according to Pro Football Focus’ Nathan Jahnke.
Loser: Oakland Raiders WR Michael Crabtree
The rivalry between Aqib Talib and Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree will not die simply because the Denver Broncos traded the cornerback to an NFC squad.
No, these two teams are prepared to meet at some point during the 2018 campaign, according to ESPN’s Field Yates. Can Talib rip away Crabtree’s chain for a third straight season? Will Crabtree even attempt to wear a necklace onto the field after the last two incidents?
Whatever the case, these two are not fond of one another, and something is bound to happen when they meet yet again.
In five meetings since his arrival in Oakland, Talib and Co. held Crabtree to 15 receptions for 147 yards and no touchdowns.
Crabtree has 2,542 receiving yards as a member of the Raiders, yet he has yet to figure out the Talib riddle. More often than not, he’s been frustrated by his rival and provoked into altercations. At this point, there’s no reason to expect anything different the next time these two meet.
Winner: Aaron Donald
The richest defensive contract is coming. It’s only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Rams organization finally pays the game’s best defender.
According to Spotrac, the Rams now have $36.749 million in available salary-cap space after their recent rash of moves, and the team’s next major decision needs to be signing defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a massive extension. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is expected to become the NFL’s sixth defender with a contract over $100 million in total value. His upcoming deal may even eclipse Ndamukong Suh’s current $114.375 million contract.
Donald sat out all of last year’s training camp and preseason to prompt the Rams organization for an extension. The front office didn’t cave. Now, the front office is in a difficult position, because Donald continued to dominate and he’s about to enter the final year of his rookie contract.
The Rams shouldn’t even consider the possibility of allowing him to play out his current deal and flirt with the free-agent market next year. Granted, the franchise tag would likely come into play, but Donald is a franchise player and his status needs to be settled.
With the space the Rams currently have, now is the time to reach an agreement even if the defensive tackle and his representation prefer it to be frontloaded. For example, Suh’s deal at its height held a $28.1 million cap hit. The Rams are in a position to afford such a contract.