Rams have plenty of decisions to make on defense this offseason

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — In the days leading up to last year’s NFL scouting combine, the Los Angeles Rams made the first of what would become a flurry of offseason transactions to bolster their defense.

It started with a trade for All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, which was followed by another trade for All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib, and the flurry was capped by the signing of free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Those moves, which included trading away outside linebacker Robert Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree, came as a surprise, as general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay identified a window to make a Super Bowl run.

But this offseason is different.

It’s no secret the Rams must fill several spots on a defense that contributed to a 13-3 season, a second consecutive division title and the organization’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 2001 season.

Key contributors, including Suh, outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and safety Lamarcus Joyner, are pending unrestricted free agents.

In 2019, the NFL salary cap will climb to at least $187 million, and possibly up to $191 million, according to the league. That’s roughly a 6 percent increase from the 2018 cap of $177.2 million.

The Rams will have $33 million in salary-cap space in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Here’s a look at the questions facing each position group on defense:

Defensive line

There’s no question after the Rams awarded Aaron Donald with the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history last August (six years for $135 million, including $87 million guaranteed) that the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.

Last season, Donald set a league record for defensive tackles with 20.5 sacks and showed a knack for making game-changing plays late in the fourth quarter.

But Donald can’t be the only playmaker up front.

Defensive end Michael Brockers, a first-round pick in 2012, is set to enter the final season of his contract. Brockers recorded a sack and four quarterback hits last season.

The most pressing question is what the Rams will do at Suh’s position.

Suh joined the team on a one-year deal worth $14 million after he identified the Rams as a serious Super Bowl contender among his other suitors.

A nine-year veteran, Suh had an unremarkable regular season that included 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. But he turned it on in the playoffs, and because of standout performances against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game, Suh could demand a large free-agent contract, one far out of the range of what the Rams could afford.

The franchise tag could be an option, although with a $14 million price tag, it seems unlikely.

The Rams lack a young tackle who could take over at Suh’s position. Tanzel Smart and Sebastian Joseph-Day spent the season on the inactives list.

Defensive end John Franklin-Myers won the team’s Rookie of the Year award and could be on track to earn a more prominent role in 2019.

Linebacker

Outside linebacker Samson Ebukam and inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron are set to return.

But Fowler, acquired at the trade deadline from the Jacksonville Jaguars, is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Fowler made several key plays throughout the regular season and playoffs, but it is unclear if the former first-round pick made a grand enough impression in 10 games, including the playoffs, to warrant a long-term extension.

He recorded 3.5 sacks, and he had a key pressure against Drew Brees in the NFC Championship Game to force the veteran quarterback into an errant pass that teammate John Johnson III intercepted to help secure a conference championship.

Fowler, whose time in Jacksonville was plagued by off-the-field issues, did not have any such known issues in his short time in L.A.

He is a candidate to be placed on the franchise tag, which would cost about $15 million if he is tagged as a linebacker or $17 million if tagged as a defensive end.

Outside linebacker Matt Longacre, a former undrafted free agent who started before Fowler’s acquisition, also is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Cornerback

Talib, an 11-year veteran, is expected to return for the final season of his contract, which is set to pay him $8 million.

But this offseason could prove to be interesting for Peters.

A first-round pick in 2015, Peters will enter the fifth and final season of his rookie contract and is due a long-term extension before the season. The question is, will the Rams make an offer?

Peters had an underwhelming season before Phillips adjusted his scheme, in part, to allow Peters — who has a league-best 22 interceptions over the past four seasons — to play to his strengths. Peters played well throughout the playoffs and had several notable pass breakups in the Super Bowl.

Backup Sam Shields also is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Safety

Johnson is coming off a breakout season in which the second-year pro led the team with five interceptions. Johnson is under contract through the 2020 season.

But opposite of him?

Joyner, a free safety, played the 2018 season on the franchise tag and earned nearly $11.3 million.

The Rams have been known to place a tag on a player for consecutive seasons, most recently cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who played two seasons on the franchise tag before he signed in 2018 with the New York Giants.

But it remains uncertain if they’ll put a premium on Joyner’s position.

Last season, Joyner had an interception and a sack, and he deflected three passes.

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