Ndamukong Suh was the only major free-agent acquisition for Les Snead, left, Sean McVay and the Rams last year.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — At this time last year, the Los Angeles Rams were working on winning the offseason. With a new league year set to begin Wednesday, an attempt to recapture that momentum is underway.
The return of Fowler and addition of Weddle, a two-time All Pro and six-time Pro Bowl selection, solves two glaring needs before free agency begins.
Coming off an appearance in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams have a host of starters who are set to test the market Monday: Left guard Rodger Saffold, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Prior to Sunday night’s agreement, Fowler also was expected to test the market as an unrestricted free agent.
“Sometimes it is really good for a player — even if we want a player and they want to be here — to go test the market at least in those 48 to 72 hours of window and get a feel for their reality,” Rams general manager Les Snead told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. “And that way they’re not guessing, we’re not guessing, and you get a true sense of what the real market is instead of speculation.”
Prior to Fowler’s new deal and Weddle’s addition, the Rams had $35.1 million in salary cap space, according to ESPN Stats and Information. They declined to pick up the second-year option on center John Sullivan‘s contract and released inside linebacker Mark Barron. Those moves saved more than $13 million in their salary cap.
This offseason, defensive players have taken priority.
Fowler’s return solves the most pressing offseason need of securing a pass-rusher, a must-have position in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.
“He’s got a motor and he loves football and he certainly is talented,” Rams coach Sean McVay told reporters at the combine. “So definitely want to be able to try and get Dante back and that would be a big part of emphasis for us.”
The Rams acquired Fowler from the Jacksonville Jaguars ahead of the trade deadline. He played in eight regular-season games and had two sacks, a forced fumble and pass deflection. His contributions steadily grew, and his biggest impact was felt in the NFC Championship Game, when he had a key pressure against Drew Brees that forced the veteran quarterback into an errant throw that was intercepted.
Rams general manager Les Snead said Fowler was a priority to sign in free agency, instead the Rams do not have to worry about bidding against other teams in a market hot for pass-rushers.
Weddle’s addition satisfies the need for a safety.
Last season, Joyner played on the franchise tag and earned $11.28 million after the two sides were unable to come to terms on an extension. Joyner was set to test the market, but after the Rams signed Weddle, it is clear that Joyner will be moving on in a crowded field of free agent safeties.
Weddle, 34, will start alongside third-year pro John Johnson III. In three seasons with the Ravens, Weddle intercepted 10 passes — though he experienced a drop in production last season with no interceptions, and only three pass deflections.
Even with their needs at outside linebacker and safety solved ahead of free agency, the Rams still must bulk up their linebacking corps and find a starter to replace Barron, build depth on the offensive line in case Saffold signs a lucrative deal elsewhere, and solidify the defensive line as Suh tests the market.
Suh, who played last season on a one-year deal worth $14 million, had an unremarkable regular season with 4.5 sacks, four pass deflections and two recovered fumbles. But the nine-year veteran, who once earned the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history, elevated his play throughout the postseason and is expected to generate interest on the market, and continues to attract attention from the Rams.
“He’s certainly somebody, if we can work it out we’d want to be able to have him back,” McVay said. “No doubt about it.”
The Rams also have seven picks in the upcoming draft, including the 31st overall selection, that can help round out their list of needs. The possibility also remains that the Rams could choose to package the first-round pick in a trade — whether it be for a player, or more picks later in the draft.
After the 2017 season, the Rams made a splash long before free agency began. Having identified a window to make a Super Bowl run, they made aggressive moves to bolster a roster that already featured top playmakers in running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Before the start of the new league year, they agreed in terms to a handful of trades as they acquired All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters from the Chiefs, sent outside linebacker Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants, then acquired All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
After free agency opened, they agreed to another trade and sent their 2018 first-round draft pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for receiver Brandin Cooks. The only big free-agency acquisition came when they lured Suh on a one-year deal worth $14 million.
A year later, and with the new league year and the official start of free agency set to be begin, the pace at which the Rams are moving is swift. With quarterback Jared Goff still operating on his rookie contract, and a core of playmakers returning, the window remains open to supplement a roster capable of a repeat Super Bowl run.