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Questions loom in free agency for Rams' secondary

The Rams will head into this upcoming free agency with plenty of questions surrounding the future of their secondary.

The Los Angeles Rams earlier this week officially announced the hiring of Wade Phillips as the team's next defensive coordinator on new head coach Sean McVay's coaching staff for the 2017 season 

With the rest of the coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball beginning to round out with the addition of defensive line coach  Bill Johnson as linebackers coach Joe Barry, the Rams next order of business will be in free agency with several important decisions to make. Their list of free agents will include a pair of starters in cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safety T.J. McDonald

Since entering the league, the duo has held down starting spots as key members of the secondary for Los Angeles. Johnson has emerged over the last couple of years as a viable option at cornerback and was the team's top player at the position this past season with the departure of Janoris Jenkins last summer via free agency. Prior to suffering an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games, he was off to a strong start being fourth on the team with 25 tackles, leading the league with nine pass deflections, and recording one interception. 

Prior to suffering an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games, Johnson was off to a strong start being fourth on the team with 25 tackles and lead the league with nine pass deflections. 

His production tailed off over the rest of the season after from injury finishing with 57 total tackles, 11 pass deflection, and one interception in 14 games played. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished the year grading out as the 27th overall player at his position (81.0), 26th in pass coverage (81.6), and 98th against the run (39.2). 

Johnson had played the 2016 season under a franchise tag on a one-year deal worth $13.9 million. The Rams were initially hopeful that they could hammer out a long-term contract last offseason but were unable to find common ground on a new deal ahead of the deadline of July 15 to get it completed. 

Keep in mind, the 27-year-old was coming off a highly productive fourth year where he finished tied for third in the NFL with seven interceptions and led the Rams with 12 pass deflections. It marked the first time that the organization had used the franchise tag since 2009 when it was placed on former safety Oshiomogho Atogwe

As for McDonald, he has been the team's starting strong safety in his first four years in the league with Los Angeles making 53 starts. He started all 16 games in the 2016 season where he recorded 64 total tackles with one sack, two interceptions, and six pass deflections.

According to Pro Football Focus, McDonald graded 58th overall among all qualified safeties (75.3), 23rd in pass coverage (80.8), and 78th against the run (53.6). The 25-year-old has just finished up the fourth year of his rookie deal worth $2.9 million.  

Despite these two players playing a prominent part in the Rams' secondary, they ranked in the bottom 10 teams in the league in terms of overall grading given the lack of playmakers in the unit beyond Johnson, McDonald, and Lamarcus Joyner. Their other options at cornerback in Troy Hill and E.J. Gaines struggled to be effective choices at the position. This could force Los Angeles to shift their attention on adding depth to the unit rather than focusing on working to get one or both players back under contract. 

On top of that, Los Angeles is already near the current salary cap limit for next season, which could make bringing back them back on new deals an even more intriguing situation. All of this may provide the Rams with some sort of pause about attempting to re-sign both McDonald and Johnson given that it could mean they would have to commit a significant chunk of their salary cap space to bringing them back.

In fact, it could tip the scale to the organization heavily considering using a few of their remaining 2017 draft picks to address the secondary needs or look for cheaper options in the free agent market. If another team were to have some serious interest in acquiring either these players, the Rams' response could be quite indicative of the direction the franchise is headed on that side of the ball for next season. 

Regardless of what transpires over the next few months, the front office will certainly be tested in their hopes of stringing together a roster that can take the next step forward in the new era under McVay. 


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