Rams must decide on several marquee players entering free agency

Dante Fowler Jr., who had 11.5 sacks with the Rams in 2019, is set to become a free agent. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams are coming off a disappointing 9-7 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Now, the team must move ahead facing difficult choices in free agency as several key offensive, defensive and even special-teams mainstays are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

Making the decisions more complicated is the Rams' limited space under the salary cap, which is projected to rise from $188.2 million to at least $200 million in 2020. With the projected increase, the Rams will have just more than $21 million available under the cap, according to ESPN's Roster Management.

That cap number, though low, is somewhat flexible if the Rams are able to restructure some of their current contracts or even trade a player who carries a significant salary-cap number.

The moves the Rams make in free agency will be crucial as the team constructs its roster ahead of the 2020 season. For a fourth consecutive year, the Rams do not have a first-round draft pick, after trading their 2020 and 2021 first-round selections to the Jacksonville Jaguars last October in exchange for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Here's a look at current Rams who are pending unrestricted free agents.

Defense

Three marquee players are pending unrestricted free agents: defensive lineman Michael Brockers -- who has been with the Rams since they selected him with the 14th overall pick in 2012 -- outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and inside linebacker Cory Littleton.

The Rams won't keep all three and it seems Brockers, a cornerstone of the locker room and a key in their run defense, is most likely to sign elsewhere.

That means the biggest decision of free agency will be whether to keep Littleton or Fowler.

The franchise tag remains an option for either player, though it seems unlikely the Rams will be able to utilize the tag, given the cost of linebackers last season was set at $15.4 million and is expected to rise in 2020.

The Rams acquired Littleton, 26, as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He quickly asserted himself as a playmaker on special teams and earned time on defense in spot opportunities in his second season. He was promoted to a starter in Year 3, and over the last two seasons Littleton has led the Rams in tackles and has intercepted five passes.

"Cory just makes plays all over the field," head coach Sean McVay said at the end of the season. "He's been really impressive."

Littleton has expressed a desire to remain in L.A., but has said his ultimate goal is to earn as much money on the free-agent market as possible.

Starting-caliber depth behind Littleton is a concern. Key reserve Bryce Hager, who was sidelined last season because of a shoulder injury, is a pending unrestricted free agent. Micah Kiser is expected to return from a season-ending pectoral injury and the Rams also return Troy Reeder, Travin Howard and Kenny Young.

Fowler, 25, played this past season on a one-year, prove-it contract worth up to $12 million and the former first-round pick did not disappoint. He had a career-best 11.5 sacks and forced two fumbles.

"Dante had an outstanding year," McVay said. "I think everybody can see that."

At the end of the season, Fowler expressed a desire to remain with the Rams. He credits the organization with helping to turn around his career after acquiring him at the trade deadline in 2018 from the Jacksonville, where his career through 3 1/2 seasons was plagued by injuries and off-the-field issues.

Though Fowler has proven himself as a significant playmaker, the Rams do have some depth at the position, including reserves Samson Ebukam, a starter in 2018, and Ogbo Okoronkwo, who showed a burst in spot opportunities last season.

Safety Marqui Christian, a key reserve, also is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Offense

It's no secret the Rams' offensive line struggled through changes and injuries last season. More adjustments are likely coming as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and offensive guard/center Austin Blythe prepare for free agency.

Left tackles are rare finds on the free-agent market and the Rams were lucky three years ago that Whitworth became available. He has played a pivotal role in shaping the Rams' locker room and offense.

"It's a relationship that I certainly cherish," McVay said about his bond with Whitworth, who arguably was McVay's most valued find in free agency after he was named coach in 2017. "He's helped me a lot, as you're still getting familiar with how to best handle this role and navigate through the things that occur on a daily basis. Somebody like him has been instrumental."

But Whitworth is 38 years old now and not producing at the same level that he has in the past. He remains a solid option at the position, though, and one the Rams must seriously consider re-signing if he is willing to take a significant pay cut from the $10.3 million he earned last season.

If Whitworth does not return, the Rams are without a clear starter at left tackle and there likely would be an open competition between several young players, including Joe Noteboom, Bobby Evans and David Edwards.

Blythe, a four-year pro, unexpectedly won the starting role in 2018 at right guard when Jamon Brown served a two-game suspension. This past season, Blythe was shuffled between the guard positions and then started the final seven games at center after Brian Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury. McVay stated several times that Blythe, a former undrafted free agent, provided a sense of calm when he took over at the position. Blythe will test the market.

Along with the offensive line, the Rams also must determine their backup quarterback situation. Blake Bortles, who joined the team last season on a one-year deal after the Jaguars released him, is a pending unrestricted free agent who will seek a team where he has the chance to earn significant playing time again.

Quarterback John Wolford, an undrafted free agent in 2018 from Wake Forest, remains on the roster after signing a reserve/future contract.

Receiver Michael Thomas, a sixth-round pick in 2016, is also a pending unrestricted free agent.

Special teams

Kicker Greg Zuerlein is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Over eight seasons, Zuerlein has converted 201 of 245 field goals, including a 57-yard attempt in overtime against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome that sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

However, this past season Zuerlein's field-goal percentage dipped from 87% in 2018 to 73% after he missed 9 of 33 attempts.

Zuerlein earned $2.3 million last season.