Forced to choose between placing the franchise tag on versatile DB Lamarcus Joyner or field-stretching but volatile WR Sammy Watkins, the Los Angeles Rams on Tuesday opted to lock up Joyner with the non-exclusive tag just hours before the deadline.
If Joyner, 27, signs the one-year tender, he'll receive $11.28 million this season. Meantime, it seems increasingly likely Watkins will become the odd man out with the Rams also likely to make Aaron Donald the NFL's richest defender at some point this offseason.
So why Joyner over Watkins?
For starters, tagging a safety — and pigeon-holing Joyner as such isn't entirely fair, though we doubt his reps will balk at the designation — instead of a wideout is a cost savings of $4.7 million. Then there's the fact that the Rams have a solid WR corps with Watkins' fellow 2017 newcomers, rookie Cooper Kupp and vet Robert Woods, flourishing in their Tinseltown debuts and rookie Josh Reynolds flashing enough to suggest he might be ready to take on an enhanced role similar to the one Watkins played last season. Plus, Watkins has multiple foot surgeries in his history, and although he missed just one game last season and led the Rams in touchdowns, he wasn't the clear-cut No. 1 wideout that commands the big bucks.
Not that this was an easy decision. Rams GM Les Snead admitted at the combine that when he traded a second-rounder to the Buffalo Bills last August for Watkins, it was with the mutual understanding that they'd do everything possible to make it more than a one-year rental situation. But Snead hedged some, too, acknowledging the Rams would still likely recoup some of that expense in the form of a 2019 compensatory pick if (when) Watkins leaves.
Moreover, the Rams have since acquired CB Marcus Peters, whom they have at a supreme bargain this season and next but must be looking down the road at the strong likelihood that he, like Donald, will command a record contract if everything goes according to plan.
Joyner authored his best NFL season in 2017 in his first year under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He notched his first three NFL interceptions, plus a forced fumble, and showed the uncanny ability to play multiple roles in Phillips' fluid and aggressive secondary. The fiercely physical Joyner can plan man coverage in the slot, be an undersized enforcer in the box or range in the deep third.
It's a strong WR and S draft class, but the decision to tag Joyner and hope Watkins takes a hometown discount with the Rams as opposed to maxing out his value on the open market where interest will be significant was tricky. It was also the good kind of problems that accompany an upstart club with an increasingly talented roster.
As for Watkins, his likely addition to the free-agent vet WR market alongside Allen Robinson, who also won't be tagged, adds a lot more luster to the group than expected. But neither Watkins nor Robinson are sure things, despite the strong likelihood they'll both soon be paid that way.