Rams cornerback Darious Williams showed flashes of being someone future defensive coordinator Brandon Staley could count on opposite Jalen Ramsey when afforded playing time late in the 2019 season – moments Staley would directly point to five months later in the offseason when asked about his impressions of members of the secondary he would be inheriting.
Williams then put together a breakout 2020 season in which he finished with the most interceptions on the team in the regular season, plus another in the playoffs to help Los Angeles advance to the divisional round.
Now, Williams is scheduled to become a restricted free agent when the new league year begins on March 18.
So what are the options for Williams and the Rams this offseason?
Start first with what the restricted free agent designation means.
A restricted free agent is a player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract. While they are free to negotiate and sign with any NFL team, their original team has the ability to offer them one of many different qualifying offers, or tenders, that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. (More details on those types of offers can be found here – note that associated values are specific to the 2020 offseason and subject to change in 2021.)
A restricted free agent becomes an unrestricted free agent if he does not receive an offer sheet, or if a team withdraws the tender. While the deadline to submit those tenders is not yet official, it was the start of the new league year last year. Based on NFL Network's Tom Pelisserro's report from Nov. 18, that would be 1 p.m. pacific time on March 18. Peliserro's reported tentative offseason schedule also has April 23 as the last day of the restricted free agent signing period, with April 28 the final day for teams to match offer sheets to restricted free agents.
In essence, the Rams have until the start of the new league year to submit a tender for Williams, who would still be free to negotiate with any NFL team while tendered. If Williams signs an offer sheet with another team, the Rams would have the option to match the offer sheet to keep him, or decline it and receive compensation based on the type of tender. If the Rams do not submit a tender on Williams prior to the March 18 deadline, he becomes an unrestricted free agent – though that would be a surprising decision.
While declining to match an offer sheet from an opposing team could save some money, and potentially allow the Rams to find a cheaper replacement depending on compensation – or even through the draft, with or without a pick received in return – there's no guarantee that new player develops similarly to Williams. Plus, when a team has to face Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson each twice a year, there's an understood premium on having experience at cornerback, especially two shutdown-caliber ones.
Considering Los Angeles' next defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, cut his teeth as a defensive backs coach early in his NFL career and likely understands the value of the position, it's not a stretch to think bringing back Williams would be most advantageous for him and L.A.