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Rams have big decisions to make on pending defensive free agents

An accomplished 2020 season saw the Rams defense not only finish No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed per game, but also saw several of its members post career or breakout campaigns.

Los Angeles would like to keep all of those standout performers, of course, but with salary cap limitations – including an anticipated reduction league-wide – it will be facing some big decisions with the likes of safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, and defensive lineman Morgan Fox scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, and cornerback Darious Williams a restricted free agent.

"The main thing is to try to get it right, because as you mentioned there's a lot of names there," Rams general manager Les Snead said during a video conference Tuesday. "And there's the salary cap and there's a cap that's going down. So it's always a puzzle, it's really a calculus formula. It's a tough algorithm to build, because the simple thing to say is, look, any player that's helped us – John Johnson made an interception that helped us go to the Super Bowl. A guy named Dante Fowler probably caused the interception, but we weren't able to bring him back last year, but Leonard Floyd comes in. So that's just part of the NFL."

Each of those five players played pivotal roles on the Rams' top-ranked defense.

Johnson was the on-field defensive signal-caller for former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. He led the Rams in total tackles with 105 and added eight pass breakups and an interception to his regular season stat line. In addition to that role and the corresponding production, Johnson's versatility and playmaking ability made him a valuable member of the Rams defense.

"I mean, he had the green dot, where he was the communicator, that's something that I value so much in terms of the different intricacies of what we were doing defensively from a schematic-perspective," Rams head coach Sean McVay said during a Jan. 17 video conference. "He's a guy that was incredibly instrumental in a lot of the success we had defensively. He became a big-time team leader for us. I think you really saw him grow a lot this year and we put a lot on him and he showed why he was more than capable."

Elsewhere in the secondary, Hill proved he was capable of playing the slot or outside opposite Ramsey and also had a nose for the football, coming up with three of the team's four defensive touchdowns in the regular season.

"Troy Hill, what can you say about the ball production, scoring the touchdowns that he did, the versatility," McVay said. "I think a lot of the versatility that we were able to activate with Jalen was a reflection of also Troy Hill's versatility."

Ramsey, a First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection this year who has said this year was the best body of work he's put out in the NFL, credited Hill for being a part of that.

"Without him and his versatility and him being able to play inside and outside, I wouldn't be able to be who I was this year," Ramsey said during a Jan. 17 video conference.

Up front, Floyd was a key piece to the Rams' pass rush with a career-high 10.5 sacks, all while playing on a one-year, proverbial "prove-it" deal. Fox posted a career-high six sacks and was also someone the Rams counted on as the next man up in Week 17 when Michael Brockers was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

"We know that Fox is going to step up and continue to play at a high level, like you've been doing all year," defensive lineman Aaron Donald said in Week 17. Fox followed those comments with four total tackles (two for loss), one sack, and one QB hit in an 18-7 playoff-clinching win over the Cardinals.

Williams, meanwhile, emerged as a shutdown corner opposite Ramsey with a team-leading and career-high four interceptions.

"He's got all the skills and characteristics you're looking for," McVay said during a Nov. 20 video conference. "I love his mental makeup. And you just see the athleticism and you talked about it in the team meeting today. I mean, all four of his picks have been huge parts of three wins that we've had this year."

Snead said he and McVay have already had preliminary conversations about pending defensive free agents they want to prioritize bringing back, and will resume those discussions in mid-February.

"You would love to build a dream team, per-se, but you can't," Snead said. "So our goal this year is to sit down in February, and probably right over about a four-week span, really calculate that formula."

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