John Johnson III should take a lesson from past Rams free agents; don’t leave

by Blaine Grisak
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The Los Angeles Rams are in a conundrum this offseason when it comes to free agent safety John Johnson III. Obviously, he’s a player that they would like to bring back. However, he is also someone that could end up costing much more than they are willing to afford.

With depth at the safety position, John Johnson III is replaceable for the Rams. In fact, in the past, the Rams have done a very good job of replacing their marquee free agents. Meanwhile, those free agents have typically gone on to have down year in career outside of a Rams uniform.

John Johnson III is a good player, and it’s impossible to predict how well he could do away from the Rams. On the flip side, the Rams should also be able to replace him. Fans tend to overvalue players on their team and the same could be said for the Rams free agent safety.

Is John Johnson III elite?

Despite many thinking that John Johnson III is an elite NFL safety for the Rams, he has never received a single all-pro vote, never been selected to a Pro Bowl even as an alternate, or been selected to the NFL’s top-100. While those lists aren’t a way to measure a player’s value per se, it does show how a player is perceived by writers, other players, and fans. If John Johnson III were an elite safety for the Rams, he’d have been on those lists at least once.

When John Johnson III was out much of 2019, the Rams pass defense still ranked 12th. Taylor Rapp allowed a 61.3% completion percentage and 70.2 passer rating in coverage. The Rams have Jordan Fuller, Terrell Burgess, Taylor Rapp, and Nick Scott who could fill in and all had moments in 2020.

Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald are more important to the Rams pass defense than a safety.

A look back at past Rams free agents

Over the past decade, the Rams have had marquee free agents leave the team and follow the money. A player should always go out and get what he’s worth. But at what point is it worth leaving in order to cash in a check not worth it? Here’s a look at some players who have left the Rams over the last couple of years.

LB Cory Littleton

Cory Littleton was the Rams’ big free agent last season. The Rams reportedly wanted Littleton back, but believed he would get offered more than they were willing to pay. That ended up being the case. Littleton signed with the Las Vegas Raiders for a three year, $36M contract.

Littleton finished with 82 tackles and four tackles for loss. He had no sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, or forced fumbles. The Raiders expected Littleton to be a star in the middle of their defense and that was far from the case. In fact, Littleton said about his first season. “It came out miserably. I’ve always said that I wanted to keep myself and keep my play as a top-five linebacker. And the two previous seasons I had. I didn’t come nowhere close to it this year.”

Littleton’s 82 tackles were the fewest since his second year in the league and he went without a sack for the first time since his rookie season.

On the other side, the Rams made out just fine with Micah Kiser and found another potential contributor at linebacker in Troy Reeder. Without Littleton, the Rams had the league’s No. 1 defense. There’s little doubt that Littleton would have made the Rams defense even better, however, he left and went to the Raiders who missed the playoffs.

EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.

Dante Fowler was right alongside Littleton as the premier free agents for the Rams last season. Like Littleton, Fowler also took more money and went to the Atlanta Falcons for a three-year, $48M contract. The Rams tried to keep him, but Fowler opted for more money and the Falcons.

Fast forward to the end of this season and playing without Aaron Donald on defense isn’t what it’s hyped up to be. Edge is considered a top need for the Falcons. Dante Fowler finished his first season in Atlanta with PFF’s eighth-lowest edge grade. Fowler dealt with injuries, but his three sacks in a season were the fewest in his career.

The Rams meanwhile signed Leonard Floyd who finished with 10.5 sacks and was arguably a better run defender than Fowler. It pays off to play next to Aaron Donald.

CB Trumaine Johnson

After playing on the franchise tag for two straight years, Trumaine Johnson followed the money and signed a five-year, $72.5M contract with the New York Jets. As you can probably expect, it didn’t go well.

Johnson started just 15 games in two years and had five total interceptions. Just two years later, the Jets released the former Rams cornerback and he was nominated as the worst free agent signing of the last decade.

Johnson was a good player for the Rams. However, like Johnson III he never made a pro bowl, never received an all-pro vote, and never was named among the NFL’s top-100 players. Rams fans saw him as an elite corner which was far from the case. He’s currently on the Carolina Panthers practice squad.

The Rams replaced Johnson by trading for players like Marcus Peters and Jalen Ramsey. Under the radar players like Troy Hill and Darious Williams have also stepped up into larger roles and performed well.

S Lamarcus Joyner

Another big-name free agent in 2018 was safety Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner left for the then Oakland Raiders for a four-year, $42M contract. Joyner helped the Rams in their run to the Super Bowl with a career-best year that saw him tally 78 combined tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Two years later and Joyner is expected to be a cap casualty for the Raiders as releasing him will save the team almost $8.7M. He has zero interceptions with the Raiders in two seasons and has been less than impactful on his new team.

Again, the Rams did fine replacing Joyner with players like Taylor Rapp and Eric Weddle at safety. Weddle didn’t have his best season as a pro, but he was better than someone playing on a large contract. The Rams also weren’t tied to him long-term.

CB Janoris Jenkins

The Rams did their best to try to keep both Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins in 2016. However, Jenkins opted to leave for the New York Giants on a deal that would pay him upwards of $12M per year. Jenkins had an up-and-down stint with the Giants. However, he was never the No. 1 cornerback that they paid him to be. He has since revitalized his career with the New Orleans Saints.

Letting Jenkins walk ended up being a smart move for the Rams. He wasn’t worth the big price tag, but was valued by fans because of his play-making ability. The Rams replaced him and heading into 2021, the Rams are very solid at the cornerback position.

DL Michael Brockers

We’ll look at the other side of this for a second. Michael Brockers has had opportunities to leave the Rams and almost did last season. Instead, he’s stayed with the team throughout his entire career thus far and benefited because of it. Brockers had the most sacks since his second season last year.

Brockers has been an impact player on the Rams defensive line throughout his career. He knows his role and he plays it very well. Who knows how Brockers would have done had he ended up going to Baltimore last year, but it seemed to work out for him in Los Angeles.

DE Chris Long

There are also times when it works out. Chris Long left the Rams after 2015 and has two Super Bowl rings to show for it. However, he also chose a great situation. Instead of following the money and going to a team like the Raiders or the Jets who simply don’t have a good history, Long went to the Patriots and then the Eagles.

S Rodney McLeod

Rodney McLeod’s case is another situation in which leaving the Rams worked out for the player. McLeod went to the Eagles after 2016 and has put together a solid career. He’s been a huge contributor on their defense and signed another two-year extension to stay with the team last season.

NFL free agency is just as, if not more risky than the NFL Draft. With the draft, teams aren’t bound to large contracts over a long period of time. A bad free agent contract could put a team into salary cap hell. You never know how a player will react after a big pay day or how they’ll do in a different situation or system.

John Johnson III could end up doing well wherever he goes. If he leaves, Rams fans will be rooting for him to succeed. However, given the history, he will have a much better chance to create a legacy and sustain success staying with the Rams. Chasing the big contract typically doesn’t end well.


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