- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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The three-day negotiating window for teams and free agents began in earnest Saturday, and along with it came the expected rumor and innuendo that will persist until players can actually put pen to paper at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Like every other team in the league, the St. Louis Rams were connected to a few of those free agents, though a phone call to an agent or two doesn't mean it's going to turn into a transaction when the market opens. Plenty of calls are made over the weekend, some turn into legitimate conversations about a contract while others are simply doing diligence.
Here is a look at what we know and what was reported in the first 24 hours of the negotiating window:
It hasn't happened yet but I still expect the Rams to release guard Harvey Dahl in the very near future. Much like with cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the move might wait until the day free agency begins, but it seems almost certain to happen. That would give the Rams about $15 million in salary-cap space (though only about $10 million would be available for free agency since they will have a draft class to sign).
As expected, the market for offensive lineman Rodger Saffold looks to be active. We already knew Arizona and Miami would have interest, and reports indicate both teams made contact with Saffold on the opening day of discussions. Other teams in need of offensive line help such as Tampa Bay, which released guard Davin Joseph and could use upgrades at tackle, could also be in the mix for Saffold.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Rams guard Shelley Smith drew free-agent phone calls from four teams on Saturday. Smith was a spot starter for the Rams the past two seasons, but was once a coveted commodity when the Rams initially claimed him on waivers. He's not likely to break the bank, but there is a sense around the league that he might be something of a bargain.
Also coming from the "no surprise" department, the Rams reached out to representatives for Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verneron Saturday. Verner is widely regarded as one of the best players on the market regardless of position, but is going to get a contract in line with that status. The Rams have obvious ties to Verner as head coach Jeff Fisher drafted him and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams helped coach him to his best season in 2013. While the Rams could probably find a way to make a contract work with Verner, whether they should pay the hefty price is a different issue. Green Bay's Sam Shields cashed in with the Packers on Saturday night with a four-year, $39 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus. Final details aren't known, but reports indicate he will make $21 million in the first two years. It's probably a safe bet that Verner will meet and exceed that number. And he has no shortage of suitors. The Tennessean reported Verner also received early interest from Minnesota, the New York Jets, the New York Giants, the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling offered a breakdown on the logical match between Verner and the Vikings.
If nothing else, it's clear the market for top cornerbacks is returning to 2012 levels when the Rams gave Finnegan a five-year, $50 million deal with nearly half paid out in the first two years.
The other name linked to the Rams on Saturday was another highly touted, high-priced defensive back -- Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd. NFL.com also reported the Rams inquired about Byrd on Saturday. Byrd has been another popular name amongst Rams faithful and, like Verner, would fill an important role as a veteran presence in the Rams' young secondary. Also like Verner, Byrd figures to break the bank. Considered the best safety available, it's fair to expect Byrd to land a contract worth about $10 million in average annual value.
So, what to make of all this before we get into the actual start of free agency? Not much, really. My belief all along has been that the Rams have prioritized keeping Saffold, and if that doesn't happen they could re-direct that money elsewhere, potentially to one of the "splashy" defensive backs on the market. In an ideal world, the Rams could keep Saffold and add a veteran in the secondary, but with prices likely to be through the roof, it's probably unlikely the Rams can bring Saffold back and add one of the top two defensive backs mentioned above.Based on early projection for what players like Byrd, Verner and Saffold could cost, it's possible the Rams could be spending money on a few mid-level free agents rather than one big-ticket item. In the meantime, it does no harm to kick the tires on some of the big names mentioned above and determine whether it's worth getting in the bidding or moving on to the next plan.