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The Rams have major salary-cap issues. Is their title window already closing?



Going “all-in” is a popular expression, but the 2019 Los Angeles Rams really were. After Monday Night’s brutal loss to the red-hot Baltimore Ravens, it appears as if the Rams are almost all-out — out of the hunt for the playoffs and a return to the Super Bowl.

The ESPN Football Power Index gives the Rams an 8.8% chance to make the playoffs. Barring a surprise comeback in their final five games, the Rams’ offseason will start much earlier than planned. It’s going to be a tricky one.

In a league with a salary cap, the bill eventually comes for teams that go all-in. In 2020, it’s coming due for the Rams, whose cap situation will be among the most challenging in the NFL because their roster is one of the most financially top-heavy. L.A. projects to have a league-high $108.75 million in cap charges allocated to its five highest-paid players:

The Rams can trim a bit of that with a contract extension for Ramsey that drops his 2020 cap number. But even if they lop off $10 million, their fifth-highest 2020 cap charge would be $8.625 million for tight end Tyler Higbee, and their top-five cap allocation would come out to $103.675 million, which would still be the highest such figure in the league.

Even if the cap goes up by $10 million or more, as it has each of the past six years, and gets close to $200 million, the Rams are looking at about half of it committed to five players, which means they’d have to pay 48 more guys with about $91 million, which is tricky. It’s not that the Rams front office can’t do it, but they’ll face a fresh and difficult challenge in returning the team to the top of the NFC and keeping their championship window open.

Any questions?

Yes. How much more trouble could they be in than teams such as the Falcons or Vikings or Jaguars, all of whom have major cap problems?

In some ways, more than any of those teams because there’s really no way for the Rams to get any relief from their top five contracts. Goff, Donald, Gurley and Cooks all would cost the Rams more against the cap in 2020 if they were cut or traded than if they’re on the team. The Rams obviously aren’t cutting Ramsey after they just traded two first-round picks for him, so that figure is pretty hard and fast. The Rams did extensions for Goff and Gurley a year before they really had to because they wanted to ensure cost control on their best players. This raised eyebrows around the league, but until we see the next round of high-end quarterback and running back deals come in, it’s hard to say that the Rams made mistakes in committing to those guys early.

The Falcons, yes, are in major trouble. They have the second-most cap space committed to their top five players, at $101.1 million, and like the Rams, they’re stuck with four of those numbers (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett). They could save about $5 million if they cut Desmond Trufant, who occupies the No. 5 spot on the list. They can save another $8 million if they cut Alex Mack, who’s their sixth-highest projected cap number. The Falcons are three seasons removed from their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots and are confronting the closing of their window even as Ryan, Jones & Co. enjoy their just rewards.

The Packers project as our third-most top-heavy 2020 roster, with $94.15 million in cap space committed to five players. But unlike the Rams, Green Bay has some flexibility with those contracts. It can extend David Bakhtiari and knock down his 2020 cap number, and it can restructure and get money out of, say, Davante Adams‘ deal if it needs to. Plus, $94.15 million is already less than the Rams’ figure by $14.6 million, which for perspective is higher than DeAndre Hopkins‘ 2020 cap figure. That’s no small amount.

The Vikings and Jaguars rank eighth and fifth, respectively, on our list. Minnesota has $86.6 million committed to its top five for 2020, and Jacksonville is at $92.8 million. The difference is Minnesota could save $13.1 million by moving on from Everson Griffen and $8.8 million from Riley Reiff. Its top five is more flexible. Jacksonville’s highest cap charge for 2020 at this point is $22.5 million for Marcell Dareus, and it’s safe to assume that the Jags aren’t bringing him back at that number. They could save $20 million if they cut only him.

The weirdest team in this study might be the Eagles, who rank 11th with $83.9 million in 2020 cap space committed to five players but have no flexibility whatsoever. In fact, among the Eagles’ top 15 projected 2020 cap charges, only two players — Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham — would provide any cap savings if cut or traded. The Eagles have paid their Super Bowl heroes, and as a result, their roster is going to look very much the same next year as it does now. But unlike the Falcons and Rams, at least the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl when they got the chance.

Who’s on the other end of this list?

The team with the least amount of cap space committed to its top five players in 2020 is the Bills, who have a total of $49.925 million committed to Mitch Morse, Star Lotulelei, John Brown, Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy. Yes, it helps when you haven’t had to pay your quarterback yet. Josh Allen is projected to have Buffalo’s ninth-highest 2020 cap charge, at roughly $5.8 million, and the team can’t negotiate a new deal with him until after the 2020 season.

Right behind (or in front of) the Bills on our list are the Dolphins (duh), who have just $51.5 million in cap space committed to their 2020 top five and could knock off another $21 million by letting go of Reshad Jones, Albert Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The third-lowest team on our list is the Patriots, with just $55 million in 2020 cap space committed to their top five players and flexible deals for their top three. And sure, it’s no surprise. You don’t beat the salary cap for two decades if you don’t know how to balance your roster. But it’s fair to point out that the Patriots either have to sign Tom Brady for 2020 or find another quarterback, and either of those solutions will bump their number up — even if Brady were to do another one of his trademark team-friendly deals.

All right, so the Rams can fix this in the draft, right?

Well, that’s not going to be easy, either. The Rams are dealing with the rare but deadly combination of little cap space and little draft capital. Due to the Ramsey trade, they don’t have a first-round pick in 2020 or 2021. This after not picking in the first round in any of the past three drafts. Their top three 2020 cap numbers belong to players they drafted who helped them win the 2018 NFC title. But you have to wonder where they will get the money to pay someone such as 2017 third-round pick Cooper Kupp when he’s eligible for an extension this offseason.

The draft is about finding value — finding players who perform at a high level before they’re owed big money. Goff, Gurley and Donald all provided that, and Kupp is providing it now. But with no first-round pick in 2020 and only four total picks projected for 2021, the Rams are going to have to nail a very high percentage of their picks if they want to solidify this roster through the draft in the short term.

Yuck. So what can the Rams do?

Three things:

1. They’re going to need to dominate the second and third rounds of the draft. This might not be a bad way to go. Their cap situation would make first-round contracts a burden anyway, and there’s a burgeoning theory around the league that the second round is where teams can find the real value.

I asked Colts general manager Chris Ballard about this during training camp because he seems so obsessed with second-round picks, and he admitted that he is. Especially for a team picking late in the first round, as the Rams would have done the past couple of years, sliding back into the second instead of staying put in the first and taking a player on whom it didn’t have a first-round grade makes sense.

Teams don’t get the fifth-year option in such cases, but as Ballard told me, that fifth-year option for first-round picks can be a curse instead of a blessing, as it can complicate contract negotiations with a player a team wants to keep or force a tough decision on a player the team might not be sure about. If the Rams can find instant contributors in the second and third rounds of the next two drafts, there’s no reason to think they can’t put, say, an offensive line back together in short order.

2. They’ll need their stars to play like stars. After the Rams made the Ramsey deal, general manager Les Snead told me that a player as good as Ramsey allows the team to take some chances and do some bargain-hunting at the positions around him — i.e., he’ll make the rest of the secondary better, so maybe the Rams don’t have to go out and pay premium prices for safeties and other cornerbacks.

It’s not a bad thing to pay guys such as Donald, Goff, Gurley, Cooks and Ramsey top-of-market salaries if they’re making Pro Bowls and helping the team win games. The problem this season is that the Rams aren’t getting their money’s worth out of some of those guys. If that swings back in the other direction in 2020, the cap issues won’t loom as large.

3. Develop and adapt. One of the simplest answers to the question of what went wrong for the 2019 Rams is that the offensive line fell apart. They lost center John Sullivan to retirement and guard Rodger Saffold to free agency, and they have dealt with injuries along the line. Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth could be headed for retirement at the end of this season. The Rams need the young guys in the pipeline — guys such as Joe Noteboom, Bobby Evans and Austin Corbett — to develop into mainstays, or they won’t be able to protect Goff or get the run game going reliably again.

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49ers’ George Kittle awards Super Bowl trip to widow, son of fallen soldier



SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle will be making his Super Bowl debut on Feb. 2 and, in addition to his large entourage of friends and family, he’ll be bringing a couple of special guests along with him.

In conjunction with financial-services company USAA and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Kittle has awarded the surviving family of Martin “Mick” LaMar a trip to Super Bowl LIV in Miami, where the Niners will play the Kansas City Chiefs.

“The work I do with the USAA and the TAPS organization is something I really have kind of fallen in love with,” Kittle said. “I have a lot of family in the military so it’s something that I just respect and the sacrifice that they give is the ultimate sacrifice. So, if I can ever give back and make a family’s day or just make them smile a little bit then I’ve just done a little part in their lives.”

Mick LaMar was a U.S. Army sergeant who was shot and killed while on his second tour of duty in Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 15, 2011. The native of Sacramento, California, died on his wedding anniversary and is survived by wife Josephine (Josie) and her five children. LaMar had previously served in the Marine Corps out of high school and was deployed in the first Gulf War. He reenlisted with the Army in 2007.

With an assist from Kittle, Josie and 16-year-old son Nicolas, both of whom are big 49ers fans, will be headed to Miami for the Super Bowl. Josie became a fan through her husband and passed that down to Nicolas, who was 7 when Mick died. Kittle was scheduled to meet with Josie and Nicolas on Friday, something he said was looking forward to.

USAA is teaming up with other NFL players to offer a similar experience for fans from other parts of the country.

“As I hit the field to play in the Super Bowl, I find comfort in the fact that 49ers fans Josie and Nicolas LaMar will be cheering our team on,” Kittle said in a statement. “It’s a special privilege to be able to team up with USAA and TAPS to award a trip to the Super Bowl to Sergeant LaMar’s family in recognition of his military service and paying the ultimate sacrifice in service of our country.”

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With Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs always have a chance



KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When quarterback Patrick Mahomes rallied the Kansas City Chiefs from deficits of at least 10 points to win their two playoff games on the way to the Super Bowl this year, it wasn’t an anomaly.

He led the Chiefs back from a 10-point fourth-quarter hole last year against the Denver Broncos with the help of a left-handed pass. He threw four touchdown passes in the second quarter of a Week 2 game this season against the Oakland Raiders as the Chiefs erased a 10-point deficit.

Mahomes, in his second full year as the starter, is no stranger to such scenarios. He is 5-4 (55%) in his career during games in which the Chiefs have trailed by at least 10 points. The rest of the league during that time has won 14% of such games (67-405-3).

And the Chiefs scored 40, 51, 31 and 31 points in Mahomes’ four losses when trailing by double digits. They came back to lead during the fourth quarter in three of those games.

This is why beating the Chiefs has been so difficult since Mahomes took over. Kansas City is 27-8 in games he’s started and has not lost a single game during that span by more than one score.

Not one.

“I’ve been blessed to be in a great situation with a lot of great football players and coaches around me,” Mahomes said. “From day one, I’ve been expected to go out there and be who I am.”

Mahomes’ 35 starts without losing by more than seven points is the second longest such streak to start a career among Super Bowl-era quarterbacks, behind Russell Wilson‘s 38. His eight career losses are by three, three, one, seven, six, six, seven and three points.

When his team is trailing, Mahomes is first in QBR (87) and TD percentage (8.7), second in yards per attempt (8.6) and third in passing touchdowns (33).

And in the past few weeks Mahomes has added a running dimension to his game that has made him even more difficult to stop. His 27-yard touchdown run late in the first half of the AFC Championship Game will forever be legend to Chiefs fans. Mahomes faked a Tennessee Titans defender to get the run started. He appeared headed out of bounds, but instead cut up the field and was able to avoid defenders near the end zone before scoring.

“I was thinking about just running out of bounds,” he said. “As I got to the sideline, I realized I could cut up. I was running down the sideline and I knew we had two timeouts, so I might as well try to cut it back. I cut it back, and luckily I was able to hold on to the ball and get into the end zone.”

Mahomes has led the Chiefs in rushing yards in both playoff games leading up to Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers, with 53 yards in each game. He was also their top rusher in a Week 11 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

“They’re doubling our guys and you’re getting not just one guy doubled but two guys doubled,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “The defensive linemen, they’re trying to sack him, so if they make one miss on him or get out of their lane a bit, it’s over. He’s got all this running space.

“For him to be able to decipher it, see it and then go … he still keep his eyes down the field and gives guys a chance to get open. That’s what happened with Sammy. He scrambled to the right and throws it 60 yards or whatever it was on a dime. He probably could have run that one for a little bit, too.”

Reid was referring to the 60-yard pass Mahomes threw to Sammy Watkins for the Chiefs’ final touchdown in the win over Tennessee. Mahomes appeared ready to run before seeing an open Watkins after his defender had fallen down.

“The defenses are obviously trying to take away things down the field,” Reid said. “When they do that … it just leaves an open door there. For him to be able to see that in the heat of it is something. He’s got great eyes, great vision, which we know from the passing game. But he sees the whole picture and he’s able to find spots.”

He isn’t perfect at this rushing thing yet, though. Mahomes bobbled the ball just as he was crossing the goal line after Titans defensive back Tramaine Brock tried to strip it from him. That didn’t escape notice from offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

“I just told him if he’s going to lead us in rushing, let’s make sure we continue working on ball security with the running back coaches and get your neck roll ready, because you’re going to have to pound it a little bit for us,” Bieniemy said.

Mahomes’ running was as deflating to the Titans as his passing. He had six carries, not counting two kneels to kill the clock at the end of the game. Four of them went for a first down or a touchdown.

“That’s what led them to getting victories, [Mahomes] escaping the pocket,” Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “He’s a deadly quarterback outside of the pocket. He can make throws, the same throws outside of the pocket that he makes in the pocket … and that’s why he was able to get rushing yards and almost 500 of total offense.

“We knew exactly what they were going to do. If guys weren’t open right away, he was going to scramble and make something happen with his feet and look down the field to take a shot.”

The Titans had beaten the Chiefs 35-32 in Week 10 in Mahomes’ first game after missing 2½ games with a knee injury. The Mahomes they saw in the playoffs was different.

“We knew he could scramble around and make plays with his feet,” Tennessee safety Kevin Byard said. “We knew the last game he really wasn’t using his feet like that due to the knee injury.”

It appears the quarterback who has never lost a game by more than one score is getting better.

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Darius Slay’s Pro Bowl cleats honor late infant son of Lions teammate Marvin Jones



ORLANDO, Fla. — Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay barely got to know Marlo Jones — the infant son of Lions teammate Marvin Jones who died in December — but he believes that had Marlo gotten the chance to grow up with his siblings, he would be just as vivacious and would be proud of his father.

Slay will honor the Jones family Sunday at the Pro Bowl in Orlando with custom cleats featuring images of both the Slay and Jones families.

“It’s a tribute to my man, my brother,” Slay told ESPN on Friday. “I’m letting him know I support him and I’m here for him. Just to contribute to him — it’s a blessing for me, it’s a blessing that he’d let me do that and trust me with that. I appreciate him a lot.”

Slay reached out to Jones first to get his permission to pay tribute to Marlo, who was 6 months old when he died. The design was Slay’s idea, and the cleats feature Marlo in his mother Jazmyn’s arms with a halo over his head and the words “Rest in Peace, Marlito,” his nickname.

“I put [Marvin’s] celebration in there — his hands wide like every time he scores a touchdown — and have his little man up there watching him do it,” Slay said. “I know he’d be proud up there of how his dad is continuing to raise his brothers and sisters and being a good husband to his mom. It’s a great feeling for me to be able to go out there and show that.

“He told me he appreciated it and he’s thankful that we’re blessed to be teammates,” Slay added. “He’s a true role model and father figure in life. He continues to be a great dad and great husband.”

Jones did not play in the regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers following his son’s death but attended the game with his family. The team held a moment of silence, and the family remained on the field for the national anthem. During the anthem, Marvin Jones was spotted wiping tears from his eyes.

The Jones family did not reveal what led to Marlo’s death, but Jones said at the time that he “was a fighter from day one.”

Slay said he wished he could have gotten to know Marlo’s personality.

“I know [Marvin’s] other kids are all active, so he would have been active for sure,” Slay said.

Even though they have kept in close contact since the season ended, Slay, who is also a husband and father, said he can’t begin to imagine what the Jones family is going through, but he emphasized that they are not alone.

“I don’t know what he’s going through, man. I can’t tell you. I haven’t experienced it, and I plan on not [experiencing it],” Slay said. “I know it was nerve-wracking and heartbreaking for him, but that’s why I’m here for him, anytime, call. … He’s a brother to me, and I continue to pray for him.”

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