THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead has to put together a complicated puzzle this offseason.
And he still isn’t sure whether All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s contract extension will be the first or last piece to fall into place for the surprising NFC West champions.
Negotiating with Donald is the highest-profile task awaiting Snead, who will also have to address uncertainty in the secondary, if he will use the franchise tag on wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and whether to cut players such as linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Tavon Austin.
“That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle is, all right, how do we stay in this window where we expect to compete for a division, expect to win the division. And we do have a young team so it is sustainable, but it’s solving that riddle,” Snead said Wednesday.
The Rams spent much of their efforts last offseason trying to address their struggling offense, hiring Sean McVay as head coach and bringing in established veterans including left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and wide receivers Robert Woods and Watkins to assist quarterback Jared Goff.
Those efforts were more successful than Snead could have imagined, finishing as the top scoring offense in the league this season after ranking last the previous season.
Los Angeles went 11-5, with the franchise earning its first division title since 2003, before losing to the Atlanta Falcons 26-13 in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.
Snead said the emphasis in the upcoming months will now be on defense, including trying to finalize a new contract with Donald. Donald held out of training camp in hopes of getting that deal and didn’t report to the team until one day before the regular season started.
Still, he finished with 15 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 14 games, solidifying his status as the game’s dominant interior lineman.
Snead and Donald’s representatives both agreed to stop negotiating during the season. There is no timetable for an agreement, but even a basic framework of what will likely be the richest contract for a defender in NFL history would give Snead the ability to respond accordingly in other areas.
“Like I’ve always said with Aaron, hey, we want him to be a Ram a long time,” Snead said. “So when we ink that deal, or not, I can’t put a timeline on it, but it is a major priority, as it always will be until we get it done. And for Aaron’s sake, and for doing business, with our other players as well because that contract obviously will affect basically your salary cap.”
While Donald will almost certainly remain the anchor up front for a long time, there are fewer guarantees at defensive back. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson has played the past two seasons under the franchise tag, and starting safety Lamarcus Joyner and slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman are unrestricted free agents.
Cornerback Kayvon Webster, one of the few significant signings on defense last offseason, is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
Snead held off on committing to Johnson on a long-term basis before seeing how he would fit in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ system.
Snead said making sure a player can thrive in a specific scheme is a must before committing big money. Johnson played well with 57 solo tackles, 14 passes defended and two interceptions.
“They definitely have to be ideal scheme fits, or I always call it you’re putting a rectangle in a square and I think that’s how things get a little off-kilter when you’re building a team,” Snead said.
There could also be turnover at linebacker, where Barron and edge rusher Robert Quinn could be cut to avoid significant salary-cap hits.
The same might be true for Austin, who had 13 receptions for 47 yards and ran for 270 yards and one touchdown. Austin fell behind Woods, Watkins and rookie Cooper Kupp in the rotation after being limited by a hamstring injury in training camp.
If the 2013 first-round pick were to go, it could increase the likelihood Watkins remains with Los Angeles.
Watkins led the Rams with eight touchdown receptions in the final season of his rookie contract after being acquired in a trade from Buffalo in August.
Watkins could be one of the top options in a relatively weak group of free-agent receivers, making him a potential option for the franchise tag.
“The goal is to make sure we can fit everybody into the budget,” Snead said. “Because sometimes saving money, that kind of means we’re attacking an individual player just to save money.
“But it’s really looking at the budget, the cap situation for this year, and the cap situation for next year, and the next. Then we go ’18, how do we improve and then keep the core together? So, it’s not necessarily looking at just salaries.”
NOTES: Defensive tackle Michael Brockers is not expected to require surgery for the knee injury he sustained against the Falcons, Snead said.