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A look at the 2020 salary cap for the Rams and 49ers following Aaron Donald’s contract extension

How do the 49ers and Rams look (as of now)?

Last week we had an invasion of Rams fans irate over my article on Aaron Donald’s future. Obviously I was wrong about Les Snead trading Donald — hey, it happens — but an interesting side discussion came up about future salary caps.

Ram fan after Ram fan repeated the exact same thing — “The Rams have $111 million in salary cap space for 2020!” It was a little weird for a couple of reasons. Why did five or six different fans all mention that exact same statistic? Over the Cap actually showed a higher number ($117 million at that time, before the Aaron Donald signing, which brought it down to $92 million just from that one deal).

But more importantly, cap projections two years out mean very little. 13 different teams have more than $100 million currently listed for 2020, but those future numbers simply ignore anyone not under contract yet for that season. Only 27 Rams are under contract for 2020, barely half the team, and we have no idea yet how much dead money the team will be carrying. (Given their recent record in picking talent, probably a lot.)

Many of the Ram’s stars need to sign contracts before 2020 rolls around, including QB Jared Goff, DT Ndamukong Suh, S Lamarcus Joyner, and CB Marcus Peters. They won’t be cheap. If Goff builds on last season, he will likely get more than $31 million a year, and Suh makes $14.5 million this season on a one-year, “prove it” deal. Or GM Les Snead could let these guys walk, solving salary cap problems, and in turn the team might just suck.

There are only 12 NFL teams with 2020 salary cap room below $80 million. Unfortunately, one of them is the 49ers, who have just $64 million left currently. Part of that is Jimmy G’s contract, which is on the high end just from being recent, but the team’s wide receivers are relatively inexpensive, with Pierre Garçon topping the list at $11 million.

Another issue for the Niners is their second tier contracts: Weston Richburg (a bit under $9 million), Jerick McKinnon (at $8.8M), Kyle Juszczyk ($6.8M), and Malcolm Smith ($6.1M). But a big part is simply that the team has 30 players signed through 2020, the fifth highest total in the league. (The Jets, with $118 million in 2020 cap room left, have just 18 under contract.)

As for the Rams, Jason Fitzgerald of wrote a detailed breakdown of Aaron Donald’s contract and offered a mixed verdict on the Rams’ salary cap situation. The team is paying top dollar over and over, with deals like $16 million a year to Brandin Cooks. Fitzgerald wrote:

This now gives the Rams two “market buster” contracts on the team with Donald and Gurley being about $6 million above the next highest paid player at the position. I’m not sure there was ever a team to do that before. The contract should also clearly open the door for Goff, assuming he plays at a high level, to one day look to really reset the QB market.

He doesn’t see the cap as a big problem for GM Les Snead, but the reason is not one that should make the teams’ fans happy.

Because the Rams recent drafts haven’t gone as well as hoped and players were allowed to leave in free agency the Rams cap space is still ok. They should have around $30 million next season which is about average.

The bottom line is, again, that it’s hard to predict the future. Fitzgerald’s article even says “Who knows what the Rams salary cap situation will be in 2020 ….”

He adds an interesting caution though. All projections of future salary cap have to make an estimate of what the cap will be, of course; OTC puts it at $200 million for 2020, up from $177M this year. But a new collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union might disrupt those big annual increases.

In 2021, the CBA expires. The last time around the salary cap fell about 7% from projected growth rates when a new deal came in place. Given how the cap is growing now it would not be a shock if a new reset caused the cap to shrink or at least not grow at the same rate it is now. That could lead to cap issues and restructures.

The bottom line is that the 49ers are drafting well and developing young players, while the Rams have been drafting poorly, letting young players walk, trading away future draft picks for veterans, and paying above-market money to free agents and their few good young players.

Take Brandin Cooks, for example. He did well working with Tom Brady and Drew Brees at QB — but New England and New Orleans were both happy to trade him away. It’s not at all clear he’ll be worth $15-17 million a year working with Jared Goff, but LA is stuck with him until 2023, given an expensive and mostly-guaranteed deal that makes him untradeable.

The Rams fans in our comments were geeked out on the likelihood that GM Les Snead has worked out deals that will generate compensatory picks in the future. That may be so, but only if key players leave in free agency and the team doesn’t sign equivalent new free agents.

A couple of third, fourth or fifth round picks — for a team that is hemorrhaging talent and not drafting well — isn’t going compensate for bad drafts, excessive contracts and free agent flops like Sammy Watkins.