While the motto you’ll hear around the league will always say that nothing is more important than on-field performance, there will always be other factors that play into roster decisions, the biggest of which is money. So now that the St. Louis Rams have announced the financial details of their undrafted rookie free agent signings, we may have a better idea as to which players have a chance to crack the roster this year.
Former West Texas A&M defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks was the cash cow of the 2014 class, receiving a $20,000 bonus and a $30,000 guarantee on his base salary. This would seem to indicate that he has a pretty good shot of making the team, though it’s not immediately clear as to how he fits into the Rams’ plans. Westbrooks, who measured in at 6-foot-3 and 267 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, is listed at defensive tackle by the team. He played both defensive end and tackle in college, but the only sensible situation to play him in the interior at that size would be on obvious passing downs (much like his fellow West Texas alum, Eugene Sims, has been utilized throughout his Rams career). If anything, Westbrooks probably provides competition for seventh-rounder Michael Sam, who has a chance at filling the ninth defensive lineman role.
Wide receiver Austin Franklin received a $17,500 bonus. Franklin, who has some raw skills but didn’t fully prove himself before leaving New Mexico State after his junior season, may have the edge for a spot on the opening roster following Stedman Bailey’s suspension. He’ll be competing with players such as T.J. Moe and Justin Veltung, both of whom provide pretty similar skill sets.
Cornerback Marcus Roberson got a $15,000 bonus, which would have made him one of the richest players in last year’s undrafted class. Roberson is undoubtedly the biggest name of the group, as he was projected by some as a first-rounder before the year, but he probably faces an uphill battle to make the active roster, needing to beat out recent draftees like E.J. Gaines and Brandon McGee. At bare minimum, though, Roberson is likely a practice squad candidate due to his size and intriguing skill set.
The only other player to receive a bonus in this year’s class was Bowling Green tight end Alex Bayer, who got $10,000. Bayer has a decent shot at winning a spot, as the Rams need a fourth tight end but don’t have an obvious candidate on the roster to fill the role. Justice Cunningham, a former Indianapolis Colt who was added to the practice squad late last year, and Mason Brodine, a recently-converted defensive lineman, will be battling with Bayer for a spot, and Bayer’s experience as an in-line blocker may give him the edge.
For reference, the financial rewards for last year’s UDFA class provided about a 50 percent accuracy rating in determining who had a shot. Safety Cody Davis, who received a $15,000 bonus and a $20,000 contract guarantee in 2013, did not make the opening 53-man roster, but he was kept on the practice squad until being promoted to the active roster in late September and sticking for the rest of the season. Running back Benny Cunningham was given a $10,000 bonus and was on the active roster for the entire season. Linebacker Jonathan Stewart received an equal bonus and made the opening roster before being released in Week 2. Several other players who spent time in the program as rookies, including linebacker Phillip Steward, defensive end Gerald Rivers, fullback Eric Stevens, and cornerback Darren Woodard, were also part of the bonus pool.
That’s not to say the bonuses are a clear indicator that a player will even have a chance at the practice squad, however. Tackle Braden Brown, who was also given a $15,000 bonus, suffered an injury and was released before he even participated in a training camp practice. Four others out of the 12-man bonus pool were no longer Rams by the end of August.
It’s certainly possible for a player who doesn’t receive a bonus to make the team, too, particularly if they are at a position of need. Linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates came into camp as a converted safety and a tryout player, respectively, with neither receiving a bonus. But after starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar was suspended, the Rams needed more ‘backers, and both of them were able to crack the roster because of their special teams ability. In addition, offensive tackle Sean Hooey and Emory Blake lasted the full year on the practice squad without receiving bonuses. This proves that performing really well on the field is always the best solution, but the financial commitment is always a nice thing for a player to possess going into camp.