Rams don't intend to use franchise tag but want to keep Dante Fowler

Dante Fowler pressures Drew Brees into an interception during overtime of the NFC Championship Game. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- After three years, and nearly $42 million, it appears the Los Angeles Rams' franchise tag spending spree is over.

"At this point, we don't plan on using it," Rams general manager Les Snead told reporters Thursday at the NFL scouting combine. "We've got a few days to determine it, but right now, we definitely do not plan on using it."

The deadline to tag a player is 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

Former Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson played two seasons on the franchise tag, and earned $30.7 million, before he signed with the New York Jets in free agency in 2018. Safety Lamarcus Joyner played last season on the tag and earned $11.28 million.

But the Rams are prepared this offseason for a host of starters who are pending unrestricted free agents to test the market, including Joyner, left guard Rodger Saffold, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Dante Fowler.

Fowler, 24, appeared the most likely candidate to be tagged at a cost around $15.4 million. Instead, Snead told theRams.com that Fowler would become a priority in free agency, where he is expected to attract plenty of attention.

"What happens in that situation will determine a lot of things," Snead said, adding, "I think, really, the domino is Fowler. We know what he can do. We know what he can bring to the table. And if he's not there, there is a void there, and how are we going to fill it? Is it going to be from within or without?"

The Rams have $24.4 million in salary cap space in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Rams acquired Fowler at the trade deadline last season from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a third-round draft pick in 2019 and a fifth-round pick in 2020. Fowler filled a much-needed role as the Rams prepared for a deep playoff run, and sparked a renewed interest across the league in his playmaking ability.

Before Fowler's acquisition, the Rams struggled to remain healthy and had trouble applying quarterback pressure on the opposite side of outside linebacker Samson Ebukam.

Outside linebacker Morgan Fox tore his ACL during offseason team activities and underwent season-ending knee surgery. Dominique Easley shifted from defensive line to outside linebacker, but was put on injured reserve following Week 3 when he aggravated a surgically-repaired knee and underwent another surgery. Matt Longacre, who had success in spot roles the previous season, was unable to apply consistent pressure.

There are limited options within the organization to fill the team's need at pass-rusher if Fowler departs.

Easley and Longacre are pending unrestricted free agents. Fox is an exclusive-rights free agent. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a fifth-round pick in 2018, and Travin Howard, a seventh-round pick last year, remain under contract, but little is known about their playmaking ability.

Okoronkwo dealt with a foot injury last season that kept him sidelined throughout training camp and the start of the season. He was eventually taken off of the players-unable-to-perform list, but never played. Howard spent most of the season on the practice squad.

So it's Fowler -- who played in 11 games, including three in the postseason -- on whom the Rams remain focused.

The former Florida standout was sidelined his 2015 rookie season in Jacksonville after he tore his ACL. He also encountered several issues with the Jaguars, both on and off the field, which prompted the organization to decline the fifth-year option on his rookie contract after they selected him with the third overall pick.

But Fowler arrived in L.A. at the end of October intent on proving his playmaking ability, and he was involved in no such issues that plagued his time in Jacksonville.

"Love being around Dante," Rams coach Sean McVay told reporters at the combine. "I thought his demeanor every single day, when you come in, especially midway through the year, a guy that's engaged, he likes to practice, you watch the way the guy competes, you love the kind of players you have to say, 'Hey, slow down a little bit' sometimes, but he's got a motor and he loves football and he's certainly talented. So definitely want to try to get Dante back and that would be a part of emphasis for us."

In six regular-season starts, Fowler finished with a pass deflection, fumble recovery, two sacks and five quarterback hits.

In Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks, Fowler strip-sacked Russell Wilson and recovered the fumble midway through the fourth quarter. The Rams scored on the following play to secure a victory.

Fowler also proved himself as a playmaker in the playoffs when he pressured Drew Brees in overtime of the NFC Championship Game and forced the veteran quarterback into an errant pass that safety John Johnson III intercepted. The turnover was converted into a field goal, which earned the Rams a trip to Super Bowl LIII.

"Dante was outstanding down the stretch," McVay said.

So much so, that Fowler's stock is on the rise, and the Rams could have their work cut out for them as they attempt to keep the pass-rusher in L.A.