Should Rams re-sign Janoris Jenkins or Trumaine Johnson?
After a 2011 season in which the then St. Louis Rams struggled with Josh Gordy (80.2 passer rating allowed) and Jordan King (113.1 passer rating allowed) as their starting corners for the second half of the year, they invested two picks in the top three rounds of the 2012 draft at cornerback. Four years down the line, and those two corners have recorded strong enough seasons to now present the Rams with the question of who to retain.
At pick No. 39, the Rams selected former Florida Gator (by way of the University of North Alabama) Janoris Jenkins; 26 picks later, they took Trumaine “Big Sky” Johnson from the University of Montana. Both players saw immediate playing time, with Jenkins starting from Week 1 of their rookie season. It was the breakout 2015 season from both players, however, that presents the Rams with a dilemma: Can they keep both? If not, which one should they prioritize, and who should they let walk in free agency?
The case for Jenkins
As a four-year starter, Jenkins has a depth of knowledge and familiarity with the Rams’ defense that they will not be eager to give up. After a lull in production in 2014, Jenkins got his hands on the ball more in 2015, breaking up 10 passes and snagging three interceptions—the most since he grabbed four in his rookie season, back in 2012. Jenkins also surrendered his lowest passer rating (93.8) over the course of a season since his rookie campaign, having let up a passer rating in excess of 110 in both 2014 (114.3) and 2013 (115.3).
Everything is signaling an upturn for Jenkins, who earned the highest single-season grade of his career, both in coverage (79.8) and in terms of overall grade (80.7) this past season for the Rams. The question for the Rams will be how much does Jenkins’ experience as a four-year starter place a premium on his signature? Jenkins only allowed 100 yards in a game once this season, having done so three times in 2014 and twice each in the first two years of his career. The story of Jenkins’ career has always been a balance of ability against consistent production, and the question for the Rams is whether they believe his 2015 season is simply a contract-year blip, or the start of him trying to piece everything together?
The case for Johnson
In Johnson, the Rams found a small-school gem, but have failed to maximize his full impact. Johnson played only 366 snaps as a rookie, but in that time, did enough to earn a higher season grade than Jenkins—surrendering a passer rating of 72.3, intercepting two passes, and allowing more than 50 yards in coverage only twice in the games he played. That performance earned Johnson an expanded role in 2013, where he again surrendered a passer rating of less than 75.0 for the entire season, breaking up eight passes and intercepting three more.
Johnson then missed the first eight weeks of the 2014 season, but has since surrendered only two touchdowns (to Jenkins’ six) and intercepted 10 passes (to Jenkins’ four). What Jenkins has over Johnson in experience, Johnson has more than matched Jenkins in terms of production—both on a per-snap basis and overall. Johnson has never allowed more than two touchdowns in a season; Jenkins has allowed at least five in each of his four years in the league. On 116 fewer targets over their four years in the league, Johnson has 15 interceptions to Jenkins’ 10. For the duration of his career, Jenkins’ passer rating allowed is only just shy of 100 (99.5); in the same timeframe, Johnson’s passer rating allowed is 67.1. That mark is better than Josh Norman’s (72.1), Stephon Gilmore’s (84.1), and even Casey Hayward’s (70.2), the stars of the 2012 cornerback class.
When Jenkins was sidelined in Week 14 last season, it was Johnson who took center stage, earning the highest single-game grade of his career (+5.2), snagging an interception (a pick-six, no less) and a pass defense on five targets, while also cutting off Calvin Johnson on a double-move late in the fourth quarter, with the Rams protecting a two-score lead. If Los Angeles is looking for a corner to lead their secondary, Johnson’s career to date, and in particular, his performance since Week 9 of the 2014 season, suggest that he is the man to do it.
The case for both
Ultimately, this does not have to come down to an either/or situation for the Los Angeles Rams. Boasting just shy of $60 million in cap space and a list of impending free agents that is neither long nor stocked with marquee players that will force them to break the bank, there is no immediate financial reason for the Rams not to lock up both Jenkins and Johnson. If the Rams see Jenkins’ upward trend in his fourth season as the emergence of the elite corner they hoped he could become, then they can pay the price to pair him with Johnson for the foreseeable future to work in combination with their exceptional defensive line.
However, with the news that Jenkins has turned down a $9 million per year contract—and fired his agent—you have to question just how highly Jenkins values himself, and whether he is worth paying as the elite corner he might become. Both production and performance over the previous four seasons make Johnson the more important re-signing for the Rams’ secondary, and if Los Angeles is to maintain a balance of investment between their defense and their offense (it may be a few years off yet, but Aaron Donald will be seeking a hefty contract within the next two years), then cutting ties with Jenkins may be a move that they have to make on financial grounds, particularly in terms of value for money, to maintain the status quo. Jenkins’ performances make him a corner worth retaining, but not at any cost, and with negotiations with Jenkins stalled due to the NFL’s rules on agent hiring, the Rams should waste no time in turning their attention to re-signing Johnson as their No. 1 priority in the defensive backfield.