High draft picks causing Rams' cap strain

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Sam Bradford has helped transform the Rams, but he doesn't come cheaply. (AP)

The latest NFL salary cap numbers show the St. Louis Rams as the only team currently in the red, a little more than $800,000 over the cap. So how did the Rams get in a financial pickle, especially when teams like Philadelphia seemingly spent at will in free agency?

Most of the blame falls on the Rams' high draft position over the past three seasons. St. Louis had the No. 2 pick in 2008 and 2009, and the No. 1 pick in 2010. While that's a quick route back to respectability -- the Rams landed Chris Long, Jason Smith and Sam Bradford, respectively, with those picks -- the money involved in signing those players hamstrung St. Louis this season.

Bradford's contract was so large, in fact, that it may have been the straw that broke the camel's back in the fight for a rookie wage scale during this past CBA negotiation. Bradford received a six-year, $78 million contract from St. Louis after last year's draft; this year's No. 1 pick, Cam Newton, drew a four-year, $22 million deal.

The young Rams quarterback is the biggest culprit hurting St. Louis' flexibility in 2011, too. His base salary for the season is a mere $405,000 but his post-draft signing bonus -- nearly $18 million -- deferred to this season.

Long's 2011 cap hit is nearly as large, despite a base salary of below $2 million for the coming season. His performance over his first three seasons in St. Louis -- 36 starts and all 48 games played, 17.5 sacks, 112 tackles -- triggered a mound of bonuses that pushed him up to around $13 million in earnings this season.

Smith, now entering his third year in St. Louis, has a fully-guaranteed $8.5 million coming his way this season.

Add it all up, and the Rams have about $39-$40 million of their $121 million in adjusted cap space tied up in three players. That left St. Louis with a reported $12 million or so available to spend once free agency opened. The franchise then gave free agent right guard Harvey Dahl a four-year, $16 million contract and safety Quintin Mikell a four-year, $27 million deal.

Which more or less brings the Rams to where they are now.

As a result, they've had to dance around the cap a bit. They talked offensive lineman Jacob Bell and safety James Butler into restructuring their contracts, saving the team a few million. They also released linebacker David Vobora, due more than $1 million in 2011, to sign free-agent LB Ben Leber at a $1.25 million price tag.

St. Louis does not have any wiggle room left to play around on the market, barring more in-house changes (which could happen), but being up against the cap hasn't locked the Rams down in free agency either. In addition to the previously mentioned signings, they've also picked up Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Mike Sims-Walker, Zac Diles, Brady Poppinga and others.

If anything, the cap situation has forced St. Louis to take a smarter and more efficient approach to the offseason.