THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Robert Woods walked across the parking lot at the Los Angeles Rams practice facility, smiling like a kid who just raided the cookie jar. The wide receiver knew he was close to becoming the latest Rams player to earn a significant payday.
Sure enough, it soon became public: Woods had agreed to a four-year extension worth up to $68 million, with $32 million guaranteed, to rank him among the top 10 paid receivers in the NFL.
"Happy to be here producing," said Woods, whose five-year, $39 million contract was set to expire after the 2021 season. "And keep doing it for an extra four years."
Woods' extension was the third deal doled out by the Rams over a 10-day span near the start of the season. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey signed a five-year, $105 million deal that included $71.2 million guaranteed at signing, which made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history, and wideout Cooper Kupp signed a three-year, $48 million extension that included $35.1 million guaranteed.
But because of salary-cap constraints, it begs the question: How are the Rams doing it? Even they're aware of the mystique surrounding the process.
Friendly reminder that we don't have the answers to your salary cap questions. We just run the social media here. 😩— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 18, 2020
It began over the offseason, when the Rams made the decision to cut running back Todd Gurley and trade wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans in exchange for a second- and fourth-round pick. Unloading their contracts amounted to a short-term hit for a long-term gain for salary-cap purposes.
Gurley and Cooks, who were under contract through the 2023 season, created a squeeze this year because they combined for $33.5 million in dead money, but their departures allowed for future flexibility to sign others to extensions.
Restructuring contracts, such as Goff's, also has created salary-cap space, though at the cost of committing more guaranteed money to the restructured players.
And the Rams also have delivered a combined $90 million in signing bonuses (at the time of signing) to their three highest-paid players -- Goff, Donald and Ramsey. These bonuses are amortized over the life of their contract for salary-cap purposes. This is somewhat of a departure from how the Rams paid players prior to the megadeals awarded to Cooks and Gurley in 2018, when they preferred a pay-as-you-go plan, which typically involved higher base salaries and less bonus money.
Rams coach Sean McVay, whose purview in the organization doesn't include managing the salary cap, explained how the recent deals fit in the most layman terms.
"It's elongated over the course of the deal, so that it's not $175 million or whatever the cap will be next year," McVay said, before a slight grin grew across his face and he began to chuckle. "So, you know, a couple of years from now, we'll see how it works out and maybe I'll be sitting on the other end talking to the coach that's sitting in my shoes if we're in big trouble."
At least for now, McVay doesn't need to worry.
Despite fielding the third-youngest roster in the NFL -- one that is considered top-heavy and features several inexperienced players who have been thrust into the starting lineup -- the Rams are 2-1 as they prepare to host the winless New York Giants at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
Despite moving on from Gurley and Cooks, the Rams' offense is ranked among the top six in the NFL, averaging 449.7 yards and 29.7 points per game. The defense ranks 13th in average points allowed per game at 23.7.
"I've always had faith in our front office," Goff said after a dominant Week 2 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. "Every year, they make moves and people question and doubt. Every year, it seems to be the right move."
If the salary cap falls to $175 million in 2021 -- the floor agreed to between the NFL and NFL Players Association because of concern over the financial ramifications of the pandemic -- the Rams' roster could feel the effects (projections before the coronavirus had the salary cap surpassing $200 million next season).
And it might.
The Rams were forced to make difficult decisions last spring when they cut Gurley, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. They also had to watch outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and linebacker Cory Littleton depart in free agency.
And next offseason, difficult decisions must be made about the future of safety John Johnson III, tight end Gerald Everett, wideout Josh Reynolds and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam. All are in the final season of their rookie contracts.
Several veterans also could be in danger of being cut.
It's all part of the puzzle of fitting everyone under the salary cap while securing the ability to sign top performers to extensions.
The Rams have proved shifty -- if not eye-popping -- in how they utilize salary-cap space. And for now, it works. But as several established players who are no longer with the team found out, the Rams can't always keep everyone.