Despite tagging Lamarcus Joyner, Rams want Sammy Watkins

Watkins could become free agent (0:49)

Field Yates says he would not be surprised if multiple teams want to pay Sammy Watkins more money than the Rams can offer. (0:49)

LOS ANGELES -- It could have gone either way, really. The Los Angeles Rams went back and forth, agonizing over whether to eventually exhaust their lone franchise tag on defensive back Lamarcus Joyner or wide receiver Sammy Watkins. They wanted to keep both, couldn't yet sign either, and so the tag's deployment was rooted in strategy.

The Rams ultimately used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Joyner. They did so because the value of his tag -- $11.29 million for safeties, as opposed to $15.98 million for receivers -- more closely resembles the average annual value on a potential extension. They did so because he might be more coveted by other teams on the open market. And they did so, largely, because the Rams would have a much harder time replacing Joyner than they would Watkins.

The Rams have lost a lot of valuable defensive backs in recent years. Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins departed via free agency in 2016, T.J. McDonald and E.J. Gaines left in 2017, and Trumaine Johnson will probably sign elsewhere this offseason, with Marcus Peters replacing him as the No. 1 cornerback for about one-tenth of the price. The Rams couldn't afford to lose Joyner; not after how well he transitioned from slot corner to strong safety, and not with another rookie, John Johnson, joining him in the backfield.

Watkins' role as a vertical deep threat who opens the middle of the field for Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Todd Gurley can theoretically be filled by Josh Reynolds, who fell to the fourth round of last year's draft.

But the Rams prefer to keep Watkins, and now it comes down to what his market will look like.

Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in 2014, has a history of foot injuries and is coming off a 593-yard season. But he stayed healthy in 2017, and some still regard him as a potential No. 1 receiver. Without considering trades that won't be processed until the start of the new league year on March 14, teams were accounting for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion in salary-cap space, according to OverTheCap.com.

The 10 teams ahead of the Rams -- now with about $40 million in cap space -- made up roughly 65 percent of that total, which is enough to make one believe that someone can easily outbid them on Watkins.

Watkins sits among the top available receivers this offseason, right up there with Allen Robinson. The San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears could go after Watkins aggressively. The Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins could all express interest. The Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders might, too, depending on situations with their own receivers.

The Rams still want to sign Joyner to a long-term deal and have until July 16 to do so. Teams must be willing to give up two first-round picks in order to pry Joyner from them, so it's a safe bet that the Rams are now set at safety. At least for 2018. But they still have pressing needs at nose tackle, slot corner, center, both outside linebacker spots and, potentially, outside corner and inside linebacker.

Watkins is more of a luxury than a need, and he might have to take less money to remain with the Rams.

Speaking the day after the Rams' season ended, Watkins was asked about his future and said: "I don’t know. I just know it’s a business. Since I got traded from the Bills, it’s like anything can happen. I didn’t see that coming. ... I think I played pretty hard this year, and I can’t wait to see what my future holds, here or anywhere else."