Some musings about why the Rams approach makes sense under new salary cap structure
There are different ways to build a roster in the NFL, and each team approaches it slightly differently. I've been doing a little thinking about how teams should adapt their approach based on the new CBA and the current trend of flat-to-slightly-increased salary cap each year. I think the Rams approach of not back-loading contracts and concentrating on locking up their core veterans years in advance both take advantage of the "new normal." A lot of this is just me thinking out loud so please correct me where I'm wrong.
First, the issue of the (more or less) stagnant salary cap. This may change in the medium- and long-term, but at least for the next couple years the salary cap is expected to remain relatively flat. This affects the merits of backloading contracts and/or using huge signing bonuses to delay salary cap charges. One of the major advantages to delaying salary cap hits when the cap is growing rapidly is that the same charge is a smaller fraction of the salary cap in future years than in the current year. Let's say the salary cap is $100M (just to use a nice round number) and you have $5M in charges that you need to take. That's 5% of your team's salary cap. But if you delay the charge for a couple years to when the salary cap is (let's say) $125M, the same $5M represents only 4% of the salary cap. Salary cap inflation has solved part of the problem for you, essentially reducing the "cost" of that salary cap hit by 20% (from 5% -> 4%), while still allowing you to pay your player $5M in cash this year. If the salary cap remains at $100M though, 5% is 5% no matter when you take it.
Second, the rookie wage scale. The days of massive (relatively speaking) rookie contracts are over. Sam Bradford signed a 6-year/$78M ($50M guaranteed) contract while a year later the #1 overall pick Cam Newton signed "only" a 4-year/$22M ($22M guaranteed) contract. But holding the overall salary cap constant, rookies making less means veterans making more. With players receiving a larger portion of their career earnings in their veteran contracts, it makes these contracts more important for them. It also means that rookies should put a larger premium on the safety of long-term contracts, especially if you are talking about offering players extensions while they still have a year or two existing under their current contract.
For example, Sam Bradford should be less risk averse than Cam Newton when it comes to a 2nd contract - he has already made substantially more and so an injury/poor play affects his total earnings less than it would Newton. This means Newton should be more likely to accept a contract extension with a year left in his rookie contract, even if it means giving up a couple million over what he'd likely earn by waiting. A player like Bradford is better able to wait a year and test the FA waters because of the security his rookie contract afforded him (let's hope he doesn't!). And with veterans making more overall, a discount off a veteran contract is more important. Extending players early (like we did with Long and Laurinaitis) also makes more sense now because taking the salary cap hit a little earlier than we'd otherwise have to doesn't hurt as much because of the slow salary cap growth.
So in the end, the economics of the salary cap has changed and I think smart teams will react by reducing the backloading of contracts and working to extend their key rookies earlier. That the Rams seem to be doing both of these things makes me indicates to me that they're looking to build a roster that will be competitive for years to come.