St. Louis Rams 2013 roster: Offensive line

Dilip Vishwanat

Can the Rams get a healthy season out of their offensive line? It might be the most essential factor for a successful offense.

Brandon Gibson caught 23-yard pass from Sam Bradford, and raced into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Rams a 20-13 lead over the Lions. For the first time since 2006, it looked like the Rams might win their season opener. And then camera panned back from the end zone celebration to reveal a lifeless Rodger Saffold laying on the Detroit turf.

Amid the concern for Saffold's health, hell, for his life since he obviously had a neck injury, a familiar feeling fell over what had been a fan base excited about the team's prospects for the first time in half a decade.

"Here we go again." You could read it in every tweet, every comment, every message board thread and every strip mall sports bar around the metro area. Just when there was reason to be hopeful about the Rams, injuries would block whatever progress could be made.

But it didn't turn out that way. Amid another year of injuries to the offensive line -- a recurring problem since at least 2006 -- the new administration at Rams Park managed to find a solid rotation of depth players, coach the hell out of them and turn in a season that, mostly, managed to keep quarterback Sam Bradford off his back.

Someone should have given offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, lovingly known as Coach Boo, the key to the city.

Nevertheless, last year's group was still a makeshift unit, and not just because of injuries. The line needed to be better if the team was going to get the most out of Bradford and finally score more than 20 points per game. Filling that need topped Les Snead's offseason to-do list. They engaged in a prolonged courtship with free agent Jake Long, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Eventually he signed, giving the team an anchor blindside protector for the first time since Orlando Pace graced the field in blue and gold.

There are still PLENTY of question marks for the unit. The left guard spot is undetermined. It also happens to be the only spot among the five offensive line positions not manned by a player who missed time with injuries last year.

For all the talk about Bradford's season, the receivers and the running back by committee, no unit is more important to the Rams success in 2013 than the offensive line. Let's take a look at the players the Rams are counting on this year.

The Starting Five Four

Jake Long, LT - Last season was the first one that Long didn't make the Pro Bowl. Yes, that's a bit of an arbitrary distinction, but Long has been one of the game's best left tackles since being drafted. However, he's coming off a triceps tear and surgery, and he's also battled back and ankle problems during his career. The Rams doctors made the team's MRI machine something of a second home for Long before he was signed, giving him a green light. Overstatement of the day: His health is essential to the Rams' hopes this year. But if he should miss time, Rodger Saffold played well on the blind side last season.

Rodger Saffold, RT - Speaking of Saffold, he moves to the right this season, the last year of his rookie contract. He was upset about the move, but it's all smoothed over for now. Unfortunately, Saffold hasn't played a fill 16-game season since his rookie year in 2010.

Harvey Dahl, RG - The standard-bearer for Boudreau linemen. He missed two games with a torn biceps last year, but has recovered in time for camp and the preseason. He has two more years left on his deal, but this could be his last in St. Louis if he struggles with injury or doesn't accept a new deal after the season.

Scott Wells, C - The veteran center, signed last year as a free agent, has had two knee surgeries and foot surgery since January 2012. He missed nine games for the Rams last year. When healthy, Wells is an asset in reading defenses as well as blocking.

Chris Williams, LG - For now, the Bears' former first-round pick has the starting left guard job, but figures to be challenged in camp by Rok Watkins and Shelley Smith. He played in a rotation at the right guard spot last year to replace Dahl. Drafted as a tackle, the interior line is a more natural fit.

Backups and Depth

Shelley Smith, G - He struggled mightily on the inside against the 49ers and Jets last season, allowing three sacks and seven pressures. He did better with playing time later in the season, on the right side in rotation with Williams. If the Rams use some zone concepts this year (they did last year), Smith could be an average starter.

Rok Watkins, G - He showed up out of shape last year, and then was injured in practice after taking over during Week 1's O-line massacre. This year, he's showing up focused on fighting for a starting job. None other than Jeff Fisher himself has offered effusive public praise for Watkins, which smells like a motivational tactic to us. Maybe it'll work.

Barrett Jones, C/G - Alabama's all-everything lineman, literally. He played all five spots up front at one point or another, but finally settled into a nice college career snapping the ball. He's not quite ready for camp, recovering from surgery on his foot to take care of a lisfranc injury that he played through last season with the Tide.

Joe Barksdale & Ty Nsehke, T - Both guys saw some playing time last year amid the injuries. Barksdale made two starts at left tackle, in losses to the Packers and Patriots. Both are young players with room to improve, but will have to make a strong case for the team to keep both.

Brandon Washington, G - A sixth-round pick by the Eagles in 2012, the Rams scooped him up in January. In college at Miami, he was a nasty run blocker on the inside ho struggled against some of the more complex pass rushing schemes he faced.

Others

Tim Barnes, C; Braden Brown, T; Sean Hooey, T, Ryan Lee, C, Kevin Saia, G

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