Whether it be due to age, health, or the almighty paycheck there’s no unit on the roster that could potentially need an overhaul in 2014 quite like the offensive line. Of the five linemen who opened the season as starters in 2013, it's possible none will be available on opening day in 2014.
And before you discredit the notion of drafting an offensive lineman in the first round because a Jeff Fisher-coached team has never done so [which they haven’t], hear me out. Simply put, the time for Jeff Fisher to change history is now. The amount of uncertainty along the offensive front cannot be rivaled by any other position on the roster, and not addressing it now - in preparation for the future - would be a critical mistake.
To start, let’s have a look at the team’s depth chart at the start of the 2013 season. It certainly didn’t look this way at the conclusion of the season, and it further indicates the need to address the position in the draft:
Age, health, and the unknowns of the impending free agency period are the three biggest concerns for the Rams' offensive line in mid-February. Unfortunately, the team can’t control any of them. They can, however, put a plan in place to ensure they field a respectable offensive line in September, and that would include Jeff Fisher changing his draft tendencies by addressing at least one of the five positions on the offensive line in the first round of the draft…and then continuing to do so in the rounds that follow.
Age is interesting as it pertains to the Rams and the offensive line. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times… the Rams are the youngest team in the NFL. Heading into 2013, the Rams [collectively] were just shy of 25 years of age. The offensive line, however, was a different story. Rodger Saffold  was the youngest of the starting lineman, who - as of today - are an average of 29.2 years old. Scott Wells , and Harvey Dahl  are the elder statesman of the bunch. Neither of them finished the season. Dahl missed seven games with a torn MCL, and Wells has missed 13 games over the past two seasons. With 19 years of NFL experience between them, a few bumps and bruises are to be expected…but at what cost to their team?
Choosing to retain the nicked-up vets won’t come cheap. Wells will count $6.5 million against the team’s cap this year, while Dahl would account for $4 million. All of Dahl’s guaranteed money [$2.75 million] was paid out in the first year of his contract, so cutting him would come with no financial consequence to the team. Wells’ contract, however, guarantees $13 million and releasing him would cost the Rams $2 million in dead money. A quid pro quo, the Rams will have to decide if releasing Wells - and freeing up $4.5 million in cap space - is worth finding a viable replacement for a former Pro Bowl center. Regardless, with these price tags, it’s plausible to think neither of these veterans will return to the team in 2014.
Of the opportunities along the offensive line, it wasn’t center or right guard that were most glaring though. It was apparent - from the onset of the season - that left guard was the offensive line’s "weak link." While Wells and Dahl had solidified their place on the depth chart before training camp, Chris Williams and Shelley Smith battled all offseason for starting snaps at left guard.
Williams - a former first round pick for the Bears in 2008 - ultimately won the job, but was completely underwhelming and often proved to be a liability on the field. He allowed too much pressure up the middle, displayed ineffectiveness in run-blocking, and ultimately gave credence to the aforementioned term weak link. Shelley Smith, who was provided with far fewer snaps, was the more effective guard. For those who find credibility in Pro Football Focus’s grading system, Smith finished the year with a score of 7.0, while Williams ended his season with a -21.8 [4th worst amongst free agent guards]. Both are slated to become free agents on March 11th.
Re-signing Williams and Smith should be much farther down the Rams’ to-do list than attempting to retain Rodger Saffold. Saffold - who’s played both tackle positions for the Rams - has shown the versatility to play all over the offensive line, and maybe no position better than guard. Rodger started the season at right tackle, but was temporarily sidelined with a knee injury late in the year, opening the door for Joe Barksdale, who would remain the team's staring right tackle for the remainder of the season. Saffold was then asked to move inside to fill the vacancy left by Harvey Dahl. He did not disappoint.
But with free agency looming, one can’t help but wonder if it’s not Saffold who might be disappointed in the Rams. After being named the team’s starting left tackle in 2012, Saffold was moved to the right side of the line when the team acquired former Pro Bowler Jake Long in 2013. There were immediate rumors of Saffold’s unhappiness with the team’s acquisition of a new left tackle, and rumblings that he’d be asking for a trade.
Saffold, however, said [and did] all the right things in 2013. But what’s the outlook for his future, with or without the Rams?
According to Jeff Fisher:
"You would like to think his future’s probably at right guard. Or even left guard for that matter. But he plays the tackle position very well."
"We think Rodger can play four different line positions at an exceptionally high level, as he proved this year. He was absolutely dominating whenever he played guard. I think this puts him in an attractive situation as far as free agency."
There isn’t much clarity [or depth] at the tackle position[s] either. Jake Long isn’t going anywhere, but will he be available for the team’s first game of the 2014 season? As of right now, not even Jake Long knows the answer to that question. Joe Barksdale’s commendable play earned him the starting gig despite Saffold’s healthy return. He’ll be around next year too. And if Saffold’s not, and Jake Long’s not green-lighted to play in September, then precarious no longer adequately describes their circumstances.
Losing Saffold in free agency and having Long or Barksdale out with an injury isn’t that far-fetched. Regardless of whether it’s Week 1, Week 8, or Week 17, it’s hard to find comfort with Mike Person or Chris Williams covering Sam Bradford’s blindside against the Cardinals, 49ers, or Seahawks defense [amongst others]. So when do the Rams draft the next man up? The answer is May…preferably May 8th or 9th, during the first two days of the draft.
Some may be hesitant to go draft-heavy on offensive lineman because of the sheer amount of inexperience the Rams would be fielding next year. One thing we do know is that the Rams’ coaching staff has shown an ability to coach up their players; maybe none more capable than Offensive Line Coach, Paul Boudreau. In times where injuries have plagued the front five, causing concern about their ability to run/pass block, backup players in Boudreau’s unit have stepped in and exceeded expectations. Maybe it’s time, instead of acquiring players piecemeal via free agency or in later rounds of the draft, the Rams reward him with some blue-chip, game-changing youngsters that can anchor the offensive line for years to come.
What should be more concerning than placing a couple [or few] rookies in starting roles for 2014 should be the thought of over-paying for the same amount of uncertainty in free agency. Again, at this point of the offseason, the Rams don’t have much cap space, so whiffing in FA would cost the team - monetarily and in terms of on-field performance - for more than just the upcoming season. Sure, there’s a chance you draft another Jason Smith. There’s also potential to sign another Jason Brown. The difference? Millions of dollars.
"What about Barrett Jones"? What about him, indeed. It’s possible he’s the team’s next starting center. He’s a bit of an unknown commodity since entering the NFL last year, though. What I do know is that he played on a dominant offensive line at Alabama, he’s taken 11 snaps in the NFL, and spent almost all of 2013 sidelined with a foot injury and "lack of strength." Take from that what you will, but he’s not yet shown enough to be penciled in as a reliable starter.
In summation, a lot of the aforementioned is "worst case scenario." For the Rams, it should be viewed as a very likely one. They play in a division that boasts two of the best defenses in the NFL. While the Rams' defense is very young, and extremely talented, their offensive line is an aging unit, riddled with injury and uncertainty. It’s time to they stop patching the leaks, and right the ship. Regardless of Les Snead’s take on draft needs and their corresponding scent of desperation, not making the right decisions this offseason could very well leave them reeking.
As you fill out your 2014 mock drafts and big boards for the Rams, keep this in mind. When you’re solidifying the defensive line with Louis Nix III, upgrading the secondary with HaHa Clinton-Dix, and seeking out the next Calvin Johnson, you’re potentially passing on a player that provides Sam Bradford with a few extra seconds to find his receiver, or one who consistently wins the battle in the trenches that allows Zac Stacy to punch it in for six.