Will The Rams Draft An Offensive Lineman In The First Round?

USA TODAY Sports

Mock Draft season is swinging into high gear. With the #2 and #13 overall selections, many are contemplating what the Rams will do with those picks, particularly the #2 overall selection. A popular scenario involves the Rams trading down the #2 for a bounty of additional selections. Many mock drafts have the Rams selecting an offensive lineman in the first round. Part 7 - of a 10-part off season primer series - examines the merits and viability of selecting an offensive tackle in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Mock Draft season is swinging into high gear. With the #2 and #13 overall selections, many are contemplating what the Rams will do with those picks, particularly the #2 overall selection. A popular scenario involves the Rams trading down the #2 for a bounty of additional selections. Many mock drafts have the Rams selecting an offensive lineman in the first round. Irrespective of where the Rams end up selecting in the first round, many are hopping on bandwagons, either for certain positions or particular players. Some of the more common bandwagons are the offensive line - and by extension - the following players: Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan, Cyrus Kouandjio, and Zach Martin. Could one of these players be wearing the horns in 2014?

As a long-time fan of the Rams, I've always believed in this age-old adage: football games are won in the trenches.

The most recent reminder of how football games are won occurred in this years Super Bowl, where Seattle defeated Denver 43-8. One of the primary reasons for the lop-sided victory was Seattle's dominance in the trenches. Peyton Manning would likely agree.

A Brief History

Until about 9 years ago, the Rams had a rich history of quality offensive line play.

In 1979-80 the Rams reached the Super Bowl for the first time. The offensive line consisted of: C Rich Saul, G Dennis Harrah, G Kent Hill, T Jackie Slater, and T Doug France. Three of them were drafted in the 1st round. One - Jackie Slater - was drafted in the 3rd round. They combined for 26 Pro Bowl appearances. Jackie Slater was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001. The Rams were noted for their outstanding offensive lines throughout the 70's.

The 1985 Rams had a successful season, losing in the conference championship. Jackie Slater still anchored the line. C Doug Smith was a six-time Pro Bowler. G Tom Newberry (2 Pro Bowls) and T Irv Pankey were both 2nd round draft picks. One of the many outstanding Rams' offensive lines in this decade.

The period 1999-2004 saw the Rams make the playoffs 5 times, and the Super Bowl twice (winning in 1999-2000, and losing in 2001-2002). Continuity was one of the key features of the offensive line in this period. C Andy McCollum, G Adam Timmerman, G Tom Nutten, and T Orlando Pace started together for 5 seasons (2000-2004). Timmerman was a 1-time Pro Bowler. Orlando Pace was the #1 overall selection in the 1997 NFL Draft, a 7-time Pro Bowler, and is a lock for entry into the Hall of Fame. An outstanding offensive line, one that's sometimes forgotten because of the publicity surrounding the Greatest Show On Turf.

From a historical perspective, the best and most successful Rams teams - between 1974-2004 - all featured excellent offensive lines. In the same time-frame, the Rams' rosters were characterized by many outstanding running backs and wide receivers: Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Lawrence McCutcheon, Jerome Bettis, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Flipper Anderson, and Henry Ellard. There's an unmistakable correlation between the success of these great players, and the offensive lines who blocked for them. For the Rams only had one elite QB in that span of time: Kurt Warner.

Current State Of The Rams' Offensive Line

The accompanying chart presents the Rams' current offensive line depth chart. Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, and Tim Barnes are eligible for free agency March 11 (if not re-signed by the Rams before that date):

Center Scott Wells Tim Barnes Barrett Jones
Guard Harvey Dahl Brandon Washington
Guard Chris Williams Shelley Smith
Tackle Joe Barksdale Rodger Saffold Sean Hooey
Tackle Jake Long Mike Person

The players on the Rams' offensive line depth chart were acquired by various means. Dahl (2011), Wells (2012), and Long (2013) were free agent signings. Williams, Barksdale, Barnes, Washington, Smith, and Person were acquired off the waiver wire. Saffold was a 2nd round pick in 2010. Sean Hooey a 2013 UDFA addition. In the 4th round of the 2013 draft, the Rams selected Barrett Jones. The Rams - under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead - have devoted very little draft capital, thus far, to the offensive line. The only addition - aside from Jones - was 5th round selection Rokevious Watkins in 2012. In contrast, the Rams' chief divisional rivals - San Francisco and Seattle - have invested heavily in their offensive lines through the draft. The 49'ers' offensive line boasts 3 1st round selections. The Seahawks spent 2 1st round picks and 1 2nd round selection on their current offensive line.

The Rams' offensive line gelled as the 2013 season progressed, performing at a level not seen in many years. Prior to last season, there were 7-8 years characterized by inadequate offensive line play, ill-advised free agency signings (ex. Jacob Bell and Josh Brown) and first round busts (Alex Barron and Jason Smith). Unfortunately, the current offensive line has plenty of uncertainty surrounding it this off season. Among the issues: potential cap casualties (Dahl and Wells), free agent losses, and the uncertain length of time needed for Jake Long to recover fully from knee surgery. The overall average age of the unit (oldest on the team), the injuries occurring at an alarming rate every year, and the lack of depth are additional concerns. All of these issues and concerns lead to one conclusion: it's time for the Rams to invest serious draft capital on the offensive line. Brandon Bate - in an article published February 10 for TST (link) - made a strong case for the offensive line being the Rams' biggest draft need.

Why The Rams Will Draft An Offensive Lineman In The First Round

The following is a summary of arguments I've read - and some I've written myself - detailing why the Rams will select an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2014 draft:

  • Joe Barksdale becomes a free agent after the 2014 season. If he continues to excel, the Rams may have trouble re-signing him in 2015, for Barksdale would be due a hefty raise over his current contract.
  • There's little doubt Paul Boudreau works wonders in coaching up offensive linemen. Imagine what he could do if given 1st round talent to work with.
  • In many cases, elite college talent produces elite NFL players. Of the 4 offensive tackles selected to the 2013 All-Pro teams, 3 were former 1st round draft selections, 2 of which were chosen in the top ten of their respective drafts. In addition, 12 of the 16 offensive linemen selected for the 2014 Pro Bowl were 1st round picks.
  • Past draft history - in this case Jeff Fisher's - is not a reliable indicator of what will happen in future drafts.
  • Much uncertainty surrounds the offensive tackle depth chart. It's unknown if Jake Long will be available to start the season, nor how effective he'll be once he returns. This is now his second major injury in two years. While Joe Barksdale played admirably at right tackle in Rodger Saffold's absence, he's not a proven performer over a whole season(s). If Rodger Saffold does not re-sign with the Rams, depth would be very thin, for both Mike Person and Sean Hooey are unknown quantities.
  • Although the Rams have drafted the likes of Alex Barron and Jason Smith in the first round, they also drafted Orlando Pace 1st overall.
  • Depending on who the Rams select in the first round, a left tackle can play at another position until needed as Long's (or Barksdale's) replacement. Greg Robinson and Zach Martin are examples of tackles who could play 4 positions across the line.
  • Drafting an offensive lineman in the 1st round takes the future into account, and makes sense for long-term planning. Especially given the uncertainty surrounding Saffold, Long, and Barksdale.

ESPN' Nick Wagoner gave his thoughts on the subject:

"I do think a top OT would and should be a priority for the Rams. Whether they draft one and he plays RT or guard or wherever in year one, setting themselves up for the future makes a lot of sense."

Why The Rams Won't Draft An Offensive Lineman In The First Round

The following is a summary of arguments I've read - and some I've written myself - detailing why the Rams won't select an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2014 draft:

  • Jeff Fisher has never selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft. This pattern will prevail in 2014 as well.
  • The Rams' interior offensive line needs (guard, possibly center) are for more glaring than those at tackle. Given where the Rams are likely to select in the first round, the 2014 draft doesn't appear to have any guards grading out as top-15 selections.
  • The Rams have far more pressing needs than offensive tackle. The secondary, and finding a "true #1" wide receiver, take precedence on the overall needs list. It's why S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and WR Sammy Watkins appear so frequently in Rams' mock drafts.
  • With an outstanding offensive line coach on the staff - Paul Boudreau - it affords the Rams the luxury of selecting offensive linemen later in the draft, and having them coached-up.
  • Selecting an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft isn't a guarantee of success. The Rams have the bitter experience of Jason Smith and Alex Barron as historical references. There might not be a plug and play, first round starting tackle in this draft.
  • The Rams already have two quality starters in Jake Long and Joe Barksdale. If the Rams re-sign Rodger Saffold, he will likely start at guard; however, he can swing over to tackle if needed. The prognosis looks reasonably good for Long to be recovered from his knee injury in time for the season opener. A first round pick on an offensive tackle would be a "waste", if the best case scenario for the pick is limited playing time at right tackle or guard.
  • Although they have not seen playing time, Mike Person and Sean Hooey have spent a season under the tutelage of Paul Boudreau. They could be ready to assume roles as solid back ups at offensive tackle.
  • Given the offensive line depth in the 2014 NFL Draft, it's quite possible the Rams could find starters at guard and tackle after the first round.
Jeff Fisher's Oilers/Titans/Rams Draft History

The accompanying charts presents the complete 18 year draft history of teams coached by Jeff Fisher:

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Total
Position
QB 2 1 1 4
RB 2 3 2 3 2 5 17
WR 3 3 6 6 2 4 2 26
TE 1 4 1 1 7
OT 0 1 1 4 2 1 2 11
OG 0 1 1 1 2 2 7
C 0 1 2 2 5
K 1 1
DT 2 2 1 2 3 2 12
DE 3 5 1 4 1 1 15
LB 2 3 5 3 2 5 20
DB 3 4 7 9 6 5 7 41
Total 17 20 26 33 22 20 28 166

Analysis of past draft history is a useful exercise, one which gives clues to draft philosophies, tendencies, and preferences. However, past draft history is not a reliable indicator of what will happen in the future. The numbers and history only tell part of the story.

It's a well-known fact that Jeff Fisher - in 18 full seasons as a head coach - has never been associated with selecting an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft. A fact Bernie Miklasz made note of in a Thursday article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (link). The draft history suggests a pattern of selecting offensive linemen in later rounds and developing them. Is that enough evidence to confirm a set-in-stone draft philosophy, or was it merely happenstance? The answer is likely some of both.

Of 166 picks in Fisher's draft history, only 23 have been offensive linemen. 19 of those were selected in the 4th round or later. In contrast, 27 defensive linemen were selected in the same time-frame, 14 of whom were chosen in the first three rounds. Pretty compelling statistical evidence...until one looks deeper, into the reasons behind the numbers. During his tenure with the Oilers/Titans (1994-2010), the team only "needed" to draft an offensive tackle three times (and a left tackle only once). They had the incredibly good fortune of hitting on all their offensive tackle picks. In fact, those teams had only 6 starting tackles in 16 years. How many teams can boast of having only 2 starting franchise left tackles in 20 years? One a 1st round draft choice, the other drafted in the 2nd round.

The accompanying chart presents the offensive tackle history of the Oilers/Titans during Fisher's tenure:

Player Position Career W/Titans Pro Bowls Round Drafted
Brad Hopkins LT 1993/2005 2 1st
David Williams RT 1995 0 1st
Jon Runyan RT 1996/1999 1 4th
Fred Miller RT 2000/2004 0 FA
Michael Roos RT/LT 2005/Present 1 2nd
David Stewart RT 2006/Present 0 4th

The same historical patterns hold true for interior line selections during Fisher's tenure. Only 12 were selected in total, with only 2 picked in the 3rd round or higher. The value of interior linemen has only increased in the last few years. In the 5 drafts prior to 2013, only 6 guards were selected in the first round in total, out of 160 picks. Historical patterns related to drafting interior linemen (and right tackles) were a part of league-wide trends, not unique to Jeff Fisher.

"Jeff Fisher's draft history". It leaves one with the impression of Jeff Fisher being the maestro in all of the drafts during his tenure with the Titans/Oilers. The notion of Jeff Fisher having control of the drafts in his time with Tennessee is simply not true. Floyd Reese was GM of the Titans from 1994 through the 2006 season, and exerted a fair amount of control over personnel and draft decisions. Reese resigned after the 2006 season, having gone through three years of disputes about the direction of the team (Fisher wanted more control in drafts) (link). It's always been assumed that Jeff Fisher - in returning to the coaching ranks - wanted a situation where he would be in total control of personnel decisions. From ESPN, January 3, 2012, before Fisher was hired by the Rams:

"Fisher will want control of his 53-man roster. And he won’t want a situation where a GM is forcing free agents or draft picks on him that he and his staff don’t want. But wanting a voice is a lot different from wanting to be a de facto GM."

When asked - in February of 2012 - about drafting offensive linemen in the first round, Fisher commented on his teams' draft history:

"I think it's the way it happened. Brad Hopkins was selected a couple of years beforehand, and Coach (Mike) Munchak does an outstanding job of evaluating the offensive line, as did the staff."

Fisher had the luxury of an All-Pro left tackle [Hopkins, a 1st round pick] for the first 11 years of his coaching tenure. In addition, Hall of Fame inductee Bruce Matthews [another 1st round pick] anchored the interior line for 8 years during the Fisher regime:

"We just felt like over the years that we could get those guys in Round 2, 3 or 4 and develop 'em. And we did so. We've got an outstanding offensive line coach with us as well (in St. Louis), and we share some of the same philosophies. That doesn't mean to say we won't take an offensive lineman that high, though."

Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports reported from inside the Rams' war room during the 2012 NFL Draft (link). The Rams ended up taking DT Michael Brockers with the 14th pick in the first round. The Rams did have a contingency plan in case he was taken before their selection:

"Had Brockers come off the board next, the Rams would have tried to trade down further in the first round or, failing that, chosen between Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff or Stanford guard David DeCastro."

Peter King of Sports Illustrated was inside the Rams' war room for the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. In his article"The Panic Room" (link), King alluded to a contingency plan the Rams had in place, if Alec Ogletree was selected before their 2nd pick in the first round:

"The Rams sat at 22. They wanted Ogletree and were reasonably confident he'd be there. But they'd been talking with Houston at 27 and Atlanta at 30 about moving down to recoup some of what they'd given up to acquire Austin. Their fallback guy was UCLA defensive end Datone Jones, but if he and Ogletree were gone, they'd take Kentucky guard Larry Warford."

It's reasonable to draw the following conclusions: Jeff Fisher has a preference for drafting offensive linemen in later rounds and developing them, simultaneously not discounting the potential of drafting one in the first round if the teams' situation, big board, targeted player availability, and draft position warrant it. Fisher's draft philosophy - with respect to offensive linemen - could play an important role in the Rams' off season and 2014 NFL Draft.

2014-nfl-draft_medium

How can the Rams reduce the gap between themselves and the Seahawks/49'ers? What should the off season plan involve? I believe all efforts should be focused on two key areas: building the defense into the best in the division, and ensuring the offensive line is capable of opening up holes for the running game, and keeping Sam Bradford upright. If the Rams can accomplish those two things...mock draft season will start much later next year.

Off Season Primer Series

Part 1 - Salary Capping The St. Louis Rams' Off Season (link)

Part 2 - The Offensive Line (link)

Part 3 - Younger In 2014? (link)

Part 4 - 4 By March 11 (link)

Part 5 - Anatomy Of A Trade Down: The Quiet #13 Pick (link)

Part 6 - NFL Free Agency - Rams General Manager For A Day (link)

Update: Jeff Fisher and Les Snead lent more insight into drafting an offensive lineman in the first round during interviews/pressers at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine:

"Once again, Fisher said the fact that none of his teams have taken a lineman in the first round in his nearly two decades as a head coach is more a matter of happenstance than design."

“I have no reservation whatsoever,” Fisher said. “The only position I would not draft would be a punter or a kicker in the first round.”

"As Fisher and general manager Les Snead readily point out, sometimes the stars have to align just right for something to come together in the draft."

"Jeff and I have laughed about that,” Snead said. “He doesn’t have a core philosophy that no (I won’t take one). It’s just over the years, how it evolved.”

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