Actually, this post is more about why we need to draft offensive linemen early than what to do with our first pick. Before I started this article, I decided to find out where our offensive line succeeded and struggled. It's no mystery that the Rams are now more smash-mouth than pass-happy. We already have some pieces in place with the emergence of Zac Stacy, Joe Barksdale, and great play by Jake Long. We know that improvement is needed in the center and guard positions. Hopefully, this post will clear up where this team stands and what it needs to do to take that proverbial "next step".
First off, I think it's necessary to acknowledge the quality of our division. The NFC West (minus the Rams) is home to 19 Pro Bowlers, none of which are from our division's best team, Seattle. Our enemies amassed 129 sacks in 2013. We are home to the #1 run defense (Arizona), #3 run defense (San Francisco), and #5 run defense (Seattle). In short, NFC West front sevens don't mess around.
The Rams' offensive line performance is somewhat of a mixed bag. We allowed the 4th fewest sacks by NFC teams but were middle of the pack in Qb hits allowed. We ranked 12th in the NFC in runs of 10+ yards and were at the back of the pack in Power Runs (3rd and 4th down short yardage runs that result in a TD or first down). In the NFC, we had the third-fewest negative run plays behind left tackle and the second-fewest behind right tackle. Unfortunately, we had the most negative run plays between the tackles. We lost the time-of-possession battle in eight of our nine losses, as well as three of our seven wins. There are some positives here, but also a lot of negatives.
So where do we go from here? Well, it's clear that center and guard need to be fixed if we're going to have consistent success running the ball, especially because Zac Stacy most often runs between the tackles. Our tackle situation looks temporarily good; Barksdale is a free agent after next season and Jake Long should be ready to play early in the season, possibly in game one. Saffold appears to be looking for greener pastures. Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl are prime candidates to get cut.
But enough doom and gloom. The draft is almost upon us and is full of promising offensive linemen itching to put on the horns. Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews are my personal favorites for our first pick. I'm a fan of the Jonathan Ogden Plan, where we'd draft Robinson or Matthews to play guard in year one; then we could slide whomever from left guard to right tackle after Barksdale departs for his big payday. We'd improve our running game between the tackles substantially, assuming we draft someone else to play right guard. I'd also advocate a change from Scott Wells at the center position, whether that comes in the form of Barrett Jones or a new draft pick.
Whatever we do needs to start with the offensive line. We'll never make headway in this division until we fill our offensive line with elite talent at two or three positions and solid-to-better talent at the other spots. The NFC West has too many outstanding defensive tackles, ends, and linebackers to get by with an average offensive line. Could we use Sammy Watkins? Sure. But he isn't the going to have as big of an impact as Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews. Not in this offense and not in this division.