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St. Louis Rams' Off Season Primer: The Offensive Line

The 2014 NFL Draft is still many months away. With the Rams out of playoff contention, thoughts begin to turn towards the off season, particularly the NFL Draft. The Rams will have many difficult decisions to make between now and May. Many of those decisions are in regards to the offensive line. What will the Rams attempt to accomplish between now and May? How will the moves made before the draft influence their selections come draft time? Part two - of an eight-part off season primer series - examines the many questions surrounding the offensive line.

Dilip Vishwanat

As the 2013 NFL regular season winds down, thoughts begin to focus on the off season, particularly the 2014 NFL Draft. Seven round St. Louis Rams mocks are appearing with greater frequency. The majority of these mocks are well thought-out, and reflect the Rams' perceived needs. Therein lies the rub. What will the Rams' needs be come May?

In part one of the off season primer series, I examined the Rams' 2014 salary cap situation and potential cap casualties. Another important area to analyze - in determining the Rams' needs going into the 2014 NFL Draft - is the offensive line. It may be the most important - and difficult - area for the Rams to deal with this off season.

The accompanying chart presents the Rams' offensive line depth chart heading into the 2013-14 off season:

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 depth chart includes players currently on the 53 man roster, injured reserve, and the practice squad.

Off Season Uncertainty

Many uncertainties surround the Rams' offensive line heading into the off season. Difficult decisions will need to be made. Decisions that will have an impact on the Rams' 2014 draft. The end result is likely to be a 2014 offensive line that's dramatically different in composition than the 2013 version.

Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, and Tim Barnes all become free agents this year. Rodger Saffold may hold the key to how the Rams' entire off season unfolds. Saffold will command 6-7 million per year as a free agent. Will the Rams be able to re-sign him, given their tight cap space situation? Will other teams be willing to overpay for his services, despite his injury history? Can Saffold thrive as a guard, and be worth the price due to his versatility? The other three pending free agents have shown no better than average abilities. All three are better suited as back ups. Losing all three could create a serious depth problem for the interior line. An upgrade at left guard should be a priority for the Rams in the off season.

Joe Barksdale has proven to be an adequate replacement for Rodger Saffold at right tackle. He has consistently been one of the better offensive linemen for the Rams throughout the 2013 season. Barksdale has one year remaining on his initial rookie contract. He becomes a free agent after the 2014 season. If he continues to improve next season, the Rams could end up in the same contractual situation they currently have with Rodger Saffold. The Rams will likely consider an extension for Barksdale in the coming months.

Sean Hooey, Brandon Washington, and Mike Person have done little to distinguish themselves this season. They appear to be nothing more than back ups/practice squad material. None of the three are likely to factor into the Rams' long-term plans.

Jake Long has played very well and is entrenched at left tackle. Barrett Jones? Next season's starting center, or a valuable back up across the line? Irrespective, he will be an integral part of the unit for many years.

As noted in part one of the off season primer series (link), both Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells may become salary cap casualties this off season. Age, declining skills, injury issues and big cap hits could spell the end of their tenures with the Rams.

Given all the uncertainty - and potential for a 75% turnover in offensive line personnel - it's imperative the Rams place great importance on resolving the many issues, through free agency and the 2014 NFL Draft. It could take many months to develop an accurate assessment of the Rams' needs heading into the draft.

Off Season Case Study

Given all the moving parts and uncertainties surrounding the offensive line this off season, predicting what will occur is extremely difficult. The following is a possible scenario/example that potentially resolves all of the uncertainties, and forms the basis for further discussion:

  • The Rams release Harvey Dahl, Scott Wells, Brandon Washington, Mike Person and Sean Hooey.
  • St. Louis re-signs Rodger Saffold to a 5 year contract for 30-32.5 million. Saffold would be worth paying a premium for (if necessary) because of his versatility across the line. His signing precludes the Rams having to sign multiple players in his place.
  • Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, and Tim Barnes are not re-signed as free agents.
  • The Rams sign free agent center Alex Mack [Cleveland Browns] to a 5 year contract for 30 million.
  • In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Rams acquire multiple picks by trading down the Washington pick twice in the first round [while still retaining 2 first round picks in the process]. The Rams select Guard Gabe Jackson of Mississippi State in the second round, Tackle/Guard La'el Collins of LSU in the second round, and Guard Spencer Long of Nebraska in the fifth round. In my trade-down scenarios the Rams will have 3 premium picks remaining - both first round selections plus another second round pick - to address other areas [WR, DT, CB, S].
  • To accommodate the signings financially, the Rams create additional cap space by restructuring James Laurinaitis' contract, and releasing Cortland Finnegan. The combined effect of releasing Finnegan, Dahl, and Wells - and restructuring Laurinaitis - would be the creation of approximately 20 million in salary cap space, with 13 million of that amount available to sign Saffold and Mack.
  • The Rams are essentially trading the 2013 cap hits of Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, and Rodger Saffold for the 2014 cap hits of Alex Mack and Rodger Saffold, while devoting draft capital in the second round (twice) and fifth round to further address the offensive line. This scenario involves the Rams remaining in a tight cap space situation throughout 2014.

The accompanying chart presents the Rams' offensive line depth chart after the off season transactions and draft choices:

Center Alex Mack Barrett Jones
Guard Gabe Jackson Spencer Long
Guard Rodger Saffold
Tackle Joe Barksdale La'el Collins
Tackle Jake Long

As part of an alternate solution, the Rams could forgo signing Alex Mack, and instead trust the center position to Barrett Jones and Tim Barnes, at a fraction of the cost. There are a myriad of possibilities that exist, each with its own opportunity cost. This case study is but one of the many possibilities. What could a dominant offensive line mean to the Rams offense in 2014...and beyond?

Drafting An Offensive Lineman In The First Round?

It's a well-known fact that Jeff Fisher - in 18 full seasons as a head coach - has never selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft. His draft history indicates a pattern of selecting offensive linemen in later rounds and developing them. Is that enough evidence to suggest a set-in-stone draft philosophy, or was it merely happenstance? The answer is likely a bit of both.

When asked - in February of 2012 - about drafting offensive linemen in the first round, Fisher commented on his 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."

Jeff Fisher's draft philosophy - with respect to offensive linemen - could play an important role in the Rams' off season and 2014 NFL Draft.

Off Season Primer Series

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