Entering the 2014 regular season, the Rams' offensive line looked awfully good on paper. Although the Rams lost Shelley Smith, Chris Williams, and Harvey Dahl in the offseason, the additions of free agent guard Davin Joseph and 2014 2nd overall draft pick Greg Robinson were expected to be an upgrade of the offensive line. Rodger Saffold was re-signed to play guard. Jake Long and Scott Wells appeared fully recovered from season-ending injuries in 2013. Joe Barksdale was a pleasant surprise at RT in 2013, and figured to improve on his performance this season. Barrett Jones was expected to contribute this season, after spending all of 2013 recovering from a Lisfranc injury. On the surface, the Rams' offensive line had the potential to be a top-ten unit.
What looked "good on paper" still left many leery. Why? Because a word was missing from the phrase. It should have read "good on rice paper". For the offensive line exhibits a pair of qualities inherent to rice paper: Thin and fragile. Heading into the regular season, there were concerns regarding the fragility of starters Scott Wells, Jake Long, and Rodger Saffold. Saffold has missed 17 games in the past three seasons with various injuries. Since becoming a St. Louis Ram in 2012, Wells has missed 13 games due to injuries. Long tore his ACL late in 2013, and has endured many significant injuries in the past three seasons. The Rams also began the season with issues regarding depth across the entire line. Barrett Jones, Mike Person, and Tim Barnes have seen very little playing time in their short NFL careers. Joseph is a former Pro Bowler, but had not returned to form after tearing his patellar tendon in 2012.
Seems to me you can't hand out grades without some sort of descriptive scale. It lets everyone know what each grade actually means.
A+ All Pro A Excellent A- Very Good B+ Above Average B Average B- Below Average C+ Serviceable C Minimal Impact C- Backup Only D Poor
Wells is nearing the end of his NFL career. He's 33 years old, and injuries have taken their toll on his body. To make matters worse, an unusual illness suffered before training camp shortened his preparation time for the 2014 regular season. Wells has been banged-up at times this season, although he has yet to miss an entire game. His performance this season has been hindered by inconsistent guard play. Unable to generate much of a push in the running game, Wells has also allowed 17 QB pressures, most of any NFL center this season. Wells could be a 2015 salary cap casualty.
When the Rams re-signed Saffold during the offseason, they believed he could develop into an All-Pro guard. While he's shown flashes of that type of ability at times, for the most part Saffold's play has been no better than average. Certainly not the dominant player the Rams had envisioned. Saffold's been able to stay on the field, playing in all 8 games this season. Perhaps Saffold will increase his productivity as he becomes more accustomed to the guard position. He appears to be more comfortable at RG than LG, and helped form a strong right side when paired with Joe Barksdale.
Joseph started at RG in the Rams' first four games. Greg Robinson was inserted into the starting line-up in the 5'th game, relegating Joseph to the bench for the next three games. He returned to the starting line-up for the 49ers game, when Robinson shifted over to LT to replace the injured Jake Long. Joseph has been over-matched in all of his starts - save Sunday's game against the 49ers - and has proven to be nothing more than a backup, given his performance to-date. Joseph is a free agent in 2015, and will not be re-signed by the Rams.
Barksdale has been the Rams' most consistently effective offensive lineman this season. He has struggled in pass protection in the Rams' last two games. Aside from that, he's been rock-solid. Barksdale is a free agent in 2015, and is at the top of the list of players the Rams should be looking to re-sign in the coming offseason.
Jake Long's career may be over. That's the stark reality for a player who's endured two ACL tears in as many seasons, the latest in Week 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Long had achieved mixed results this season. At times it looked like he'd regained pre-injury form. At other times, Long looked sluggish, with reduced lateral mobility. Greg Robinson will likely remain entrenched at LT going forward. If the Rams re-sign Joe Barksdale, Long could become a salary cap casualty, with the Rams gaining $8 million in cap relief for 2015 alone.
Robinson made his NFL debut - at left guard - in the Rams' fifth game of the season. After Jake Long went down with a season-ending injury, Robinson slid over to LT, his natural position (and the one he was drafted for). Robinson is already showing signs of why he was selected number 2 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. He'll make some rookie mistakes and have some growing pains, but I sure wouldn't want him coming at me at full speed. A monster blocker and future Pro Bowler/All-Pro.
The four backups have seen virtually zero playing time this season, and have accumulated little in the way of in-game experience in their short careers. The grade could be "Incomplete" for each of them. The grade given reflects the perceived quality of depth they provide, irrespective of experience.
Overall Unit Grade: C+
The Rams' offensive line has been a disappointment thus far in 2014. Rams QB's have been sacked 24 times (tied for 5th-worst in the league). The running backs have averaged 4.0 YPC (tied for 20th in the NFL), a mediocre result. A line that looked very good on paper before the season started (with reservations), has delivered below-average results at best. They're no better than a serviceable unit at this point in the season.
Pro Football Focus Grades
To lend a different perspective, I asked OakCityRam to contribute a compilation of midseason Pro Football Focus grades for each offensive lineman. Although PFF grades have their shortcomings and are quite subjective, they do offer a unique perspective, and are a valuable tool for analyzing individual player performance, especially when used in conjunction with other statistics. A positive grade reflects better-than-average results. A negative grade reflects worse-than-average results.
The six players listed have accumulated the lion's share of snaps this season. The 4 remaining offensive linemens' grades/snaps to-date: Barrett Jones (plus .6 - 23 snaps), Brandon Washington (has not played), Mike Person (plus 1.0 - 27 snaps), and Tim Barnes (minus .5 - 6 snaps).
Player Grade Joe Barksdale 1.4 Rodger Saffold -1.2 Greg Robinson -1.5 Jake Long -1.5 Davin Joseph -9.7 Scott Wells -14.5
Second Half Outlook
The loss of Jake Long for the remainder of the season leaves this unit weaker and very thin. Robinson will have some growing pains, especially in pass protection, but should ably fill Jake Long's shoes as he gains more in-game experience. The interior offensive line is vulnerable to inside pressure with Wells and Joseph lining up side-by-side. The four backups have relatively little experience. If the line encounters further injuries, it could be catastrophic for the Rams offense, which has only scored 20 points in the last two games combined.
The offensive line - as a group - have struggled in pass protection, leaving QB Austin Davis scrambling for his life. Davis has been pressured on 41.3 % of his drop-backs this season, the third-highest rate among regular starting quarterbacks. Let's keep our fingers crossed, in the hopes we don't see a repeat of the Kansas City game, where three starting offensive linemen were injured and had to leave the game.
Despite some outstanding defensive performances against the 49ers last weekend, Jeff Fisher gave the game ball to the offensive line:
"Just because of what they endured last week. With the changes that took place in the Kansas City game, the fact that we weren’t quite sure as to who was going to be able to come back. ... They all came back from last week."
Beyond This Season
The offensive line should be the Rams' Number 1 priority this coming offseason. Five offensive linemen - Barnes, Person, Washington, Barksdale, and Joseph - are eligible for free agency in 2015. Wells and Long could become salary cap casualties. The Rams gambled by choosing to build the offensive line through free agency instead of the NFL Draft. Clearly this was a strategic mistake made by the Rams' front office, one they've finally begun to rectify with the selection of Greg Robinson in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The Rams need to invest multiple draft picks on the offensive line come April. They should just use Jerry Jones' blueprint. Re-signing Joe Barksdale and Tim Barnes should be offseason priorities. The only two free agents I would consider signing? Guard Mike Iupati (27) of the San Francisco 49ers and C/G Stefen Wisniewski (25) of the Oakland Raiders. Iupati would look real nice in horns, and weaken an arch-rivals' line at the same time. I'm tired of watching the Rams sign older, expensive, injury-prone offensive linemen. They must be young, effective, and healthy; if they don't meet those criteria, the Rams shouldn't waste a penny on them.