Had we polled Los Angeles Rams fans a month ago, a majority would have likely indicated that the top roster gap heading out of 2019 would be the offensive line. That’s especially true given that a month ago, we were reeling from the aftermath of the Rams’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10 in which Joey the Jerk was largely panned for giving the offensive line a paltry “D” in his report card.
The last month though has certainly changed things.
In that loss to Pittsburgh, the Rams lost RT Rob Havenstein and C Brian Allen to injury forcing yet another change after having lost LG Joseph Noteboom to injury back in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Rams’ only starter from Week 1 still in place is LT Andrew Whitworth. OL Austin Blythe moved from right guard to center to replace Allen. Rookie OL David Edwards switched from left guard over to the right side with Austin Corbett, acquired via trade, coming in at left guard. Rookie Bobby Evans who was absolutely miserable in the preseason got the nod at right tackle.
Facing the Chicago Bears and EDGE Khalil Mack, Rams fans were extremely concerned heading into Week 11.
But the line held firm.
And has ever since.
Consider using our game report cards as a simple metric.
Sure, that F against the Baltimore Ravens stands out in the second group. But that’s the point. What became a cudgel for Jared Goff protectionists and non-Goff stans alike became a non-excuse. The Rams’ line wasn’t holding the offense back.
And now the Rams are in a peculiar space. The plan they had for the line, and some key members of it, failed. Plan B has worked spectacularly.
And between the return of Havenstein and the decisions looming after the season, the Rams will have to confront the consequences of that schism.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Rams are afforded the first of many reckonings on the consequences of how the decisions on the line have played out in the form of Havenstein’s return which may be as early as this week. It’s a difficult decision on its own and carries even more weight for the potential precedent it might insinuate moving forward.
The crux of the decision boils down to this. Should the Rams ride the hot hand in the line as it stands with Evans at right tackle or returned to their presumed RT1 who signed a contract extension last August that keeps him a Ram through 2022?
There are obvious and supportable arguments for both. Those who would keep things as is simply need point at the last four performances and those that preceded them. Blythe’s existence on the line itself is largely due to a two-game audition he had to begin 2018 in place of OL Jamon Brown that went well enough that the Rams opted to roll with Blythe. The results were, overall, fantastic. On the other hand, Jamon Brown isn’t Rob Havenstein. After three seasons, the Rams rewarded Hav handsomely and saw him perhaps put in the best season of his career last year. He’s been a very good right tackle in the NFL (hence the extension) despite his struggles in 2019. Might he deserve his job back just like LB Mark Barron last year who missed the first four games while ILB Ramik Wilson filled in? There was certainly nothing broken with the inside linebacking group in 2018, but Barron was handed his job back in Week 5 without argument. For those who dismiss that kind of decision, I’d offer another to consider in the form of S John Johnson III. The 2019 defense has been spectacular and the safety grouping of S Eric Weddle, S Taylor Rapp and S Marqui Christian have certainly been a central part of that. Weddle’s a cap casualty candidate, and Christian is schedule to be an undrafted free agent. But should the Rams keep the band together if they continue to crank out the hits? Isn’t that the exact argument for keeping Evans in the starting rotation?
Making things more difficult is the same decision paradigm applied to the returning members of the line in the offseason.
Noteboom and Allen will both get healthy in the offseason. As we get into organized team activities and then head toward training camp and the preseason next year, we’re going to get the Rams’ early 2019 starters back. Should they get their jobs back?
I’m not advocating for one decision or the other, nor am I suggesting that we should have blanket applications of the logic irrespective of position, performance or any of the other complicating factors at work.
But we should be able to acknowledge that and recognize that getting these decisions right will be crucial to the Rams’ stretch run this season and to improving the offense in 2020 and beyond. The Rams’ early season struggles only reinforce that.
There’s also another aspect though that has changed the outputs on the line that are impossible to nail down the magnitude of as much because of the personnel changes. And assuming this aspect is in place next year, that will also be as crucial a part of the decision as the player selections themselves.
The Kromer Effect
Before the season started, I had an offensive line performance regression as my third most glaring concern. Part of the reason was the return of 60% of the five-man starting unit, but part of it also was a faith in Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Co-Offensive Coordinator Aaron Kromer.
He had clearly earned that kind of praise given what he had done in his first two years on the Rams’ coaching staff under Head Coach Sean McVay. He worked with the 2017 line and helped ensure their contributions to the 2017 offensive turnaround. And a year later, he helped guide the Rams to the single best season for a Rams offensive line in my memory. Yes, the health of those two lines were paramount. But we’ve seen healthy Rams lines underperform. Health alone wasn’t the reason for the Rams’ success on the O-line.
So I had faith that even if the Rams’ new-look line struggled, and it did, Kromer could help figure it out. And he has. Albeit with numerous and significant personnel changes.
Which begs the question.
What if the Rams hadn’t lost Noteboom, Allen and Havenstein to injury? What if Kromer had been able to iron things out with that group?
Long the bedrock of the line who helped pioneer the turnaround, Whitworth was a symbol of the 2019 line’s regression along with Havenstein. Veterans who were obviously talented enough and (and certainly in Big Whit’s case...) experienced enough to perform better...well, weren’t. Hav was as much a part of the struggles of the early 2019 line as anyone:
#LARams Andrew Whitworth's Pass Blocking has really bounced back in recent weeks, following an uncharacteristically slow start to the season— PFF LA Rams (@PFF_Rams) December 10, 2019
Pass Blocking Grades and OL Rank (min. 350 snaps):
First 6 Games - 74.4 (34th)
Last 7 Games - 88.2 (T-4th) pic.twitter.com/VqwmLCGoyO
Whit, like the line as a whole, has ironed it out. Which is a case for the youngsters in Noteboom and Allen and, more immediately, Hav who is hardly afforded the protection of a rookie or redshirt second-year greenhorns like Noteboom and Allen. If Whit for all his talent and wisdom and character could have a rough go of it early and straighten it out, why not Noteboom and Allen?
And why wouldn’t Kromer have earned the benefit of the doubt to have been able to oversee that effort successfully?
Personnel & position outlook
The Rams only have Havenstein’s return to shake things up in the immediate future. Beyond that, they have significant decisions to make. The Rams have nine offensive linemen under contract next year who have taken snaps on the line this year. They have two more in Whitworth and Blythe whose contracts end in three months’ time.
Here’s the individual and collective outlook moving forward:
LT Andrew Whitworth
This is likely his swan song. He’s in Year 14 and about to turn 38-years old...tomorrow. Honestly, he’s earned retirement. But his departure creates perhaps the most important unanswered question moving forward...
Who is the left tackle protecting franchise QB Jared Goff in 2020?
RT Rob Havenstein
The other bookend, Havenstein was a strongpoint until 2019. He, like Whit, didn’t have a great early go prior to his injury.
As we discussed on the last episode of Turf Show Radio and to be covered in an upcoming discussion from Sosa, Havenstein might find himself on the outside looking in despite the recent extension. Could that invite inspections into the trade market? Or does he get back into the mix and re-establish himself? Or does he offer a position switch for Kromer as he remakes the line for 2020?
OL Austin Blythe
Blythe is a free agent after 2019. He swapped in for Brown early in 2018 and hasn’t looked back despite a position switch from right guard to center. Is he in the plans for the future O-line build? How much of that is down to his play over these next three games?
OT Bobby Evans/OL David Edwards
Both were midseason inclusions. Both have contributed to the turnaround. Both will face challenges for their spots in 2020.
OL Joseph Noteboom/C Brian Allen
Both were redshirted as freshmen in 2018. Neither was clean enough in 2019 to warrant automatic inclusion in 2020. How does the staff parse their return?
OL Austin Corbett
Maybe the most surprising story of the Rams’ 2019 construction, here’s a castaway from the Cleveland Browns who arrived only to be relegated to the non-playing depth chart before finding himself firmly in the action. How does he factor in beyond 2019? Does it depend on these next three performances?
OL Jamil Demby/OL Chandler Brewer
Both have seen time this year, but both are at the back of the O-line depth. They’re going to have to fend off any potential newcomers next year.
That’s nearly 1,700 words on the state of the O-line.
Suffice to say...it’s complicated.
I started thinking about these complications going into the bye. But given how uncomfortable the state of affairs was at the time and then coming out of it against Pittsburgh, any analysis of the line deserved to wait until after the season for more comprehensive review and restaffing. But the restaffing took place early. And then the performances changed.
And now, we’re left with perhaps the biggest question that bridges the 2019 and 2020 seasons given what we already know about the roster heading into next year and what’s left to be determined...
The hell we gonna do on the line?