Sometimes, the thing that you’re looking for is where you least expect it. Other times, the answer to a problem isn’t what you expected it to be. For the past four years, the Los Angeles Rams have been preparing Joseph Noteboom to be left tackle of the future for when Andrew Whitworth finally retired. That hasn’t necessarily gone according to plan to say the least.
Nobody could have anticipated Whitworth playing as long as he did. Last season, he became the oldest player ever to play the left tackle position. The Rams drafted Noteboom in 2018 with the idea that Whitworth would retire a year or two later. Instead, the veteran “bridge” left tackle played the entirety of Noteboom’s rookie contract.
As a spot starter, Noteboom played well. He started 11 games at left tackle in 2020 and 2021 and the Rams went 8-3 in those games. In two games at left tackle last season, Noteboom graded as the 16th best offensive tackle in the weeks that he played. More impressively, Noteboom started the NFC Divisional round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and gave up just one pressure the entire game.
Noteboom’s resume was enough for the Rams to give him a three year contract worth up to $40M. However, as was the case when the Rams relied on Noteboom as the full-time starting right guard in 2019, he underwhelmed.
In Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, Noteboom allowed eight pressures which led all offensive tackles in the NFL for the week according to Pro Football Focus. All eight of those pressures came in “true pass sets” which excludes plays with less than four rushers, play action, screens, short dropbacks and time-to-throws under 2 seconds.
The following week against the Atlanta Falcons, Noteboom again gave up three pressures which was tied for the sixth-most of that week in true pass sets. Noteboom’s best game this season came against the Arizona Cardinals. However, he again gave up the most pressures for the week in Week 4 against the San Francisco 49ers.
Noteboom’s 23 pressures allowed this season - 19 of which have come in true pass sets - are the second-most in the NFL.
It’s fair to note that the Rams starting left tackle had been playing on a strained MCL that he suffered against the Bills. However, that’s part of the risk that the Rams took when they decided to bring back Noteboom who has an injury history. He’s now lost for the season with a torn achilles.
While there wasn’t much of an alternative, it’s a risk that so far hasn’t panned out or paid off. Now, with Alaric Jackson playing like the best offensive lineman for the Rams, including playing solid last week at left tackle, it’s fair to wonder whether he should be the starting left tackle moving forward.
Jackson was brought in as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa. Even with Tristan Wirfs on the same roster, it was Jackson who played left tackle for the Hawkeyes. However, it was Wirfs who would get drafted in the first round while Jackson went undrafted due to poor footwork.
In his draft profile, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein noted,
“Poor footwork caused awkward exchanges and consistent issues with contact balance throughout his tape at Iowa, but he appeared to have made some adjustments and improvements by the time practices rolled around at the Senior Bowl. If he can clean up technique and footwork on a full-time basis, he has a chance to become an eventual starter at guard or tackle.”
As a rookie last season, Jackson got some action at left tackle in Week 16 against the Minnesota Vikings. He allowed just two pressures in that game - one in true pass sets. In his first live NFL game action, Jackson looked solid.
Matthew Stafford on Alaric Jackson's performance at LT vs. Vikings: "I thought he did a great job in both the run game and the pass game, just fighting." Also said Jackson was assignment-sound, praised his demeanor.— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) December 29, 2021
Jackson’s number has been called on once again this season. In Week 2 against the Falcons, Tremayne Anchrum fractured his tibia and was ruled out for the remainder of the year. Jackson stepped in at an unnatural position at right guard and filled in seamlessly.
Had to give AJ Jackson some love. Represented the 77 well.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakDTR) September 22, 2022
His hand usage is on display here as he stone walls Grady Jarrett. pic.twitter.com/m5PvOhYVBg
In his first action at right guard, Jackson stone-walled Grady Jarrett. The undrafted offensive lineman out of Iowa was one of just 11 guards for the week not to give up a single pressure. The following week against the Cardinals in his first career start, Jackson was the sixth-highest rated guard for the week on Pro Football Focus.
Jackson’s play went down the last two weeks with Jeremiah Kolone at center. However, his three pressures allowed against the San Francisco 49ers were tied for the fewest on the team. His lone bad game this season came against the Cowboys in which he was credited with seven pressures.
After Noteboom went down against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Jackson was again asked to step up. The Rams moved Jackson back to his natural position to take over at left tackle and he was flawless.
Jackson was the fourth-highest graded tackle on Pro Football Focus as he allowed zero pressures.
Alaric Jackson and Brian Burns just hanging out, having a beer together here. Perhaps we could do this more in practice! pic.twitter.com/oR2LxShxYs— Rams Brothers (@RamsBrothers) October 17, 2022
Brian Burns lined up outside the tackle on 50 snaps against the Rams. The Panthers top pass-rusher was credited with just one pressure which was a season-low. A lot of those snaps came against Jackson.
It might be too early to designate Jackson as the left tackle of the future. However, wherever the Rams have played him, he’s been a steady force and most importantly, he’s stayed healthy.
When it comes to the current state of the Rams offensive line, steady and consistency is exactly what they need. That’s exactly what Jackson has brought since he’s stepped in.
It’s also worth noting that playing next to Jackson, Bobby Evans had the best game of his career last week at left guard. Evans gave up just one pressure which is the fewest that he’s given up in a single game since 2019.
Some of that could be playing against the Panthers, but over the last few seasons, Evans hasn’t looked good no matter who the opponent was. Good offensive linemen allow other players around them to play better.
This was the case with Whitworth.
Ever since Whitworth retired, the Rams have been looking at how they can replace him. It was thought that it might be Noteboom after the team invested four years into his development. However, it might have been another “77” - Alaric Jackson - that the team was looking for all along.
Unless the Rams make a move, it looks like Jackson will be the starting left tackle for the rest of the season barring a trade. If he plays well, he can certainly win the starting role going forward. He’ll have a big test next week when the Rams take on the 49ers.