The Los Angeles Rams could lose as many as three key contributors on their offensive line to free agency in 2022 - Brian Allen (C), Austin Corbett (G), and Joseph Noteboom (T) - but they need to retain at least two of these individuals if the team hopes to successfully defend its title of Super Bowl champions.
The last time the Rams appeared in the Super Bowl, it seemed Los Angeles was set to become the NFL’s next great dynasty. Sean McVay was the youngest coach in the history of the league. Jared Goff led a high-flying passing offense that few teams could slow down. LA also had a vaunted defense with Aaron Donald, Marcus Peters, and one of the best defensive coordinators to step foot on the sidelines - Wade Phillips.
But things fell apart for the Rams in 2019, and a big reason for the step back was regression along the offensive line.
The #Rams offensive line will look a lot different next season, but behind the scenes last year there was a ton of confidence in rookies Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen as starting players. #Rams expect them to be ready to go as replacements for Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan— Vincent Bonsignore (@VinnyBonsignore) March 12, 2019
Center John Sullivan came over with McVay from Washington, and for the most part he played well in his two seasons with the Rams. He showed his age, 34 at the time, during the team’s 2018 playoff run. Sullivan was a liability in Super Bowl LIII versus the New England Patriots, as the vast majority of New England’s pressure came from the interior of LA’s offensive line. Los Angeles declined Sullivan’s contract option to make him an unrestricted free agent ahead of the 2019 season and he never returned. Instead, the Rams turned to second-year center Brian Allen who struggled in his first year as a full-time starter and suffered a season-ending injury less than halfway into the campaign.
Roger Saffold also left the team following the 2018 season, signing with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent. Saffold has maintained his high level of play with the Titans, and the Rams sorely missed his power in the running game and his athleticism to get downfield on long runs and for screens. LA attempted to replace Saffold with second-year T/G Joseph Noteboom, but Noteboom struggled early and then suffered a season-ending injury like Allen.
When Allen was injured the Rams were forced to shift right guard Austin Blythe inside to center, and then LA started rookie David Edwards in Blythe’s former spot. Edwards was a late fifth round draft selection out of Wisconsin, and he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the 2022 season.
To add on to the chaos, right tackle Rob Havenstein suffered a season-ending injury after nine games - forcing the Rams to turn to third round rookie Bobby Evans for the second half of the season. Evans played well in Havenstein’s absence, but he required a lot of help from tight ends and running backs in pass protection. The Rams also grew heavily reliant on designed rollouts to move Goff out of the pocket and avoid pressure.
The 2019 offseason should be a cautionary tale for the 2022 Rams. Not only does LA need to retain key contributors on the offensive line, but they need to continue to reload and add talent because injuries and adversity are destined to happen. It’s extremely rare for things to go according to plan in the NFL, but diligent preparation will bring fortune to the side of Los Angeles.
The first step in building the 2022 offensive line is retaining at least two of the three key free agents - Allen, Corbett, or Noteboom.
Allen seems to be the most significant priority, only because there are no valid alternatives currently on the roster should Allen leave in free agency. Yes, the team has Coleman Shelton who played most of the Week 13 contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars after Allen was injured on the first play; however, as we saw in 2019 it’s not enough to rely on an unproven player. If Allen signs elsewhere, the Rams would have to make a sizeable investment in the center position either in free agency or the draft - and the marginal cost savings in not keeping Allen likely won’t outweigh the benefit of having a proven commodity in the middle of the OL for the foreseeable future.
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Andrew Whitworth has yet to decide on whether he will return for the 2022 season, but for the purposes of this exercise we will assume he retires. This would pencil in Noteboom as LA’s starting left tackle, if it weren’t for his expired contract and pending free agency. The Rams also have Alaric Jackson, an undrafted free agent that started in Whitworth and Noteboom’s absence during the two week stretch where LA was battling a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Rams should retain Noteboom, though it’s likely his price tag is north of $10M per year. NFL teams consider left tackle a premium position, which in turn means finding a replacement will also be costly. Los Angeles has spent the last four seasons developing the young tackle, and he’s filled in admirably for Whitworth when needed. Les Snead revealed in his press conference previewing the offseason this week that ”a lot of teams tried to trade for (Noteboom)”, but the Rams valued him too much to make a move.
And this brings us to Corbett, who I think the Rams should let walk in free agency. It’s not that he’s a lesser player than either Allen or Noteboom, because he might not be. It’s that right guards are easier to replace than centers and left tackles, and Corbett’s replacement could realistically be on the Rams’ roster already.
LA planned for Bobby Evans to start at right guard heading into the 2021 season (Corbett entered training camp as the team’s starting center). Could Evans be ready for this role with another year of development under his belt?
Los Angeles also has Tremayne Anchrum who is entering his third year with the team. Anchrum was a late draft pick out of Clemson, but he’s played well in limited action - including the 2021 preseason.
The Rams could also acquire an affordable guard in either free agency or the draft - and it’s easier to find these players on the cheap than it is centers and left tackles. Often times identifying a guard is a matter of scheme fit - and the Rams need someone who is suited for McVay’s zone blocking scheme. Not every team values this trait in offensive linemen, which creates inefficiencies in the market. When other teams are looking for big, strong OL capable of blocking man-to-man, LA may zag and seek out more agile linemen that can get downfield and make it out to the perimeter.
The NFL free agency period begins on March 16, and we may have a better idea by then how the Rams plan to build the offensive line for 2022. Could Andrew Whitworth return to the team for one more season, or will the Rams feel it is necessary to retain Joseph Noteboom? Does the team feel it is vital to return starters Brian Allen and Austin Corbett in an effort to “run it back”? Will the cautionary tale of the 2019 free agency period re-shape how LA approaches this offseason?
We could have answers to these questions in as soon as two weeks.