Friday, September 10, 2010

The Rams Offensive Line...?

The dirty little question mark...

So I recently received a challenge note from a fellow Ram fan. He claimed I was being far too hard on Devaney, Shurmur and particularly the offensive line. He wanted to know if I had missed out on some key developments in the evolution of the offensive line, like the acquisitions of Jacob Bell, and Jason Brown, not to mention the drafting of Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold.

Regrettably, I did not not miss out on the key developments in the evolution of our offensive line. Perhaps my life would be better and happier if I had. Sadly, I know all about these things, as well as the dumping of Richie Icognito and Alex Barron; both moves I favored. In much knowledge is much sorrow...

The Challenger wanted to tell me I was wrong about the Rams' OL. You see, the Rams' OL has been 80% reconstructed over the course of the past 2 seasons. Jacob Bell is the only man left from the 2008 line. Ergo, I am wrong. The Rams have every chance of fielding a rock-hard offensive line in 2010. Devaney has done his due diligence, preparing a potentially strong line for Sam Bradford to operate behind.

This was his argument in a nutshell.

While the points regarding the offensive line moves are factually correct, the conclusion drawn from them is confounded by the video tape evidence. The Rams have made many, many moves on their offensive line over the past three years. Few, if any, seem to be bearing any fruit.

We need to remember that the Rams offensive line gave up more than 40 sacks in both 2008 and 2009. The Rams had a quarterback rotation by medical triage during these seasons. In preaseason 2010, they surrendered 6 sacks in the game against the Vikings, and Bradford was hit on almost every pass attempt during the Patriot game.

Where is the fruit of all this labor? To what factoid can I look for evidence that these moves are paying off?

With this as a backdrop, let us take a close look at the Rams offensive line, starter by starter. Let's look at the most most heavily scrutinized and suspect unit on the 2010 Rams' Roster. Let's go right to left, not left to right.

Right Tackle Jason Smith

At the Right Tackle position we find the #2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jason Smith. Jason is a 6-5 310 pounder who is athletic and lean. He is said to have a mean streak. I can't find that in him, or at least I couldn't in 2009. Of course, he only played half the year in 2009 due to a major concussion. This is trouble. If the Rams need to reach for a Mark Wallace cap and slap it on Jason's helmet, then so be it. Do whatever it takes to keep him in the lineup

The intriguing fact is that Jason was drafted to replace Orlando Pace at left tackle, but had wound up at the right. The Rams chose to start Alex Barron there last season. They seem to be settling on Rodger Saffold there this season. More about this in a moment...

At this moment in time, Jason Smith has not proven himself in the NFL. He has not validated the Rams' decision to select him with the #2 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Some have already called Jason Smith a bust, and the NFL's most over-paid player. I feel those statements are very premature. Still, Smith has a lot to prove in 2010. If he does prove himself, the Rams' OL will move a lot further along the road to respectability.

More about this soon.

Right Guard Adam Goldberg

At the Right Guard we find a journeyman Backup offensive tackle Adam Goldberg. Goldberg has spent most of the last three seasons filling in at various positions along the Rams offensive line. You might call him the 6th man. Whenever anyone gets injured, Adam gets the call; he's the first replacement in the game. He has played a lot of downs in the past three years. You might even describe him as a virtual starter. Now he will be a true starter. I trust Adam up to a point. I don't expect him to make the next several All-Pro teams, but he is a trustworthy dude at the right guard. The problem is that he won't stay there for long. The moment Jason Smith or Rodger Saffold go down, Goldberg will exit the right guard position and become the swing-tackle again. Who then shall be our right guard?

Center Jason Brown

At the center we find Pro-Bowler Jason Brown. This is the one move the Rams have made in the past two years that seems to be paying off. Brown missed a couple of games with a knee problem in 2009, but for the most part, he was very solid. I saw him win fights at the line of scrimmage against such super-luminaries as Albert Haynesworth. He gave up a couple of heinous sacks against the 49ers, but this had to due as much with organization and teamwork as anything else. I am satisfied that Jason Brown is as advertised.

Left Guard Jacob Bell

At the left guard we find Jacob Bell... My favorite. I have have slammed Jacob Bell quite a bit in the past two years. To me, he has looked like a GM error. The Rams acquired him as a free agent from the Titans for the princely sum of $36 million, and to this day, I don't know why. A few more bucks would have brought us Alan Faneca. Certainly, Alan would have been better. Jacob is basically a runty guard who doesn't have a lot of drive and power. I have not seen him win many fights at the line of scrimmage. I have not seen him pancake anyone in two seasons.

On the other hand, I have seen him suffer a lot of connective tissue injuries and come into camp under weight. You know what this means, right? Underweight, then subsequent connective tissue injuries? Bell is coming off both a torn hamstring and a knee surgery during this past off season. Bell has my sympathy for the pain he must be experiencing. These things hurt a lot. I know personally.

Still, I wonder whether we should expect more or less from Jacob in 2010? Less, I think. I question the organizations continued reliance upon him at right guard. Certainly, when Alan Faneca magically appeared on the market again this off-season, I would have claimed him off waivers immediately. That was a gift from God we spat upon. That pissed me off to no end.

Right Tackle Rodger Saffold

Finally, we have the rookie 2nd round pick from Indiana, Rodger Saffold. Saffold got some mixed reviews from an assortment of critics, but word on him is generally good.

Some questioned his origins at Indiana, a program not known for developing pro-prospects. Some questioned the nature and character of the back injury he suffered in college. Many say he is a beastly run blocker and road grater, but not such a brilliant pass protector.

Still, I heard other reports from Michigan and Ohio State alums that Saffold was the best offensive lineman in the Big-10 over the past 3 seasons. This would include Packer Rookie Brian Bulaga. Packer insiders claimed that the Pack was planning to select Saffold, but were surprised to find Bulaga still available when their number came up.

The truth be told, we have no idea how Rodger will turn out. We are at the dawning of his era, and we just don't have much evidence to look at yet. I myself have no feel at all for what he can do and cannot do at this moment in time. I am waiting to see him in action against starters through an entire game. We should call him the X-Man because he is the greatest unknown factor on the Rams offensive line going into 2010.

Strange Doings with the Tackles

As I mentioned earlier, when Jason Smith was selected, he was anointed the successor to Orlando Pace. Yet, Alex Barron wound up being the Left Tackle for 2009. This move was made because Barron was purportedly left-handed with a left-dominant step. Also, the Rams were not to keen on trying an untested rookie at the all-important LT position.

When Rodger Saffold was selected, he was immediately praised by Mike Mayock for his outstanding flexibility, and ability to play any position on the line (save center). He was immediately projected as the starting right tackle for the Rams, with Alex Smith flipping over to the left.

Well folks, history does not appear to be unfolding in this fashion. As of today, the Rams depth chart shows Jason Smith at the right and Rodger Saffold at the left.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe, maybe not. A team needs a good right tackle almost as much as it needs a good left tackle. Allowing Smith to continue at right creates a bit of continuity, and gives him a somewhat familiar place to play. Allowing Rodger Saffold to continue at left, where he played in college, prevents him going through the hard learning curve Smith went through last season.

You do have to wonder why they would trust Saffold at left this season, but not Smith last season... Was Alex Barron that good? Can it be that you just don't like your #2 pick from 2009? I heard rumors Devaney regretted passing on Dirty Sanchez. Is this also a rejection of the #2 pick overall in 2009?


The greatest concern of all, regarding this unit, is durability. For three straight years, the Rams offensive line has suffered copious quantities of injuries. All of the linemen from 2007 are now gone. All but one from 2008 is gone. Three of five return from 2009 season. Few, if any, have proven that they can stay healthy.

Years ago, former Ram corner Rod Perry told me that durability and dependebility is part of the basic job description of a Pro-Football player. To play pro-football, you must have a body that can endure the punishment of the sport. If you don't have a body that can withstand these blows, and still remain healthy enough to play, then you just aren't a Pro-Football players.

There you have it. Certainly this was my downfall as a player. I couldn't stay healthy, even on the Junior College level.

The greatest question mark regarding the Rams' offensive line is the durability and dependibility of these five starters. None of these men have proven that they can go 16 straight games without skipping a beat. If they can't make it for 16 games, neither can our quarterbacks (plural). If the Rams don't have men who can deliver 16 games, then they don't have real pro prospected on their offensive line.