Last year:2012 came and went without a chance to really get to know the Rams‘ offensive line. Injuries kept players moving through the five starting positions like musical chairs. As a result, folks tended to be all across the board when it came to assessing how the hodgepodge played as a whole. Ten different players started at least one game.
ProFootballFocus ranked the unit No. 26 out of 32 teams, seventh worst in the NFL. FootballOutsiders gave the Rams more credit: 14th in run blocking and 13th in pass blocking. But the stat that jumped out to everyone was the number of times Sam Bradford got sacked: 35. That was 20 fewer times than in 2011.
Coach: Paul Boudreau has coached NFL offensive linemen for eight teams since 1987, and this is the second year of his second stint in St. Louis. Credit Boudreau for switching and swapping the moving parts of last year’s line. Also credit him for playing a role in the signing of free agent left tackle Jake Long this offseason. When Long visited St. Louis, Boudreau showed him game tape of left tackle Orlando Pace, one of the greatest Rams offensive linemen of all time, and pointed out ways Long could improve.
1. Can the big boys stay healthy?
This question should keep Rams fans up at night, because here’s the injury rundown on their four best 2013 linemen:
Center Scott Wells (seven starts in 2012) returns after breaking a foot and re-injuring a knee. Right guard Harvey Dahl (14 starts) is back from a torn bicep. Long (12 starts) sat out the end of last year in Miami with a torn tricep. And Rodger Saffold (10 starts), who will start at right tackle for the first time in his career thanks to the addition of Long, hurt his neck and knee last season.
2. Who claims left guard?
Every spot on the line has an obvious starter except for left guard. Look for someone to emerge when training camp begins. Contenders include veterans Chris Williams and Shelly Smith, along with Rokevious Watkins, a second-year player who is already at a disadvantage thanks to a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has publicly disagreed with the ruling, but Watkins will not play Sept. 8.
3. How will the unit handle a more agile offense?
According to FootballOutsiders, 45 percent of the Rams’ running plays went straight up the middle or between the center and a guard. Just 16 percent went around the right or left ends. Those numbers can be credited to Steven Jackson, the hard-running bruiser who will now be bowling people over in Atlanta.
This season brings a retooled offense with a backfield that, while unproven, is faster and lighter. If the Rams want to make effective use of the speed of Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and even Tavon Austin (who took reps in the backfield during organized team activities), the line must execute blocking assignments that allow for more side-to-side action. And Bradford needs last year’s improvement in pass blocking to continue. He has new targets such as Austin and tight end Jared Cook to throw to, and he’ll look for them often, preferably from a protected pocket.
Quote: “You try to find five guys who can work together and get chemistry. Then you try to find the sixth guy and then the seventh guy, in case of emergency. And you go with those guys. In our situation, we are trying to put five pieces together so Sam doesn’t have the kind of year he had his rookie year, his second year.” — Boudreau
What others are saying: “It’s either feast or famine with these guys. If the five starters stay healthy, the Rams could have one of the league’s best units — with Jake Long, Harvey Dahl, Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold protecting Bradford. One problem: None of them played 16 games last year. The Rams are expecting a lot from their offensive line, but there’s danger with age — and of the Rams’ three players 30 or older, two are on the offensive line.” — Clark Judge, NFL Writer for CBS Sports
Bottom line: It’s crazy to think this line will go through an entire season without some bangs and bruises. But if the team can fend off the biggest, nastiest injuries, the Rams should be above average thanks to some stability and the addition of Long.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.