Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Rams Training Camp Countdown: Evaluating the Offensive Tackles

Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the offensive tackles.

Assuming health, the Rams’ personnel at the offensive tackle position should be exactly the same as it was in 2013, with Jake Long at left tackle and Joe Barksdale on the right side. Of course, that assumption isn’t 100 percent safe due to the torn ACL that Long suffered in the Rams’ home finale last season. The injury seemed to be a rather severe tear, but by all accounts Long is progressing nicely and participated in individual drills during OTAs.

Having the 29-year-old Long in the lineup will be a huge factor for the Rams this year, as he’s still one of the better left tackles in the league and an imposing physical presence at 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds. Despite some struggles early on in his first season as a Ram, including a disastrous performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3, Long had a very successful 2013 season. He was ranked the seventh-best left tackle in the NFL during 2013 by Pro Football Focus and finished with the second-best run blocking grade of any tackle, finishing only behind San Diego’s King Dunlap. The Rams will be hoping that the effects from the injury don’t hold Long back too much this season, as he’ll be invaluable in their quest to create a dominant running attack.

Barksdale will man the right side after breaking out there last year following an injury to the incumbent Rodger Saffold, who was later moved inside to guard following Barksdale’s emergence. Barksdale, the former third-rounder from LSU who came to the Rams in a waiver claim from the Oakland Raiders in 2012, really showed his ability in Week 6 against superstar Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, causing him to have one of the worst games of his career and holding him without any tackles. It was only the second time in Watt’s career, and first since his rookie year in 2011, that he had failed to record a tackle in a game.

Barksdale still needs to work on his run blocking skills a bit, but he was an exceptional pass blocker in his first year as a full-time starter, being rated as the eighth-best pass-blocking right tackle in the league according to PFF. With as well as he performed in his first year as a starter, he has the potential to become one of the best right tackles in the league. Just as a point of reference for how good of a find Barksdale was as a waiver claim, consider this: Barksdale received a 12.2 overall grade from PFF in his first year as a right tackle. Conversely, the number one pick in last year’s draft, the Chiefs’ Eric Fisher, finished with a -17.8 grade. Of course, the PFF grades aren’t without flaw, but they’re a generally reliable system for evaluating linemen, and by those standards, Barksdale was the league’s 25th-best tackle, while Fisher was 70th-best. It will be up to Barksdale to make sure he takes a step forward in 2014 and really begins to establish himself. The pressure will certainly be on, as the Rams have number two overall selection Greg Robinson, who played tackle at Auburn, waiting in the wings at left guard.

If the Rams were to have to begin the season without Long, Saffold would likely move from right guard to left tackle in the short term. The team practiced with that arrangement on the final day of OTAs, with veteran guard Davin Joseph taking over Saffold’s position. Robinson could also be considered as a replacement at tackle if the Rams were able to suffer multiple injuries on the line, but for now it seems that the coaching staff is more concerned with letting him get used to playing guard rather than stressing him out by having him move around.

Beyond those players, the Rams have Sean Hooey, Mike Person, Mitchell Van Dyk, and Abasi Salimu competing for possible spots on the 53-man roster or practice squad as extra depth. Hooey figures to have a decent shot at making the roster this year, having gained a year of experience in the Rams’ system last year on the practice squad. The 6-foot-9, 325-pounder has very intriguing size, and he seems to be a guy that the Rams have interest in continuing to develop and possibly turning into a starter down the road. Hooey got plenty of work during OTAs filling in for Long while the coaching staff allowed Saffold and Robinson to get reps at the guard positions they’re projected to begin the season at.

Person, who was picked up off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks early last year and remained on the 53-man roster for the rest of the year as a healthy scratch on gamedays, is likely battling with Hooey for a spot on the 53-man during training camp. He’s a bit undersized for a tackle at 6-foot-4 and 299 pounds, but the Rams obviously were intrigued enough by his skills that they kept him around for the entire season. It should be interesting to get a look at him during training camp and especially the preseason, when he puts on a Rams game jersey for the first time.

Van Dyk, a massive physical presence at 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds who the Rams took with the first of their four seventh-round picks, seems destined to fill the role Hooey occupied in 2013 as a developmental tackle on the practice squad. However, if the Portland State product puts in good work in the weight room and impresses enough in training camp, perhaps he could jump ahead of Person and Hooey on the depth chart and make the roster immediately. That doesn’t seem overly likely, however, considering that he missed a chunk of the offseason program due to the fact that Portland State is on the quarter system.

Salimu, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound undrafted rookie from Nicholls State, probably doesn’t have much of a chance at being part of either the 53-man roster or practice squad, but he’ll have the chance to prove himself in training camp. All it takes is an injury for a guy like Salimu to be pressed into action and make a good impression.

Beyond those players, it’s possible that reserve guards Brandon Washington and Barrett Jones could see reps at tackle during camp, which both of them did last year. Jones may eventually be a guy that acts as one of the Rams’ backup tackles on gameday, as his versatility is arguably his greatest strength.

Tags: 2014 NFL Training Camp Jake Long Joe Barksdale

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