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 guards.
With all the upgrades the St. Louis Rams made this offseason, their two biggest were on the interior of the offensive line, where they replaced two veterans who underachieved in 2013, Chris Williams and Harvey Dahl, with longtime left tackle Rodger Saffold and Greg Robinson, the highest-rated offensive lineman in this year’s draft class.
Though he’s returning for his fifth year in St. Louis, Saffold feels like a new addition because he was gone for a brief moment this offseason. In the days before free agency, Saffold informed the Rams that he wouldn’t be returning and went on to agree to a five-year, $42 million-dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders.
Luckily for the Rams, however, the Raiders went on to fail Saffold on his physical on the basis of a shoulder injury, which the Rams’ doctors had observed earlier and had no major issues with. Within the night, Saffold had re-signed with the Rams to a five-year, $31 million-dollar deal.
After being shifted around the Rams’ line in 2013, Saffold really found a home at right guard during the latter part of the season, being ranked as one of the better linemen in the league and finishing with a 9.4 overall rating according to Pro Football Focus. His massive build and incredible strength enabled him to be a real impact player at the right guard position, and he has a chance to establish himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in 2014. Of course, Saffold will need to stay healthy, as he’s missed 17 of the Rams’ 48 games over the past three years.
Robinson, a 6-foot-5, 332-pounder who starred at left tackle for Auburn in 2013, will make the transition to left guard as he begins his NFL career. He was viewed by many evaluators as an already-dominant run blocker who needed to develop his pass blocking skills. With him starting off at guard, he’ll have the chance to work on those skills in much lower-pressure situations, as he’ll have left tackle Jake Long protecting him to the outside. Robinson has openly acknowledged that he’s struggled with the adjustment to the position during OTAs, but his physicality should make him an upgrade over last year’s left guard, Williams, no matter what.
The interesting issue with this arrangement to keep an eye on will be how the lineup changes if injury should occur. Saffold seems to be the Rams’ third option at tackle behind Long and right tackle Joe Barksdale, as he took reps at left tackle during OTAs in the absence of Long, who is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last year. If Long’s injury for some reason lingers into the regular season, Saffold would likely start at tackle.
The Rams signed 30-year-old former Pro Bowler Davin Joseph to provide depth on the interior this season. Joseph spent the first eight seasons of his NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was extremely effective before suffering a knee injury that knocked him out in 2012 and diminished his skills in 2013. The Rams are hoping that with another offseason to continue his recovery from the injury, Joseph can return to a skill level approaching his former one. Based on the Rams’ lineup at the end of OTAs, which featured Saffold at left tackle and Joseph at right guard, it would seem that Joseph will be the first man off the bench if a starter is held back by injuries this year.
If the Rams would happen to suffer multiple injuries on the line, which wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented considering Long and Saffold’s health history, it’s possible that Robinson could be kicked out to tackle. (That’s not a sure thing, however, as they’ve been committed to letting him learn the guard position early on.) In that case, the team has plenty of options to fill the next spot: Brandon Washington, who got brief playing time at the end of 2013; last year’s fourth-rounder, Barrett Jones; and offseason waiver pickup Travis Bond.
Washington will really be battling for his roster spot during this year’s training camp. The 6-foot-2, 318-pounder has been with the Rams for the past two seasons, spending some of that time on the practice squad, and it’s now probably time that he shows an ability to be a part of the active gameday roster if he’s going to remain on the team. With Joseph, Jones, and backup center Tim Barnes having the edge at those gameday backup roles, it may be time for the Rams to move on from Washington and start developing a younger player.
Jones, who has shown the ability to contribute all across the offensive line, seems ready to move up to that active roster in 2014 after being a healthy inactive for most of last season. A highly-regarded prospect coming out of Alabama, Jones was held back by an offseason injury last year and fell out of physical shape. With an offseason of conditioning and development this year, he’ll be expected to progress. Though he’s been getting reps at center early on, expect Jones to also get preparation as a backup guard.
Bond, also a rookie in 2013, has some potential, and his prime physical skills at 6-foot-6 and 329 pounds make him a logical fit as a backup to Saffold and Robinson. Depending on how he performs during training camp, he may be a guy who wins a spot as an extra backup lineman on the 53-man roster. At the very least, he could be a practice squad candidate since he only dressed for two games last year with the Carolina Panthers.