Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a look at the talent in the NFC West and seeing how the Rams match up. Today we look at the offensive linemen.
Even in an NFC West which has seen all-around good play on the offensive line through the past couple seasons, the St. Louis Rams may have vaulted themselves to the top of the division with their offseason upgrades in the trenches. Their main challenge will come from the San Francisco 49ers’ experienced and talented front five, but that group may be disrupted by several offseason developments. Even though they have some weak spots, the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals certainly have some bright spots along their lines as well.
The Rams’ big upgrades came at the guard position, where they first re-signed former tackle Rodger Saffold to a long-term deal which will allow him to move inside to guard full-time. After getting him back into the fold, the Rams made their next power move by selecting Auburn’s Greg Robinson, arguably the most talented college run blocker in the country during 2013, with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. Robinson, who played left tackle at Auburn, will start off his pro career playing left guard, though the plan appears to be for him to shift back outside to tackle later on. And to provide extra depth on the interior, the Rams also signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro-Bowler Davin Joseph. The 30-year-old will serve as the team’s sixth lineman while also being a veteran mentor for Robinson.
Left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Joe Barksdale, and center Scott Wells also return. Though Long went down with a torn ACL late in the season which could affect him during 2014, he and Barksdale were both some of the better players in the league at their respective positions last season. Long is a superior run blocker while Barksdale is better at pass blocking, but they’re both pretty serviceable at keeping the quarterback upright. While Wells has been held back by injuries during the past two seasons, he’s one of the more experienced and reliable centers in the league when he’s healthy. Fortunately, the Rams also have Tim Barnes and Barrett Jones on the roster, who would likely be talented enough to start for many teams in the NFL if they weren’t stuck behind Wells on the depth chart.
The 49ers’ line is also very talented and should end up being the most talented in the division. However, that group is being compromised by guard Alex Boone, who has decided to hold out from training camp as he attempts to get a better contract. While the 6-foot-7, 328-pounder didn’t have his best season in 2013, he’s viewed as one of the most physical blockers in the league and quite frankly deserves more than he’s making right now, seeing as he’s the 43rd-highest-paid guard in the NFL.
In the mean time, the 49ers will hold a competition for his position among players including the infamous former Miami Dolphins second-rounder Jonathan Martin, third-year veteran and former fourth-rounder Joe Looney, and longtime utility lineman Adam Snyder. While there is a belief among some that Martin could thrive at a guard position, it’s pretty safe to assume that San Francisco will see a sharp drop-off if Boone is not part of their line come the start of the season.
Fifth-year veteran Mike Iupati will return, and he’ll look to return to his standing as one of the league’s top guards after being held back by injuries a year ago. His rebound will be unbelievably important to the 49ers’ success, especially if Boone isn’t around.
The 49ers will bring back arguably the top tackle duo in the NFL with left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Anthony Davis. Staley, who is going into his eighth season, has developed into one of the top blindside protectors in the NFL, and he’s undoubtedly the cornerstone of the Niners’ line. While the 6-foot-5, 323-pound Davis is not the most disciplined player in the world, he’s a very physical blocker, and he’s generally done a good job of keeping quarterback Colin Kaepernick upright.
San Francisco’s biggest challenge this year will come with replacing departed center Jonathan Goodwin. Daniel Kilgore, a fifth-rounder in 2011, will have the lead for the spot, and he’s integrated himself into the Niners’ offense recently by serving as an extra blocker in jumbo packages. However, former USC center Marcus Martin, who was viewed by many as a first-round candidate but fell to the third round in this year’s draft, could end up pushing for the spot. The rookie has been held back by injuries this offseason, though, so he may not be polished enough to pass up Kilgore any time this year.
While the Arizona Cardinals have some definite question marks along their line, they could be much improved in that area this season. The biggest ingredient for that improvement will be guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and the highest-drafted guard in 27 years, who will be playing his first season with the Cardinals after missing all of his rookie year with a broken leg. Another key upgrade will be 6-foot-8, 321-pound left tackle Jared Veldheer, who agreed to a five-year, $35-million-dollar deal with Arizona this offseason. While he struggled with injuries in 2013, the former Oakland Raider has shown that he is one of the better young tackles in the NFL when healthy. Starting center Lyle Sendlein provides a very steady presence in the middle of the Cardinals’ line. Sendlein has now been the Cardinals’ starter since 2008 and is one of the longer-tenured linemen with one team in the entire league.
Beyond those three, however, things are more of a question mark. The Cardinals’ projected starters on the right side are Paul Fanaika at guard and Bradley Sowell at tackle. Sowell was ranked as the worst tackle in the NFL during 2013 by Pro Football Focus, while Fanaika was ranked as the 76th-best (or sixth-worst) guard. Each one of them was extremely inconsistent in 2013, and with those two having to account for players like Chris Long, Justin Smith, and Michael Bennett in the NFC West, they could end up being major liabilities for Arizona if they do not improve.
As is the case with a few of the Seahawks’ other position groups, the offensive line will be faced with a bit of a rebuild in 2014. Left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger will return and be steady pieces along Seattle’s line. However, Seattle will need to replace right tackle Breno Giacomini and lineman Paul McQuistan, who started at both tackle and guard during 2013, as both players departed in free agency.
Former first-round pick James Carpenter and one-time converted defensive lineman J.R. Sweezy will be expected to take over full-time roles with those players’ departures. Sweezy has been a rotational player through his first two years, though he saw significant last year and started 15 games. Sweezy will aim to become a more consistent blocker after two years of upward progress.
Carpenter really needs to step it up after starting only 26 games in his first three seasons. Carpenter rotated with McQuistan last season and struggled a lot at times, particularly as a run blocker. He’s reportedly gotten into much better shape this offseason, and perhaps this will be the year where he finally lives up to his potential as a first-rounder. With that said, he doesn’t have a great track record and it’s kind of risky for Seattle to be counting on him so heavily.
Seattle’s right tackle competition should be interesting as well. Michael Bowie, a 2013 seventh-rounder who started eight games as a rookie, will return after a very encouraging first year which saw him thrive as a run blocker. He’ll be pushed, however, by rookie second-rounder Justin Britt, a 6-foot-6, 325-pounder who many felt was a reach for the Seahawks. Britt will need to develop his skills with Seattle after being asked to line up in a two-point stance, drop back and kick slide on nearly every play during his college career at Missouri. It would seem like a long shot that Britt would be able to contribute as a starter right away, though offensive line coach Tom Cable said after the draft that he’ll have a chance at starting right off the bat.
San Francisco obviously has the best track record along the offensive line heading into 2014. But with their offseason upgrades, the Rams could definitely become the best group this season. While Arizona and Seattle are rather far behind those two teams, they should still provide a challenge for defensive linemen week-to-week.