As the Rams looked for ways to re-construct their offensive line last offseason, they knew they wouldn’t be able to make a ton of huge, impact movies.
But they also knew they had a secret weapon on their side in new line coach Paul Boudreau, the hard-nosed taskmaster who has earned a reputation for taking lesser known linemen and turning them into solid, productive NFL players or better.
So the Rams inked just one “name” lineman in center
It was a busy offseason in terms of re-making the line with only left tackle
Working with a new group in place, Boudreau continued to conjure the effort and intensity needed to make some sweeping improvements in a number of areas. Even as injuries slowed Wells, Saffold, guard Rokevious Watkins and Dahl, players like Turner, Richardson, guards
Nine players started a game on the offensive line with seven different combinations throughout the year. No matter who stepped in, they seemed to get the job done, at least at a solid, productive level.
By the end of the season, the Rams had made major strides over 2011, trimming their sacks allowed total by 20 down to 35 and not giving up any in the final two weeks.
As the Rams enter the start of free agency at 3 p.m. central time tomorrow, one area they will likely target is finding a way to provide more stability to the line. The idea being that if Boudreau can make magic with so many moving parts, imagine what he could do with a steady, consistent group playing together for a long period of time.
Heading into the 2013 season, Saffold, Dahl and Wells appear poised to return and plug in at left tackle, right guard and center, respectively. Of course, depending on what the Rams can get done this offseason, things can always be shuffled a bit to ensure the best five guys are on the field.
Richardson, who started all 16 games at right tackle, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Same for Turner, who was a valuable swing man starting nine games at center and seven at left guard. The Rams would like to retain Turner and have him for depth at both positions again in 2013.
Beyond that duo, Williams, who the team picked up off waivers on Oct. 22, is also set to be an unrestricted free agent. There are also some intriguing young options that remain with the team including Watkins, Barksdale, Smith,
The Rams released Hunter to create $4 million under the salary cap last week.
Armed with around $13-15 million in salary cap space, it stands to reason the Rams will look to address the openings at right tackle, left guard or both at some point in free agency or the draft.
Much like the safety position, the Rams’ needs on the offensive line again seem to line up with solid depth both in free agency and this year’s draft.
The free agent class is headlined by a group of talented tackles that figure to draw plenty of interest on the open market. After Denver used the franchise tag to retain left tackle Ryan Clady, the other teams with pending high caliber tackles opted to let their players test the market.
Headlining the group is Miami left tackle Jake Long, a player the Rams once coveted in the NFL Draft and who figures to come at a fairly hefty price. As recently as two years ago, Long was considered one of the top two or three tackles in the league but has struggled with injuries and scheme changes the past couple of years.
At 27, though, many in the league think a change of scenery and a clean bill of health would return Long to elite status. He won’t come cheap but could be an option for the Rams, who would likely shift Saffold to the right side if Long was added.
Behind Long is a group of talented right tackles that will likely cost a bit less because they are considered exclusive to the right side. New England’s Sebastian Vollmer, New Orleans’ Jermon Bushrod, Cincinnati’s Andre Smith, Detroit’s Gosder Cherilus and Minnesota’s Phil Loadholt all expect to get lucrative contracts but in a saturated market, it’s possible they could be had for less than expected.
Turning to the need at guard, Buffalo’s Andy Levitre is the top player available followed closely by San Diego’s Louis Vasquez. The Jets’ Brandon Moore played for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in New York but would likely be a bit too pricey for the Rams at that position.
Considering their faith in Watkins and the quality of top guards in the draft, it seems more likely the Rams would go with one of those options than pay a high price to a guard.
At center, there isn’t much to be had aside from long in the tooth veterans or swing men who can provide depth. Ideally, the Rams would like to bring Turner back behind Wells and serve as the interior swing man again after a strong 2012 season.
One way or another, look for the Rams to add talent and depth to the offensive line and let Boudreau work his magic once again.
1. Ryan Clady, Denver (Franchise Tag): Perhaps the best player on the market, the Broncos won’t let a pure blindside protector like Clady walk.
2. Jake Long, Miami: Play has dropped off in past couple of years as injuries have hit. Will still command a big deal and change of scenery could get him back to All Pro level.
3. Sebastian Vollmer, New England: Powerful, dominant blocker who is one of the best right tackles in the game.
4. Jermon Bushrod, New Orleans: Powerful run blocker who has had struggles in pass protection.
5. Andre Smith, Cincinnati: Had an excellent season for the Bengals in 2012 and seems to be an ascending player. A pure right tackle, though, and some question whether he’ll continue to dominate after getting a big payday.
Others to Watch: Gosder Cherilus, Detroit; Phil Loadholt, Minnesota; Ryan Harris, Houston; Will Svitek, Atlanta; Max Starks, Pittsburgh; Sam Baker, Atlanta; Branden Albert, Kansas City (Franchise Tag).
1. Andy Levitre, Buffalo: Clearly the best guard on the market, the Bills want to keep him but he figures to draw a big money offer and Buffalo can’t afford to tag him considering other pending free agents.
2. Louis Vasquez, San Diego: Was best lineman Chargers had last season and should parlay that into a nice contract. Figure San Diego will work to retain him.
3. Brandon Moore, New York Jets: Had a strong season for the Jets but at 33, some wonder how much he has left. Could be a nice stopgap for a year or two, though.
4. Ramon Foster, Pittsburgh: Solid player who is steady in pass protection and OK as a run blocker. Should get some attention as a mid-tier free agent.
5. Kevin Boothe, New York Giants: Tough, versatile player who excels as a run blocker. Can also play center.
Others to Watch: Josh Beekman, Jacksonville; Kraig Urbik, Buffalo; Chard Rinehart, Buffalo.
1. Todd McClure, Atlanta: He’s 36 but still a productive player. Could plug the spot for a year or two for a team in need.
2. Robert Turner, Rams: Had his best year in 2012, proving to be a valuable pickup for the Rams. Versatile enough to play guard but at his best in the middle.
3. Fernando Velasco, Tennessee: Emerged as the starter at center and played some guard for the Titans. Younger player who still has some upside.
4. Dan Koppen, Denver: Another older player but still capable of helping someone at 33.
5. Brad Meester, Jacksonville: Probably doesn’t have as much in the tank as McClure, who is the same age, but might be able to handle backup duties and help tutor a youngster.
Others to Watch: Joe Berger, Minnesota; Chris Spencer, Chicago.
Restricted Free Agents to Watch: Brian De La Puente, New Orleans; Phil Costa, Dallas.
Rams Free Agents: OT Barry Richardson, Turner, Chris Williams.