With the start of the 2014 NFL Combine rapidly approaching, the conversation about “team needs” will inevitably begin to pick up. For the St. Louis, there are a handful of obvious “holes” on the roster, specifically at the guard position and in the deep secondary. However, with free agency still a couple of weeks away, many organizations are still in the dark about how their pre-NFL Draft roster will shape out.
For that St. Louis Rams, the picture is most fuzzy on the offensive line, where two major pieces of the puzzle are in question.
The first massive piece will be the re-signing of Rodger Saffold. Not only did he perform like a Top 10 guard last season, he has shown to be effective (when healthy) at both right and left tackle. Jeff Fisher covets players that are competent at multiple positions, which makes Saffold an ideal offensive lineman in his scheme. This same philosophy could be applied to the re-signing of Chris Willams, formally drafted in the 1st round as an offensive tackle, who will be an unrestricted free agent in March. Williams played the majority’s share of snaps at left guard this past season, but also has the size and skill set to plug in at right tackle, if necessary.
The second piece of the puzzle is Jake Long and his ACL rehab. There is no doubt that Jake Long will be a mainstay at left tackle, but some question whether or not he will be full-go by Week 1 of the regular season. That, along with the concerns about re-signing Williams and Saffold, has pressed some into believing the Rams will snag an offensive lineman with one of their 1st-rounders in the 2014 NFL Draft, both as depth to the position and as an eventual replacement for Jake Long on the blindside.
However, lost in the shuffle of the Rams’ offensive line talks is any mention of the 2013 starting right tackle; Joe Barksdale.
Recently, Matt Miller released his Top 35 rankings of offensive tackles from the 2013 regular season. Included on that list were Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin (28th) and Saints’ Charles Brown (34th). Neither player finished the season as starter, with one leaving the organization after seven games, and the other being benched after getting railroaded by Robert Quinn in the Rams blowout victory over New Orleans. However, not included on that list was Joe Barksdale.
The former Oakland Raider draftee rose to the occasion when Rodger Saffold was knocked out of the game in Week 2 vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Barksdale went on to start the remaining 15 games of the regular season, allowing only four sacks, three hits on the quarterback, and 17 hurries in that time. His performance ranked him 15th among all offensive tackles in the league in pass blocking efficiency, with the 8th-highest pass blocking grade in the NFL among right tackles. More impressively, he managed those performances against several of the top ranked pass rushing units in the league, including the Houston Texans (6th), Carolina Panthers (11th), Tennessee Titans (2nd), San Francisco 49ers (7th; twice) and the Seattle Seahawks (1st; twice).
Barksdale did struggle at times in run blocking, but was effective enough on the right side to help Zac Stacy nearly reach the 1,000 yard rushing mark in only three-quarters of a season. That combination of run blocking and pass protection earned him the 25th-highest overall grade among offensive tackles in 2013; 9th-highest among right tackles that played in at least 15 regular season games.
So, with two arguable Top 25 offensive tackles already on the roster and two more highly-drafted, newly-converted interior linemen “expected” to be re-signed to the roster, the idea of using a Top 5 pick on a tackle seems a bit wasteful. Even if Saffold and Williams are not retained, there are still two viable, competent starting offensive tackles on the roster; although, at that point, drafting an elite guard prospect could certainly rise up the priorities list.
Either way, the Rams should, and likely will, avoid the “safe pick” trap with their first selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. Most reliable reports are suggesting that Jake Long in “on schedule” in his rehab, and should be back in time to feasibly start in Week 1 of the regular season. Moreover, taking a lineman high in the draft doesn’t always guarantee an immediate upgrade at the positions. Look no further than last year’s class to make that point…