Losing Williams offers chance to upgrade

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:20
PM ET
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As if the $42.5 million contract for Rodger Saffold with the Oakland Raiders didn't provide enough evidence of the NFL's desperation for offensive line help, the Buffalo Bills offered a resounding confirmation Wednesday when they agreed to an even more stunning contract with another former Rams lineman.

As ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Wednesday morning, the Bills struck a deal with former Rams left guard Chris Williams on a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. Yes, you read that right. I re-read it a few times to make sure I didn't have a digit off in some place.

Obviously, Williams' deal doesn't break the bank like Saffold's, but for those who followed the Rams in 2013, those contract numbers are every bit as surprising as the ones Saffold got. Saffold's contract was a surprise because of his injury history. There's no lack of talent there. Williams is a different story.

After a training camp battle for the starting job at left guard, Williams edged out Shelley Smith for the job. From there, Williams was the one reliable piece on the line, starting all 16 games. But durability was probably Williams' greatest asset, along with the versatility to play tackle.

In most games, Williams held up fine, particularly as a run-blocker with Jake Long next to him and after Zac Stacy took over as running back. Where Williams had trouble was when the Rams faced some of the league's better defensive fronts, especially in the NFC West. Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco gave him fits, and it was no coincidence the Rams struggled to get much of anything going offensively against those three teams.

For Williams to get a solid free-agent deal speaks more to a depressed offensive-line market and the work of Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau than anything else.

Aside from the top tackles, who flew off the shelves at expensive prices Tuesday, this free-agent market was mostly lacking attractive options along the interior. Saffold was probably the best guard on the market; he got paid like a tackle and may not even play guard in Oakland. After that, Geoff Schwartz was the best option after a solid 2013 season, but that was really the extent of his sample size of production in the NFL. The Rams made a play for Schwartz but were outbid by the New York Giants.

Washington
Jones
With Saffold, Schwartz and Jon Asamoah gone, teams in need of help on the offensive line (read: almost all of them) seem to be willing to take chances on players who provide experience and not much else.

Which brings us to Boudreau. He has long had a reputation for coaching up lesser-known players, getting production out of them, and seeing them land nice free-agent contracts. Williams was one of his most recent reclamation projects after the Bears released the former first-round miss. Boudreau also squeezed solid performances out of previously unproven guys like Joe Barksdale.

For the Rams, losing Williams likely means another opportunity for Boudreau to develop a young lineman like Brandon Washington or Barrett Jones. The Rams have already invested time and money in both.

But it should also be noted that the Rams aren't going to throw money around for an offensive lineman in this thin market knowing that Boudreau can do well with so-called lesser talent.

The real takeaway for the Rams should be the need to upgrade the talent beyond players like Williams.

Given the strength of the defensive fronts the Rams see six times a year in the NFC West, it's time to give Boudreau more to work with than simple clay, even if it means having a young group of rookies to coach up. Losing Saffold was a blow. Losing Williams provides a chance to get better.

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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