NFC West: Rodger Saffold

Camp preview: St. Louis Rams

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Nick Wagoner examines the three biggest issues facing the St. Louis Rams heading into training camp.

Sam Bradford's status: It's a familiar refrain that will be repeated ad nauseam for much of the offseason and camp, but it's the most basic and simple truth about the Rams in 2014 and the future: They'll go as far as quarterback Sam Bradford can take them. On the bright side, Bradford appears to be on schedule for a return to health from his season-ending knee injury, and the Rams expect him to be close to or at full speed for the start of camp.

That means Bradford will get a third season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense and the opportunity to get the Rams into the mix in the NFC West division. It's safe to assume the Rams won't ask Bradford to carry the freight for what will likely be a run-heavy offense, but they also will need more from Bradford than what was required of backup Kellen Clemens. The Rams have clearly abandoned the spread approach they were installing this time last year, but they will almost certainly be more balanced than they were after Bradford's injury in 2013.

The Gregg Williams effect: Much was expected of the Rams' defense in 2013 after it performed well enough to keep the team in games, especially divisional games, in 2012. But the group not only didn't take a step forward but regressed slightly under coordinator Tim Walton. So when the Rams had the opportunity to land Gregg Williams this offseason, they took it.

Now, the expectations are even higher after bringing Williams aboard and spending a first-round pick on defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Williams is expected to bring an array of exotic blitz packages and an aggressive approach to a defense that should be able to create consistent pressure. How that manifests itself in this training camp will go a long way toward determining the team's 2014 success.

Stability on the offensive line: The Rams made some major moves along the offensive line in the offseason in an effort to compete with the big, physical defensive lines around the NFC West. They used the No. 2 pick on Auburn's Greg Robinson and signed guard Rodger Saffold to a lucrative contract extension. On paper, an offensive line of (from left to right) Jake Long, Robinson, Scott Wells, Saffold and Joe Barksdale could be one of the better units in the league with a good mix of experience and potential.

But for the second straight year, that group faces the pressing question of whether it can retain some semblance of stability in the face of injury. The presumptive 2013 starting five played just 295 of the offense's 968 snaps, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three lines around the league spent less time together. Wells and Long are recovering from season-ending injuries, and although the Rams expect both players to be ready for the start of the season, it's fair to wonder how many games and what type of production they'll get. Saffold also has a lengthy injury history even though he has yet to suffer any serious ailments since moving to guard.

There are some intriguing young players behind the starting five, including Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes and Brandon Washington, but if the Rams are to be the powerful, run-heavy offense they aspire to be, they'll need the starting five in place as often as possible.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams wrapped up organized team activities with their ninth and final practice Thursday. For those keeping score at home, yes, that's a day earlier than expected; coach Jeff Fisher canceled Friday's previously planned practice.

As always, it should be noted that much of what happens in these OTAs should be taken with a grain of salt (especially for the linemen). The players are not in pads and contact must be extremely limited. It's best not to get too excited or too down on anything that happens.

Back to back for Bradford: Quarterback Sam Bradford spent the bulk of OTAs on a strict plan for his involvement. Usually, that meant a couple of periods of seven-on-seven drills and a period of hurry-up in team drills. But Bradford did a little more than usual Thursday and did extensive work in back-to-back practices for the first time in the offseason. Bradford had gone two in a row earlier but was more limited in one of those practices.

Bradford
Bradford
Bradford was also at his sharpest, at least relative to the other sessions open to the media. Now, for the first time since he suffered his knee injury in October, Bradford will get to spend quality time back home in Oklahoma. Bradford said he feels good and all signs point to him being ready to go when training camp opens.

"I was really happy with everything that went on during the OTAs," Bradford said. "A big part of it for me was obviously physically getting back out on to the field, seeing how my knee reacted. It's been fantastic. We were actually able to do a little more than we anticipated so that's very positive.

"Out there today, it felt probably the best its felt all OTAs and [I'm] just really looking to build on that."

Line dancing: Working without the services of left tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells, the Rams tweaked things on the offensive line a bit. Rodger Saffold kicked out to left tackle with Davin Joseph sliding in at right guard and Barrett Jones got work at center with the first team. Long did some work in individual drills.

It doesn't mean much at this point since the Rams are anticipating Long and Wells returning to the fold soon enough, but it was a departure from the previous alignments in which Sean Hooey or Mike Person had rotated at left tackle. Tim Barnes has also taken reps at center in the days where Wells has been absent.

Sitting it out: The Rams got some players back to practice but still had their share of missing pieces. Receiver Jamaine Sherman, safety Christian Bryant, safety Maurice Alexander, running back Chase Reynolds, linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong, Wells, Long, defensive tackle Michael Brockers and defensive end William Hayes did not participate.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and safety Matt Daniels returned to work after not practicing Tuesday. Daniels had missed most of the workouts but was able to finish Thursday and had a couple of pass breakups in team drills.

Receiver Kenny Britt and cornerback Darren Woodard, both of whom left Tuesday's practice early, were back and participated.

Closing competition: Per custom, Fisher put his offensive and defensive lineman through a punt-catching drill to wrap up the final OTA. The drill asks the linemen to stand about 80 yards removed from the JUGS machine and catch a punt. The side that catches more doesn't have to run a final round of wind sprints.

In an impressive showing, the defense came up with five grabs to win and force the offense to run.

Final impressions: Receiver Stedman Bailey made a strong closing argument before training camp, coming up with a few impressive grabs, including a diving catch for a touchdown from Bradford during seven-on-seven.

In what was one of the more impressive and humorous plays of the day, undrafted rookie defensive tackle Deantre Harlin broke up a pass by batting it into the air then showed concentration by snatching it for an interception. The enthusiastic cheers coming from his defensive teammates quickly turned to laughter as Harlin got turned around and began running the wrong way before course correcting.

Looking ahead: With OTAs and the offseason now complete, the Rams will disappear for a little while. The rookies must stay through Friday but after that, it will be quiet around Rams Park until rookies report July 21. The veterans will join them July 24 with the first open practice set for July 25.

Fisher has already given the team the annual talk about making good decisions in the offseason and noted Thursday that there weren't any issues last year. He hopes for a repeat of that this time around.

When the Rams do return to St. Louis, Fisher said he expects most of the players who did not participate during OTAs to be ready to go. In addition to Long, Fisher said Bryant is the only other player who might not be fully ready to go at the start of camp.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With Rodger Saffold all but signed to a lucrative free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders, the St. Louis Rams had already begun working on contingency plans.

In mid-March, as Saffold finished up a physical with Oakland doctors, the Rams were hosting free-agent guard Davin Joseph. A Rams contingent and Joseph were out to dinner discussing his possible fit with the team when the news came that Saffold's deal with the Raiders had been nullified by a failed physical.

The Rams still wanted Saffold and found themselves in what could have been an awkward situation were it not so confusing.

[+] EnlargeDavin Joseph
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVeteran Davin Joseph has only been with the Rams for a week, but there are already signs things are going well for both team and guard.
"I really didn’t quite understand quite what was going on at the time," Joseph said. "I don’t think anybody really did."

When the situation finally crystallized, the Rams managed to re-sign Saffold and Joseph left St. Louis without a contract. The Rams had their starting right guard and the fit for Joseph became muddled.

But just because Joseph didn't necessarily have an obvious fit didn't mean the Rams lost all interest.

In fact, with Joseph working his way back from a knee injury and a staph infection which left him looking like a shell of his former Pro Bowl self, the market for Joseph figured to take time to play out. It allowed the Rams to maintain interest but go through the first waves of free agency and the draft first. In doing so, the team could re-assess it's offensive line depth and determine if there was still a fit for Joseph.

After selecting Greg Robinson with the No. 2 overall pick with the idea of playing him at left guard right away and failing to move back into the first round for offensive lineman Zack Martin, the Rams had a glaring need for experienced depth on the interior. Assuming Joseph would agree to such a role, he was a logical solution.

Joseph was originally a first-round pick in 2006, earning trips to the Pro Bowl in 2008 and 2011. But he suffered a severe knee injury that cost him the 2012 season, followed by a staph infection last spring and he struggled to get back to his former production last season.

After weighing interest from Dallas and New England, Joseph decided on a one-year deal with the Rams on May 28.

“We really liked the visit, were really excited about what we thought he could do for us from a depth standpoint and all that stuff," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We gave him an opportunity to come in and compete, but Davin, I think, is at a point now where you know he just wants to have fun. We hit it off well, so we decided to wait until after the draft and we got things put together.”

Although Joseph has only been in St. Louis for little more than a week, he's already making a positive impression on the coaching staff and his teammates. It's impossible to know how he's coming along as a blocker without wearing pads in organized team activities, but it's clear the Rams will piece together that plan as they go.

As it stands now, Joseph is the most experienced option the team has on the interior (he's played in 100 NFL games) but Saffold and Robinson are all but certain to start at the two guard spots. That figures to put Joseph in position to be the top option should something happen to either of them or perhaps step in at guard if Robinson or Saffold has to kick outside to tackle.

With the knee injury nearly two years behind him and the staph infection about a year in his past, Joseph at least appears to be healthy.

“He really is much better than he was when he came in for the visit," Fisher said. "He’s a pro. He knows how to rehab. He knows how to prepare for camp, and he’s doing fine right now.”

Joseph signed just a one-year deal, a contract commensurate with a player who doesn't have his history of success. And Joseph is only 30 years old. The chance for a bounce-back season would seem more reasonable for Joseph than many players signing a one-year "prove it" deal.

"I do feel like I have a lot left," Joseph said. "I feel like I can contribute to this team. I don’t know how big or how small my role will be, but I feel like I can contribute. If it’s just coming out here and really working to make the guys better then that’s my job and I’ll do it the best that I can."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- When it comes to the health of left tackle Jake Long, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher & Co. have consistently played the hits throughout the offseason.

They've repeatedly insisted that Long's rehabilitation from offseason surgery on his right anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament is coming along just fine and reiterated their faith that Long will be ready to go in time for the regular-season opener Sept. 7.

Long
At last week's organized training activities, Fisher offered an even more optimistic outlook for Long's expected return.

“Jake is coming along. He’s doing the individual stuff. Jake’s injury was a little bit later than Sam’s," Fisher said, referring to quarterback Sam Bradford. "We expect him back somewhere middle part of training camp.”

If Long is indeed able to return to practice on that sort of timetable, there's reason to believe he can be ready to take his usual spot at left tackle against Minnesota in the opener. That would allow him a few weeks to round into shape and test his mobility, perhaps even play a series or two in one of the final two preseason games.

In many cases, when it comes to injuries like Long's, it's common for teams to offer the standard lines about being ahead of schedule or, at least, on pace for a timely return. For what it's worth, Long had his surgery in late January, and although he isn't participating in OTAs, he is doing some work on the side.

But in this case, the Rams so far are doing more than offering optimistic lip service when it comes to Long. The team is following through on its belief in his rehab with how it's handling his vacant spot during OTAs.

With obvious left tackle fill-in options such as rookie Greg Robinson and Rodger Saffold available to take the reps in Long's place during practice, Fisher and the Rams have made it clear they prefer not to disrupt the stability of the line at the four other positions. Robinson and Saffold are projected to start at left and right guard, respectively, and neither has extensive experience at those positions.

So instead of moving Robinson and/or Saffold around, Fisher prefers to keep them in their current spots to prepare them for the spots they're expected to start the season.

“We want to go through OTAs and most of camp with players playing the position they’ll play in the opener," Fisher said. "You assume Jake comes back, so we’ll just plug someone else in out there.”

So far, "someone else" has meant a rotation between younger, developmental tackles Mike Person and Sean Hooey. The Rams claimed Person from Seattle last season and thought enough of him to keep him on the roster throughout the season. Hooey was an undrafted free agent in 2013, but the Rams stashed him on the practice squad for the season. Like Person, Hooey is another player the team thinks has some future potential.

If worse comes to worst by the time the season begins, the Rams could simply slide Saffold over to left tackle, with someone like Davin Joseph or Barrett Jones ready to step in at guard. For now, their faith in Long's return persists.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams will officially open their version of organized team activities on Tuesday, making them the last in the league to do so.

Tuesday's session is not open to the media, so we won't get a chance to see the Rams on the field until the first open session on Thursday. But as the OTAs finally begin, here's some things I'll be looking for.

Bradford
Bradford
Whither Bradford: According to the team, quarterback Sam Bradford has been well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Bradford has been moving around and throwing for awhile now and there are realistic expectations he will participate in OTAs.

The question doesn't seem to be whether Bradford will participate but the extent of that participation. It's unlikely he'll be at 100 percent or be asked to do everything since there's no need to rush him back, but his presence will likely be felt. It's no secret 2014 is an important season for Bradford. Every rep counts but the last thing the Rams want to do is rush him and risk a possible setback to his return.

Long
Line dancing: The status of left tackle Jake Long participating in OTAs is up in the air. Long's surgery didn't take place until January, so it's only natural that he'd be further behind in his own knee rehab. The Rams have remained insistent that Long can and will be back for the regular-season opener but in the meantime, someone is going to have to take the snaps at left tackle.

The most obvious options on the roster are rookie Greg Robinson and Rodger Saffold, who are projected to start the season at left and right guard, respectively. Indications from the Rams are that both players will get some reps at left tackle during OTAs and into training camp so the Rams can have a couple of options ready to go in the event that Long can't. We'll be sure to monitor how those reps are divvied up, and keep an eye out for Long to see if he does any work on the side during these early summer sessions.

Beyond that, there are plenty of other offensive line issues to watch, including the development of interior swingman Barrett Jones and the return to health of center Scott Wells.

Sorting out the secondary: The top five defensive backs heading into OTAs appear to be pretty well set with Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald at safety and Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner (nickel) expected to handle the primary duties in the secondary.

But the Rams have a lot to sort out beyond that group as they look to set the roster for next season. Assuming the Rams keep nine or 10 defensive backs, that would leave room for four or five more defensive backs. At corner, there will be plenty of competition amongst a group that includes Brandon McGee, E.J. Gaines, Greg Reid and some other youngsters including Marcus Roberson. At safety, names like Maurice Alexander, Matt Daniels, Cody Davis and Christian Bryant will jockey for position.

Williams' wrinkles: New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has spent most of the offseason in the lab coming up with ways to deploy his new players. But most of that has been based off film study without the benefit of seeing his players working up close on an actual football field.

OTAs offer Williams his first chance to do just that and make determinations on how he wants to go about using the talent in place. The majority of work in OTAs is centered on installation on both sides of the ball so much of the legwork is already done, but there is plenty of time for tweaking if, for example, Williams views his players' skill sets different than he first suspected.

Britt
Britt
Likewise, it will give the defense its first chance to get used to what Williams wants to do and get comfortable with what will likely be a more aggressive approach in 2014.

Receiver rundown: Aside from the free-agent addition of Kenny Britt, the Rams stood pat at wide receiver in the offseason, choosing to bet heavy that their young receiver corps will be up to the task of taking the next step up the developmental ladder.

Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis return to the fold. Much is expected from Givens, Austin, Bailey and Quick, and Britt will get a chance to make a positive first impression on the field. The competition appears mostly wide open, making receiver a position full of intrigue as we head toward training camp.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With the NFL draft and free agency complete, the St. Louis Rams' 53-man roster will likely come mostly from the players already on the team.

With organized team activities less than a week away, we take a look at where each position stands heading into next week. The next in the series continues today by examining the offensive line.

Who returns: Jake Long, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold, Joe Barksdale, Tim Barnes, Barrett Jones, Brandon Washington, Sean Hooey, Mike Person

Who is new: Greg Robinson, Davin Joseph, Mitchell Van Dyk, Demetrius Rhaney, Abasi Salimu

Who is gone: Harvey Dahl, Shelley Smith, Chris Williams

Projected starters: Long, Robinson, Wells, Saffold, Barksdale

Pending competition: There's no position group on the roster with more possible flux than the offensive line. The starting five should be set but much will hinge on Long's health. If he's ready to go opening week, that starting five should be pretty well set. If not, the Rams will have to take a look at Robinson or Saffold at left tackle and plug Joseph in at the vacated guard spot. The real jockeying for position will come as the Rams evaluate their depth. Jones seems like a good bet to win a spot after the team used a fourth-round pick on him in 2013. The Rams went heavy on offensive linemen for most of last season, carrying double digits the majority of the time. If they do so again, there should be interesting battles on the interior among Joseph, Jones, Barnes, Washington and Rhaney and on the outside with Hooey, Person and Van Dyk. That's eight players probably competing for four or five spots at most. And the Rams could logically carry fewer linemen this year given the versatility and flexibility Saffold, Robinson and Jones provide.

Outlook: Much like last year, the potential for this group is such that it could be one of the league's best but with the caveat that remaining healthy will be the top priority. Long, Wells and Saffold have struggled with injury issues recently, problems that caused much of the line dancing the group had to do a year ago. Although the group managed to be mostly effective under the guidance of line coach Paul Boudreau, it struggled late in the season against the physical fronts of its NFC West brethren. To do battle with those defenses and be a more effective offense, the Rams will need less shuffling and more stability. For the long haul, only Robinson and Saffold seem to have clear spots. Long and Wells remain under contract beyond 2014 but the team could part ways with them after the year if they are unable to stay healthy and produce. Barksdale is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. In the ideal scenario, young players like Jones and Washington will develop further in 2014 and give the Rams more flexibility for the future. In the meantime, the Rams have a starting group with the talent to excel so long as they can stay on the field.
The NFL draft is set to begin May 8 and the St. Louis Rams hold 12 picks. For the next week and a half, we'll take a look at a different position every day with what the Rams have in place, what they need, when they might address it and possible fits.

We finish the countdown with a look at this year's crop of offensive linemen.

In place: Jake Long, Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells, Joe Barksdale, Barrett Jones, Brandon Washington, Mike Person, Tim Barnes, Sean Hooey

What's needed: Retaining Saffold was a huge move for the Rams even if they were able to do it by way of luck. But the Rams look poised to enter 2014 with the same question about the ability of the offensive line to stay healthy and produce that they faced in 2013. We saw how that worked out when the Rams' expected starting line played 295 of the team's 968 snaps together last season (30.5 percent). Just three other expected starting lines played fewer snaps together last season.

Assuming Long, Barksdale, Wells and Saffold are four of the five anticipated starters going into the draft, only Barksdale has a recent history of playing every game without injury issues arising. The team has an opening for a starting left guard and needs to consider drafting a top tackle with Long coming off a major injury and Barksdale set for free agency after 2014. The case could be made to add a third lineman, if neither Barnes nor Jones are thought to be the answer at center.

Possible fits: The Rams place great value on versatility among linemen and many of the players they've been connected to either by visits or workout fit that mold. The team has made little secret of its interest in help for the line, spending time with top three tackles Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan. All have their pros and cons but the Rams could easily find a way to make any of the three fit in right away. Beyond that, the Rams have also showed interest in linemen who project better as guards but have tackle experience, much like Saffold. Nevada's Joel Bitonio, North Dakota State's Billy Turner and Furman's Dakota Dozier profile as potential additions in that mold. Notre Dame's Zack Martin also makes a lot of sense as that type of player though he'd probably require the Rams to use the second of their first-round picks. Bitonio probably will be gone before the Rams draft in the second round but Turner or Dozier should be available there and perhaps into the third. The guard class isn't particularly strong and it appears the Rams prefer to find an option for the guard job who could also play tackle in a pinch. The team has done legwork on other linemen such as Ohio State's Jack Mewhort and Tennessee's Ju'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson.

Verdict: There is no doubt that the Rams are going to pick an offensive lineman, probably more than one at some point in the draft. The only question is, how early? It's been easy to connect the Rams to players like Robinson and Matthews because they make sense for what the Rams need. Assuming Jadeveon Clowney is off the board, the Rams will have their choice of the top tackles and receiver Sammy Watkins. They'd probably prefer to trade down to nab one of those players but if they stay put, it sure seems like an offensive lineman is probably the direction they'll lean. If they do go with a player like Watkins, someone like Martin would be a good fit at No. 13. Either way, the guess here is the Rams use two of their first five picks on an offensive lineman with one of those picks coming in the first round.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams took their time wading into the free-agent market this year and with most of the shopping seemingly done and focus turning toward the draft, we can take stock of what the team did and didn't get done in free agency.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams were tied with Green Bay and New Orleans as the least active teams in free agency. St. Louis signed just three free agents who played on a different team in 2013, adding quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive lineman Alex Carrington and wide receiver Kenny Britt.

All of those moves came well after the initial, most expensive wave of free agency and none of those deals are longer than a single season. The Rams' biggest move was the one they intended to make all along, signing offensive lineman Rodger Saffold to a lucrative five-year contract extension after his deal with Oakland fell apart for a failed physical.

It's been long-held NFL dogma that the best teams build through the NFL draft rather than spending big in free agency and the Rams made it clear early on that they intended to be patient if not silent in free agency. They followed through on that promise but what's most interesting is the company they kept among the other teams that were least active in the market.

Nine teams added just three or four outside free agents in the first month of free agency. Of those nine teams, only the Rams with their three additions and Dallas (four) did not make the playoffs in 2013. Joining Green Bay and New Orleans on the list, Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Kansas City and Indianapolis each signed only a quartet of players.

It stands to reason that teams who are mostly happy with their rosters and have won plenty of games wouldn't be looking to spend big money in free agency. While Dallas and the Rams' presence on that list could also be attributed to limited salary-cap space, in the Rams' case it's also indicative of a front office and coaching staff that believes in the ability of its young talent to ascend in 2014.

Rams general manager Les Snead has indicated multiple times that the thing his young team needs the most is experience and there's apparently a strong belief that the young talent in place can all take the necessary steps forward to help the Rams improve in 2014. Whether that happens remains to be seen but at least in terms of free agency, that faith in the team's young players clearly isn't just lip service.

Free-agency review: Rams

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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A look at what the St. Louis Rams have done through the first week of free agency.

Most significant signing: There's not much to choose from, but the obvious pick is offensive lineman Rodger Saffold's five-year deal with the team. He was the Rams' No. 1 priority and they were able to land him after one of the most dramatic and bizarre free-agent situations in recent memory.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceRodger Saffold's versatility has paid off for the St. Louis Rams.
Most significant loss: It's a tossup between backup quarterback Kellen Clemens and left guard Chris Williams, but we'll go with Williams based solely on the fact that he started all 16 games for the team in 2013. Losing Williams is far from a damaging blow, but that's one starting spot the Rams now have to fill.

Biggest surprise: The crazy saga that was Saffold's near departure to Oakland followed by the quick turnaround and new contract with the Rams is the runaway winner here. The Rams had already moved on to other targets and were in the middle of hosting one replacement (guard Davin Joseph) and had another possibility (guard Daryn Colledge) on the way to St. Louis when the news broke that Saffold's deal in Oakland fell apart. In a matter of hours, the Rams went from scrambling for replacements to landing their top target.

What's next? There's not much to be found on the market after the usual waves of free agency came and went in the first six days. The Rams will continue to explore the bargain bin for depth on the offensive and defensive lines, for a backup quarterback and possibly for help at wide receiver and in the secondary.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

Almost a week removed from the beginning of the free-agent period, the Rams have retained a couple of starters and seen their share of departures. The normal waves of free agency usually take longer than this year but it seems teams aren't waiting around to make their moves in 2014.

Here's where we stand after five days:

Retained

Saffold
OL Rodger Saffold

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a five-year, $31.7 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed.

What it means: It was a wild week for Saffold but after one of the most bizarre free-agent scenarios in recent memory, the Rams kept their top offseason priority. Saffold will be the team's right guard moving forward and allows them more flexibility moving forward because of his versatility. St. Louis got lucky on this one but it doesn't matter how it happened so long as Saffold can stay healthy and produce.

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.

What it means: Dunbar will get a chance to rebound from a lost 2013 season and reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Rams. While Dunbar's role decreased because of the addition of Alec Ogletree last year, the Rams need more production from him when they do have three linebackers on the field. If Dunbar can return to his 2012 form, he fills another starting job and lessens the need for the Rams to add another outside linebacker in the draft.

Departures

Williams
OL Chris Williams

The deal: Signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed with the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: The Rams lost the one lineman who started all 16 games last year and provided some versatility with his ability to play multiple positions. But Williams was also the team's least effective starting lineman and a clear candidate to be upgraded heading into 2014. The Rams had interest in keeping him but had no intention of offering a similar type of deal. It also speaks to the ability of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to maximize reclamation projects.

OG Shelley Smith

The deal: Signed a two-year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The loss of Smith is another subtraction from the Rams' depth on the offensive line but it's also not cause for much alarm. Smith lost a preseason battle for the starting left guard job to Williams and though he showed some ability as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was often overmatched by the bigger, more physical front sevens in the NFC West. Again, Boudreau should be able to coach up someone else to provide similar production and depth to fill Smith's backup role on the interior. That depth could come from current options like Barrett Jones or Brandon Washington or a veteran free agent such as Davin Joseph or Daryn Colledge, both of whom have visited St. Louis.

TE Mike McNeill

The deal: Signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Terms unknown.

What it means: Losing McNeill doesn't alter much in terms of the Rams' primary options at tight end but it does remove a versatile piece from the depth chart. McNeill was the team's fourth tight end and played sparingly in the offense. He was a trustworthy backup and a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher's but is a piece the Rams can replace rather easily, perhaps with late-season pickup Justice Cunningham.

Finnegan
CB Cortland Finnegan

The deal: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Rams released Finnegan at the start of free agency, creating valuable cap space and a hole in the secondary. The key here is how much the Rams can gain from this contract based on the offset language they had built in to Finnegan's contract. Depending on how Finnegan's deal with the Dolphins is structured, the Rams could gain an additional $3 million in cap space. Assuming he makes the team or possibly immediately based on a bonus, it's reasonable to think the Rams have a good chance at getting all of that $3 million in space back. The team also has an opening for another cornerback.

QB Kellen Clemens

The deal: Signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

What it means: We already knew the Rams were planning to grab a young quarterback in May's draft but this should only serve to reinforce that idea. What remains to be seen is whether the Rams want to carry a third, veteran quarterback to handle the No. 2 job until the unnamed rookie is ready. That's a role Clemens would have been ideal for but he did enough in 2013 to draw interest and land a well-deserved deal with San Diego. The Rams now have just two quarterbacks, starter Sam Bradford and Austin Davis, on the roster.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the bizarre things that took place in the past week to get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back as a member of the St. Louis Rams and addressing the local media in a news conference Friday afternoon, the one move that really started it all happened Nov. 10.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSpending time at right guard opened up Rodger Saffold's options.
That was the day Saffold made his debut as a right guard against the Indianapolis Colts. It's hard to know for certain given the vagaries of the NFL but if that day had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Saffold wouldn't be a Ram nor would they have made much effort to keep him.

To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.

The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.

So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.

"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."

Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.

The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.

Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."

Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.

After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.

"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.

Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.

Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.

"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."

Now that he has, there's no turning back.

"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."

It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A wild Wednesday evening that resulted in the St. Louis Rams keeping Rodger Saffold on a five-year contract gives the Rams much more than just a talented, if injury-plagued, offensive lineman. It offers them flexibility in shaping the offensive line and in ways they can approach the rest of the offseason.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe versatile Rodger Saffold can play at either guard or tackle spot on the offensive line.
Versatility has long been one of Saffold's greatest strengths, his ability to shift from either tackle spot to both guard spots is one of the primary reasons the Rams coveted him in the first place. The on-field portion of Saffold's return means he'll jump in as a guard, the position where he was best in 2013. It's also a position where many believe Saffold offers Pro Bowl potential.

But in the event left tackle Jake Long isn't recovered from offseason knee surgery, Saffold has the ability to step in at tackle and play well as he did the final two games of last season. While the Rams still have plenty of work to do in reshaping the offensive line, keeping Saffold can cover up multiple leaks that might spring up in the meantime.

Perhaps more important in the here and now is what Saffold's return means for the Rams as they move toward the NFL draft. There's no way of knowing whether the Rams' draft plans were significantly altered by Saffold's expected departure. The same can be said of guard Chris Williams' contract with the Buffalo Bills. Or the likely exit of guard Shelley Smith.

If nothing else, those moves offered a clear indication that something, actually many things, would have to be done to patch up the offensive line. On the same token, Saffold's return isn't a cure-all either. He clearly has an injury history of his own but he at least offers some comfort because of that aforementioned versatility.

One of the worst things a team can do in the draft is make picks solely based on need but without Saffold the Rams likely would have been backed into a corner of needing offensive linemen, maybe earlier than ever.

Bringing Saffold back certainly won't preclude the Rams from investigating options on the line and one can make a good argument that adding another elite piece to the line early in the draft would be the boon needed to make the line ready for the rigors of the NFC West.

But if the Rams do opt to go a different direction with the second overall pick, it's a decision much easier to comprehend now than it was before the words "failed physical" took Twitter by storm.
There hasn't been much in the way of news for the St. Louis Rams this offseason. But when there has been, it's taken something completely out of the ordinary for it to come to fruition.

It will be hard to top what happened in a span of about 15 minutes Wednesday night when offensive lineman Rodger Saffold failed a physical with the Oakland Raiders and quickly agreed to re-sign with the Rams. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter characterized the failed physical as a "strong disagreement" about the status of Saffold's shoulder.

That disagreement led to Oakland pulling the plug on a contract believed by many, including myself, to be one of the riskier contracts handed out on the second day of free agency: a five-year, $42.5 million with $21 million guaranteed. It was a contract that was beyond reasonable for a player who had missed 17 games and parts of others in the past three seasons. The Rams agreed, opting to pass on paying such a high price for Saffold even though he was their top offseason priority.

Terms of Saffold's deal to return to St. Louis are not yet available, but before he accepted Oakland's offer, the team was believed to be offering something closer to $6 million in average annual value with incentives for playing time (read: staying healthy).

Determining whether a player has passed or failed a physical is at the discretion of team doctors. According to Schefter's report, the Raiders were concerned by something they saw in the shoulder, but the Rams, who obviously know Saffold well, had no such concerns.

Saffold injured his shoulder in the 2013 preseason opener against Cleveland but returned late in the exhibition season and started the season opener against Arizona at right tackle. From there, While Saffold suffered a knee injury in Week 2 against Atlanta and took a blow to the head in the season finale against Seattle, he never had recurring issues with the shoulder.

At last month's NFL combine, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that keeping Saffold was at the top of the to-do list with the idea that Saffold would be a starter at guard and provide insurance at tackle.

"Obviously it's important for us to get that done," Fisher said then. "He's expressed serious interest in coming back as well. So it does give us flexibility. But I think ultimately he's going to be an outstanding guard in this league. Now that doesn't mean you say he could not play either tackle, because this year he stepped in when Jake [Long] went down and stepped in and played some really good football at tackle."

Presuming Saffold's departure, the Rams had already begun exploring contingencies. They lost out on Geoff Schwartz to the New York Giants and were hosting Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph at dinner when news of the failed physical arrived Wednesday night. That news clearly was cause for surprise, but given how things have played out for the Rams so far this year, maybe it shouldn't have been.

If taking a long and winding path to get what they wanted all along sounds familiar, it's because that's something the Rams have already done this offseason. After a period of relative quiet to begin the offseason, the Rams suddenly fired defensive coordinator Tim Walton. Before anyone could even begin to speculate on who his replacement might be, the Rams had a deal in place with Gregg Williams to take over.

That was the same Gregg Williams whom the team had hired to take over in 2012 but was suspended for his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal and not retained by the team afterward. The same Gregg Williams whose relationship with Fisher seemed too frayed to repair. Sure enough, the Rams brought Williams back on a day that served as a reminder that anything can happen in the NFL.

Wednesday night provided yet another, perhaps stranger reminder of that. Once again, the Rams were involved in something wild. Once again, they ended up with the person who was their first choice all along. Once again, it all worked out.
Saffold
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Even before the end of the 2013 NFL season, I was not shy in expressing my belief in the importance of the St. Louis Rams retaining offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.

Despite his injury woes, Saffold's versatility and more important, his upside as a guard, made him a crucial part of the team's offensive line moving forward. Considering the potential for so many moving parts on that line, Saffold would have provided some stability and help at four positions. But that belief was rooted in the idea that Saffold would ultimately sign a reasonable contract.

But the deal Saffold agreed to with the Oakland Raiders on Tuesday exceeds the limits of reasonable for a player of Saffold's injury history and production. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Saffold agreed to a contract worth $42.5 million over five years, with $21.5 million guaranteed.

The Rams wanted to keep Saffold as a guard and were willing to pay him a tidy sum to retain him, perhaps as much as $6 million a year. But they weren't willing to go that high. And that was the right decision.

For as many problems as Saffold would have solved by remaining in St. Louis, a contract that size would have hampered the Rams' efforts to improve the roster in other ways. Sure, you'd always like to keep your own talent, the guys you draft and develop, but at some point the contract reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Saffold would have reached that point the first time he fell to the ground and didn't get up right away in 2014. It's a movie that had become all too familiar in his time in St. Louis. He missed 17 games and chunks of others in the past three seasons after appearing in all 16 as a rookie in 2010.

That isn't to say Oakland isn't getting a talented player. When healthy, Saffold proved solid at tackle and at times excellent at guard. But the "when healthy" caveat is likely to follow Saffold until he proves otherwise. It's the reason the Rams didn't have him re-signed long ago and the reason he's now a Raider.
We are still more than a day away from the official start of free agency set for Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. We also are still in the "take much of what you hear with a grain of salt" mode. That applies here as well.

But until we get to the time where actual agreements can be reached and contracts can be signed, we'll still try to sort through what we're hearing. With that in mind, here are some thoughts from the free-agent trail (shoutout to Bills reporter Mike Rodak for the name).

• A big part of adding the three-day negotiating window for teams and agents representing upcoming free agents was finding a way for teams to put contingency plans in place. Reports over the weekend have indicated the Rams have interest in Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner and Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd. There have also been multiple reports indicating that offensive lineman Rodger Saffold won't be returning to the Rams. If nothing else, those tidbits should give the Rams enough knowledge to have a gauge on what it will cost to obtain high-priced players, such as Verner and Byrd, and whether they truly want to be bidders.

• On the Verner front, it looks like the competition is going to be tough. Minnesota and both New York teams have been prominently mentioned, and Verner spoke highly of the Jets and New England in an interview with Mad Dog Radio. But one league source said Monday morning that the price for Verner might not be as high as some expect. Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields got nearly $10 million in average annual value on a four-year deal, but it's important to note that teams have to overpay to prevent their own from hitting the market sometimes. I do believe the Rams have interest in Verner but only to a point. Last year, for example, the Rams wanted to get in the mix for receiver Mike Wallace, but the price quickly rose out of their range and they re-focused their money elsewhere.

• If the Rams don't chase and land Verner, there are still some solid alternatives on the market. The big names include New England's Aqib Talib and Indianapolis' Vontae Davis. Davis figures to land a sizable contract and Talib could too, so long as his medical profile checks out. One name worth monitoring among mid-level free agents is San Francisco's Tarell Brown, who would bring the added bonus of weakening a division rival without necessarily having to break the bank.

• Also, it's logical for the Rams to look to find offensive line help in free agency should Saffold depart. A league source indicated Monday that the Rams are among the teams to express interest in Kansas City offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz. Schwartz has versatility similar to Saffold and, like Saffold, is a better fit at guard. Schwartz also figures to be a hot commodity but could make sense as a Saffold replacement at a lesser cost.

• As for Byrd, it's unclear how deep the Rams' interest in him runs. Reports indicate he's going to command upwards of $9 million per season, which could also prove too rich for the Rams' blood.

• Whether the Rams jump out early in free agency will depend, like always, on the cost of players they covet. In the past two years, they haven't established a pattern of doing things one way or another. Last year, they went hard for tight end Jared Cook and had him wrapped up pretty early. Then, they had tackle Jake Long in for a visit, essentially held him hostage and finally signed him. In addition, they have a good track record when it comes to signing players who do visit St. Louis first.

And if the Rams aren't extremely active early on, it's important to remember there will be plenty of free agents to cash in big right away, but the meat of this free-agent market appears to be in the middle. There are plenty of good players after that first rush that could come much cheaper than the big names. Seattle was patient last year and scored big on short, relatively cost-effective deals for defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Patience is a virtue for a reason, and this year doesn't look like it will lack for quality free agents that can be had for mid-level deals or even on one-year "prove it" contracts.

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