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Friday, March 7, 2014
Rams free-agent preview: Offensive line

By Nick Wagoner

The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: It's no secret the Rams have some potential moving parts on the offensive line heading into free agency but things are beginning to crystallize before the market opens on March 11. Among the players who started most of 2013, left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Joe Barksdale and center Scott Wells are still in place.

Rodger Saffold
Retaining Rodger Saffold could be the key to the Rams' offseason plans to upgrade the offensive line.
Long is recovering from a knee injury and his status for the first week is up in the air though the Rams remain optimistic he'll be ready for the opener. Barksdale had a solid season though he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year. Wells has long been considered a potential cap casualty but the larger-than-expected salary cap makes it more likely he'll stick around.

The biggest question here centers on guard Harvey Dahl, who carries a $4 million salary-cap number into next season and is coming off another season-ending injury. The Rams could make a move to create space now or see how other things play out before making a decision.

Beyond that quartet, the Rams have youngsters such as Brandon Washington, Barrett Jones and Mike Person whom they have been grooming in hopes they'll step in to help at some point. Center Tim Barnes started a few games at the end of the year in Wells' place and should be back to compete again.

Pending free agents: Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, Barnes (exclusive rights/already tendered)

What's needed: The Rams' offensive line as a whole outperformed its individual pieces in 2013. A lot of the credit for that should go to offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. The Rams' presumptive starting five from the beginning of the year played just 295 of the team's 968 snaps together last season, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three other units around the league spent less time together on the field.

The thing about the missed time is that it was expected. The Rams entered the year with a veteran but injury-prone group and it lived up to that billing. That's what makes the offensive line the team's top priority heading into the offseason. They need to  get younger and more talented so they can finally have a group that sticks together awhile without having some sort of major makeover every offseason.

Beyond that, the Rams want to be a physical, run-first offense in a division loaded with fearsome front sevens. They do just fine with Boudreau maximizing lesser talents but if they want to reach the next level, it makes sense to give him something better than regular old clay to work with.

In terms of specifics, the Rams could use help at both guard spots and a top-tier tackle who could start on the right side and become Long's future replacement.

Possible fits: The best in-house fit is Saffold. The Rams really want to bring him back but they're going to have a lot of competition. Bringing Saffold back would cure a lot of what ails the offensive line. He'd be the long-term option at guard and provide solid depth at tackle. That wouldn't mean they could just skip over the line in the draft but it would lessen the need. Coach Jeff Fisher has also said he'd like to bring Chris Williams back and that could make sense so long as he's cheap depth and not expected to be a starter. Some also are high on the potential of Smith, though I don't see it after watching him struggle against some of the league's better fronts. If Saffold departs, the Rams could look to spend some money on a veteran guard such as Denver's Zane Beadles or Kansas City's Jon Asamoah or Geoff Schwartz. The market for linemen doesn't look very strong, though.

Verdict: One way or another, the Rams are going to make some changes or moves along the offensive line. I tend to doubt Dahl will return though if Saffold leaves, maybe the Rams allow him to play the final year of his contract. Everything that happens here will depend on Saffold but I do expect the Rams to bring back at least one from the group of Saffold, Williams and Smith. When all is said and done, it would be a surprise if the Rams don't spend at least some free-agent money and draft capital addressing the offensive line.