NFL Nation: Chris Williams

How much does size matter?

To the Buffalo Bills, quite a lot. On Tuesday, we noted how the Bills have the NFL's tallest group of receivers. That's just one position, but it's not the only spot where the Bills top the league's charts -- at least on paper.

The Bills also have the NFL's heaviest offensive line, and it's barely even a contest. The average weight of their 15 offensive linemen is 325.2 pounds, far and away the biggest group in the league. Only the Oakland Raiders, at 320.3 pounds, come close.

Unlike at receiver, where most of the team's height is concentrated in players at the bottom of the depth chart, the Bills have both starting linemen and developmental blockers who break the scales.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn, who has started 29 games since being drafted in the second round two years ago, is listed at 345 pounds, making him the fourth-heaviest offensive lineman currently on an NFL roster. He's tied with rookie Seantrel Henderson, the Bills' seventh-round pick, who also checks in at 345 pounds.

In addition to Henderson, the Bills added 343-pound Cyril Richardson in the fifth round earlier this month. Ideally, Richardson and Henderson will both stick on the 53-man roster and could have eventually have potential to start.

The two draft picks are the latest in a pipeline of massive offensive linemen that general manager Doug Whaley has brought to Buffalo. They're projects for coach Doug Marrone, a former offensive line coach, as well as Pat Morris, the Bills' current offensive line coach.

The Bills ended last season with a trio of developmental guards who are on the larger side: Antoine McClain (336 pounds), Mark Asper (325 pounds), and J.J. Unga (320 pounds). Whaley plucked Unga off the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad, while McClain was claimed off waivers from the Raiders. All three may have an uphill battle to make the cut this season.

No matter who the Bills keep of their current bunch of 15, the size of the group will be striking. It's Whaley's vision to beat his opponents with superior size, and he'll have plenty of it along his offensive line this season.

But will it make the difference? Much like the Bills' ongoing expedition to find a productive, tall wide receiver, the Bills' super-sized offensive line will need to show that their eye-opening height and weight figures printed on the roster are more than just numbers.

The results will need to come on the field before Whaley's strategy can be given the stamp of approval. Take last season for instance. The Bills gave Colin Brown -- a mountain of a man, at 6-foot-7 and 326 pounds -- the nod at left guard to start the regular season. He struggled in five starts and was finding new work by October, replaced by an undersized Doug Legursky.

The Bills should be leery of a similar outcome with Chris Williams, a free agent whom they signed to a four-year deal in March. Williams, who is 6-foot-6 and 326 pounds, has a shaky track record as an NFL starter. He'll slide in at left guard. Could Buffalo be a good fit for him? Of course. But if it isn't, Legursky will be the likely fallback option.

Pass protection will be another consideration. Size and brute strength work well in the running game, especially in power blocking schemes, but technique and athleticism come more into play in the passing game. Glenn handled EJ Manuel's blindside well last season but there were breakdowns elsewhere. With new starters possible at both left guard and right tackle, keeping Manuel upright will be key this season.

In the meantime, the Bills have another distinction to celebrate. With rosters nearly complete after the draft, the Bills have emerged with the NFL's premier size at both receiver and offensive line.

Now they have to show why that matters, on the field -- where it counts.
ORLANDO, Fla. – Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone has a history of working with offensive linemen. That’s why Marrone sounded excited about working with free-agent pickup Chris Williams.

A first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2008, Williams has never lived up to expectations while bouncing between guard and tackle. He started 16 games at guard for St. Louis last season, but the Rams weren’t eager to re-sign him. But Marrone sees Williams as a reclamation project.

“I’ve been part of this before,’’ Marrone said during the AFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday morning. “I was fortunate that I had a player, Jeff Faine, out of Cleveland that wasn’t playing that we were able to attain in New Orleans and he came in and performed at a Pro Bowl level and became the highest paid center in the league.

“My goal, my challenge, is to have the same type of thing happen with Chris. I’m excited about working with him. I know there are a lot of people that have a lot of question marks about him. I really don’t. I don’t at all. I’m fired up to work with him and he’s fired up.’’

Marrone believes Williams can be an impact player at left guard. That’s why the Bills gave him a four-year contract worth $13.5 million. Marrone said he thought Williams had enormous potential when he was coming out of college.

“I really liked Chris coming out,’’ Marrone said. “I really thought he had the skill that someone like myself was looking for in an offensive lineman. I know that things have not worked out as well for him or things have not gone the way he wanted them to go for himself or probably the team that picked him. It’s been tough. There have been struggles for him. People have gotten on him.’’

But, now, maybe it’s time for Williams to finally reach his potential.

In other news, Marrone said it’s possible the Bills will practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the preseason. Marrone also said cornerback Corey Graham, who the Bills signed in free agency, might be moved to safety.
After a flurry of activity last week, the Buffalo Bills were quiet on the free-agent front this weekend.

That gives us a chance to take a step back and assess what the team has done thus far. It's still early in the process -- the free-agent signing period began less than a week ago -- but the following is our early read on the Bills' moves.

Let's rank them, best to worst:

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaSigning Brandon Spikes should shore up the Bills' run defense.
1. Signing Brandon Spikes: This is the player Bills fans wanted in Buffalo. Spikes adds toughness and physicality to a run defense that struggled at times last season. The Bills wanted to free up Kiko Alonso to make more plays, so they moved Alonso to the weak side and signed Spikes to take on more blockers at the line of scrimmage. Spikes can handle that load, and he'll have help in front of him from a pair of Pro Bowl defensive tackles: Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Spikes got a one-year, $3.25 million deal that can reach $3.5 million with incentives. The contract is incentive enough for Spikes; he'll be in a "prove-it" situation that could allow him to have greater value on the open market next offseason with a strong season in Buffalo.

2. Signing Corey Graham: The Bills may have overpaid a little here, but that's OK. Even if Graham doesn't slide into a starting spot, he figures to play the majority of defensive snaps. Cornerback play is as important as ever in the NFL, especially at the depth levels. If opposing offenses spread the field, Graham will be an asset in the slot or on the outside. Signing Graham also helps the Bills avoid a situation like early last season, when injuries forced Justin Rogers into the starting lineup. That wasn't a good fit for Rogers, but paying Graham $4 million per season is insurance against that happening again. Graham also adds value on special teams, where the Bills had issues last season.

3. Signing Keith Rivers: Of the Bills' moves thus far, this one may have flown under the radar the most, yet Rivers could have a significant role in the Bills' new defense. Since Spikes is a weaker player against the pass, Rivers will likely be part of sub packages on passing downs. He'll need to show off some athleticism that the New York Giants didn't see in him, as they turned to Jacquian Williams in that role instead. Overall, Rivers is expected to have a bigger role than he had in New York, which is where the Bills are gambling a bit. Still, it's a low-risk, high-upside signing, as the Bills signed Rivers for $5 million over the next two seasons. Their best move is to supplement the position in the draft.

4. Re-signing Dan Carpenter: The Bills got Carpenter back at an affordable price, paying him an average of $2.49 million over the next four seasons. If Carpenter keeps up his pace from last season -- when he didn't miss a kick after the first quarter -- he'll continue to be a quality find by the Bills' front office. Then again, if Dustin Hopkins is eventually waived and performs just as well elsewhere for a lesser price, the move to go with Carpenter won't look quite as good. Carpenter still needs to improve on his kickoffs, but he wasn't phased by the Buffalo weather on his field goals last season.

5. Signing Chris Williams: The Bills had a need at left guard. Was Chris Williams the best option available? Possibly. But why sign him to a deal with $5 million in guaranteed money? As much as general manager Doug Whaley disagrees with the term here, Williams was a bust with the Chicago Bears. Yes, he's still in the league -- but his play was shaky last season for the St. Louis Rams, and now the Bills are banking on him as their starting left guard. It's not going to crush the salary cap or doom the team if Williams flops, but it's just an odd move. Why not limit your contract offer to a one-year, "prove-it" deal and make Williams fight for a starting job?

Note: Financial terms for tight end Scott Chandler and running back Anthony Dixon are not yet available, so we'll hold them out of the ranking for now.
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:


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.


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.

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.

Triple Coverage: Bills sign Chris Williams

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
Chris WilliamsAP Photo/David SeeligWill newly acquired Chris Williams garner success on the Bills' offensive line in 2014?
The Buffalo Bills addressed a need along their offensive line Wednesday, signing former St. Louis Rams guard Chris Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million deal.

Williams, a former first-round pick, never panned out with the Chicago Bears. He started 16 games at left guard last season and now will have a chance to step into that same role with the Bills.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, and ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson discuss the signing:

Rodak: Nick, how did the Rams' line as a whole perform last season? Did Williams make it better or worse?

Wagoner: As expected, the Rams had their share of injury issues on a line full of veterans. They were mostly solid, especially after the team refocused on the run game. But they also had their share of struggles, especially when they faced the dominant front sevens in the NFC West. Williams was the weakest link of the group, though he provided more durability than any of his linemates. He held up OK, but those division foes especially had a knack for getting the better of him.

Jeff, you saw Williams early in his career and when the Bears first tried to make him a guard. Did you ever envision he'd land a contract like the one he got from Buffalo?

Dickerson: Not a chance. The Bears touted Williams as their franchise left tackle of the future when the team selected him in the first round (No. 14 overall) of the 2008 NFL draft, but he hardly lived up to expectations and is considered one of the Bears' biggest draft busts, along with Gabe Carimi, in the last seven or eight years. His chronic injuries and uneven play ultimately led to his release. To be fair, Williams turned out to be much better suited to play inside at guard, however, he was never viewed as one of the elite guards in the NFL, except by the Bills, apparently.

Rodak: Jeff, Doug Marrone is a former offensive line coach and has valued size among offensive linemen early in his tenure with the Bills. Williams (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) is a load, but how effectively did he use his size with the Bears?

Dickerson: Again, I don't want to make it sound as if Williams was a terrible guard, but he never had the reputation of being an ultra-athletic or ultra-aggressive offensive lineman. Maybe that changed when Williams went to St. Louis. Obviously, he has the requisite size to play inside. Marrone is a terrific coach. Hopefully it's a good pairing. But his size was never viewed as a negative or a positive when Williams played in Chicago.

Rodak: Nick, what was your sense on how the Rams valued Williams? Do you think they wanted to bring him back as a starter?

Wagoner: They had interest in bringing him back, though I think it's likely if he'd come back he would have either been a backup or, more likely, in a competition for the starting job like he was in 2013. To me, it made sense if they could get him back to serve as a swing man simply because he could play anywhere on the line except center. Having a player like that at a cheap price is pretty much ideal for a backup. But I don't think they were going to extend themselves too far to bring him back. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a great reputation for taking reclamation projects and getting something out of them. Although this is another starter subtracted from the line, I believe the Rams feel they can upgrade the starter at this spot and develop someone else to fill a backup swing role he could have had.

Jeff, something that applies to the Rams and Bills, but you saw up close. The Rams look like they're going to have to do some quick work to improve the line this offseason and they may have to use the draft to do so. It seems the Bears were able to do that last year, what did you see in how they were able to turn it around so quickly?

Dickerson: General manager Phil Emery double-dipped in free agency and the draft. He spent big bucks to land left tackle Jermon Bush and reunite him with his old New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and followed that up by signing guard Matt Slauson. Both turned out to be major upgrades over what the Bears had in 2012. Then Emery drafted right guard Kyle Long in the first round and right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round to complement veteran center Roberto Garza. It was a stroke of pure genius.

Wagoner: The Rams might need some of that genius in the next couple of months here though when they lean on Boudreau to be their offensive line whisperer of sorts.

Mike, obviously this is a move that has Jeff and I scratching our heads, and I know you feel that way, too. What was the need for Buffalo on the offensive line, how do you see Williams fitting in and what do the Bills hope to get from him?

Rodak: Nick, the Bills have told Williams that they want him to be their left guard. That was a problem area for the Bills last season, as they never found someone reliable to step in for Andy Levitre. The Bills are big on Williams' size and if it works out, then he'll be an upgrade over Doug Legursky, who should ideally be their backup center. With the contract the Bills gave Williams, he should be starting at left guard on Day 1. If he's not, that's a problem. They're not paying him to be a backup, although with his versatility, he could help as a swing player at several positions. It's a signing that addresses an area of need but also comes with an element of financial risk.
Chris WilliamsAP Photo/Tom GannamChris Williams started all 16 games last season for the St. Louis Rams.
Financial discipline? Not finding it here.

In their first signing of free agency, the Buffalo Bills overreached by signing former St. Louis Rams guard Chris Williams to a four-year contract. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, the deal totals $13.5 million with $5.5 million guaranteed.

Williams has done little to prove he should be a full-time starter in the NFL. He was largely considered a bust with the Chicago Bears, who drafted him 14th overall in 2008.

The Bears wanted him to be a stalwart at tackle. He wasn't. The Bears moved him to guard in 2010. That didn't work out either. In October 2012, after Williams sat as a healthy scratch for two games, the Bears released him.

Williams caught on with the Rams and started all 16 games at left guard last season. The analytics website graded him as the worst player on the Rams and as one of the worst guards in the NFL.

The Bills are all too familiar with sub-par guard play: Colin Brown was thrown around early last season before being released, while Doug Legursky was often undersized and over-matched at left guard. Simply put, they were in need of an upgrade.

But to "upgrade" doesn't mean to "overpay," and that's what the Bills are doing with Williams. The Bills are trying to correct one mistake with another. It comes off as an overreaction.

Williams would have been a solid addition as a backup along the offensive line. He could kick outside in a pinch and may have even been an upgrade over Thomas Welch as a swing tackle. He would have also been an upgrade at backup guard, where the Bills had little to offer last season.

As a starter, though? The Bills are taking a gamble, and if it doesn't work out, they're left with an overpaid lineman sitting on their bench.

It isn't shocking that the Bills wanted Williams. Coach Doug Marrone has expressed a desire to get bigger along the offensive line. Williams (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) fits that bill, but his size doesn't necessarily mean that he's a quality starter.

Still, general manager Doug Whaley deserves some benefit of the doubt. Last spring, he traded for Jerry Hughes -- a former draft bust with the Indianapolis Colts -- and Hughes turned into a plus pass-rusher for the Bills.

The difference is that by trading for Hughes, the Bills didn't inherit any financial risk from the Colts. Had Hughes flopped in Buffalo, they could have released him and avoided paying his $3.9 million base salary this season, with no dead money implications.

In Williams' case, the Bills are banking on the former first-round pick being an "ascending" player after descending for most of his career. If he isn't, they're out $5.5 million in guaranteed money.

Between Williams and Kraig Urbik, who was underwhelming last season, the Bills could be spending more than $6 million in cap space on their guards this season. Whaley has said he wants to "build along the lines," but paying guards is often less of a priority in the NFL than centers, tackles or defensive linemen.

All around, this one is just a head-scratcher.
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.

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.

Free-agency primer: Rams

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: OL Rodger Saffold, QB Kellen Clemens, OL Chris Williams, OG Shelley Smith

Where they stand: The offensive line is the one area with the most questions heading into 2014. The larger-than-expected salary-cap increase will likely allow the Rams to retain one of their costlier veterans (probably center Scott Wells) to lessen the need a little, but the Rams still have a decision to make on guard Harvey Dahl and his $4 million cap number. Likewise, Saffold, Smith and Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. The Rams badly want to keep Saffold and will push hard to do so with the idea that he can be a starter at one of the guard spots long term. Bringing back Williams or Smith would give them a potential starter inside or better yet, experienced depth. The secondary is the other area in need of reinforcements. St. Louis could probably use a starter and a backup at safety and another top-three-caliber corner with the pending release of Cortland Finnegan. Bringing Clemens back as a No. 3 who can tutor whomever the Rams draft in May might also make sense.

What to expect: The Rams have spent lavishly in free agency in each of their first two years under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. The results of those signings have been mixed at best, and the better signings have been the more midlevel moves, like signing and re-signing defensive end William Hayes and the addition of defensive tackle Kendall Langford. The Rams insist they're coming close to breaking through, and if they truly believe that, they'll have some young talent to re-sign in the next few years. Spending big in free agency isn't usually a path to success, and the Rams probably won't be very active this year, at least compared to the previous two. Many will connect the Rams to Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, but that seems a bit overblown given what Verner is likely to cost. If Saffold departs, perhaps the Rams spend to find a piece on the offensive line or elsewhere, but if they have it their way, expect retaining Saffold to be the "big" free-agent move.
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.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonRetaining 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.
According to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, Rodger Saffold isn’t the only free-agent starting guard the team would like to have back in 2014.

With the potential for major turnover on the offensive line, Fisher indicated Friday that the Rams would like to solidify the interior by bringing back Saffold and pairing him with another incumbent, veteran Chris Williams.

“Yeah, we had a really good visit when he left,” Fisher said. “He’d like to come back and it makes sense that we would try.”

Williams was the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games for St. Louis in 2014, lining up at left guard throughout the season.

That durability, along with his versatility -- he also served as a backup swing tackle -- were welcome additions to an offensive line that had a relative lack of both last season.

Fisher said Williams’ value went beyond simply showing up and staying on the field.

“He played good, he was solid,” Fisher said. “When you don’t hear his name, you don’t talk about him.”

While Williams was reliable, left guard remains a position that could definitely use an upgrade. Williams had some good moments as a run blocker but for the most part struggled against bigger, more physical fronts in the NFC West.

When the Rams traveled to San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle late in the season, Williams had some extremely rough outings, particularly against the Cardinals.

For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus graded Williams at minus-21.8, the worst grade of any player on the team.

If nothing else, bringing Williams back figures to be a relatively cheap option to fill a possible hole on the offensive line. He played on a one-year, $1.376 million contract with incentives in 2013 and a similar deal might make sense if the Rams choose to bring him back.

Should the Rams lose Saffold, bringing Williams might make even more sense given his ability to play guard and tackle. Beyond Williams, the Rams also have guard Brandon Washington, a player they still have hopes for and whom they carried on the roster most of the season. Shelley Smith is another option, though he too is an unrestricted free agent.

In an ideal world, Williams is probably best suited as a utility backup capable of playing anywhere on the line and backing up at four positions. But if the Rams intend to improve the offensive line in 2014, improving at left guard is a necessity.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- You’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman who prefers pass blocking to run blocking.

The chance to run block allows any offensive lineman the chance to come flying out of his stance and physically dominate the man across from him. Pass blocking puts the pass in passive, asking linemen to wait for the collision to come to him with more precision and technique required.

So it’s no surprise that the St. Louis Rams' offensive line enjoys the power running game that has become the centerpiece of the offense in the past seven games.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Zac Stacy
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the past seven games, the Rams revamped their running game, averaging 151.86 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry, led by running back Zac Stacy.
“It feels good,” right tackle Joe Barksdale said. “You aren’t as physical in pass protection. It’s more technical. Run blocking is technical, too, but being able to line up every once in a while and just come off the ball and hit somebody and not worrying about a quarterback getting killed is pretty fun.”

It’s one thing to enjoy an activity. It’s another thing all together to actually be good at it.

For whatever reason, Rams offensive linemen Barksdale, Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Rodger Saffold and Shelley Smith have proved to be particularly proficient when it comes to repeatedly clearing space in the run game as opposed to keeping the quarterback upright while dropping back 50 times a game.

“We always talk about balance, and I think our guys can do whatever we ask them to do,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “I think they like that style of offense is probably the better way to say it. They like coming off the ball and trying to work double teams and things like that. But they’ll do whatever we ask. It’s been fun to watch these guys.”

Soon after the Rams’ 35-11 loss to San Francisco on Sept. 26, the Rams had hit an early season low point and lagged behind in many areas. None more so than the run game.

At that point, the Rams were dead last in the NFL in rushing at 47.25 yards per game. They were only slightly better in yards per carry, ranking 31st at 2.59 yards per attempt.

In the days after that game, Fisher, Schottenheimer and the offensive staff gathered over the long weekend and began piecing together the formations and plays they wanted to incorporate.

They also changed personnel at running back by plugging in Zac Stacy as the starter and added more multiple-tight-end and power-I formation stuff with guys like Cory Harkey and Lance Kendricks more prominently involved. The coaching staff also emphasized the need for better blocking outside the hashes from the receivers, something else that has improved during the Rams’ run-game renaissance.

Schematically, the Rams have stuck to what they know in terms of keeping Stacy between the tackles with plenty of inside zone calls, many of them to the left side behind Long, Williams and Harkey at fullback.

“It starts upstairs,” Fisher said. “Guys have done a great job upstairs with the scheme, with the game plan and then carrying it over to the practice field. It just doesn’t stop with the line.”

The personnel on the offensive line was the one area that didn’t see much change, though injuries have caused the occasional shakeup.

Barksdale stepped in for an injured Saffold at right tackle and played well enough to hang on to the job upon Saffold’s return. Dahl suffered a knee injury and Smith stepped in before ceding the job to Saffold, who has excelled in two starts on the interior.

No matter how the Rams have mixed and matched in the past seven games, they’ve found ways to have success on the ground.

“I think we are a lot more physical, a lot more aggressive,” Saffold said. “We started out kind of like a different game plan. Now we are a lot more balanced.”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. In the past seven games, the Rams are averaging 151.86 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Both of those totals rank second in the league over that span.

The net effect of the improved run game has also allowed for the Rams to make more plays down the field in the passing game, many of those coming off play-action. The Rams are 9-of-20 on throws 20 yards or more down the field in those seven games, a vast improvement from the first four contests.

And though they still prefer to run block, the pass blocking comes much easier after the run has been established.

“It’s really good, because it takes a lot of the heat off when you are dealing with the pass rush,” Saffold said. “When they get their ears pinned back, they start chipping away at you, and after that it can be one technique or one move that gets you beat, so of course we love to take the pressure off of doing that. I think we have been able to pass and run very effectively, especially these last few games, and it’s really opened up a lot of things for us.”

RB Zac Stacy probable for Sunday

November, 29, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It had been trending this direction all week but barring a setback, the St. Louis Rams will have their trio of concussed players, including running back Zac Stacy, available Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams practiced fully on Friday and are officially listed as probable on the team's Friday injury report. That group has gone through the necessary steps to be cleared by doctors to return and appears on course to play in San Francisco.

Clearly, having all three key starters available is a positive thing for the Rams, particularly in a game where all hands on deck will be required against the Niners.

While Stacy has been having much success running the ball of late, it's Johnson's likely return that might be the most imperative. That's because the Rams lost Cortland Finnegan to injured reserve because of an eye injury last week and cornerback Brandon McGee suffered a foot injury in Thursday's practice that kept him out Friday and has him designated as questionable for Sunday.

With Johnson's return on track, the Rams would have Johnson, Janoris Jenkins and Quinton Pointer as the only healthy available cornerbacks. Safety Rodney McLeod can also play in the slot and has in sub-packages a number of times this season.

Here's how the rest of the Rams' Friday injury report shapes up:

Questionable: McGee, S T.J. McDonald (shin), G Harvey Dahl (knee)
Probable: Stacy, Johnson, Williams, LB Will Witherspoon (not injury related), DE Eugene Sims (foot)

More progress for three concussed Rams

November, 28, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Although they have yet to be officially cleared to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the St. Louis Rams' trio of concussed players appear to be trending toward a return a week after suffering their injuries.

Running back Zac Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams all participated in Thursday's practice. They were not allowed to have contact yet but they were able to work at a normal tempo. They're officially listed as limited participation on the injury report.

"As protocol continues, we were able to get the three players that are going through the process with the concussions on the field today," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "No contact, but full speed and that's encouraging."

Fisher said the three players still have another hurdle to clear before they can be cleared and the final tests of the process will take place Friday. He did acknowledge that "everything looks good" for the potential return of all three players against the Niners.

Guard Harvey Dahl (knee) also made some progress and did some limited work with the scout team.

Cornerback Brandon McGee was the only addition to the injury report after he appeared to tweak his foot during practice. He's listed as limited.

Here's the full breakdown:

Did not participate: LB Will Witherspoon (not injury related)

Limited participation: Stacy, Williams, Johnson, Dahl, McGee, safety T.J. McDonald (shin)

Full participation: DE Eugene Sims (foot)

Stacy, Johnson, Williams 'doing well'

November, 27, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. --The St. Louis Rams continue to monitor their three key starters who left last week's game against the Chicago Bears with a concussion as they move toward Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Running back Zac Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams did not participate in Wednesday's practice according to the team's official injury report, but all three are making strides in a positive direction according to coach Jeff Fisher.

"All three of them are doing well," Fisher said. "They're all going through the process right now and they're all doing well."

Stacy and Johnson, in particular, appeared to be in pretty good shape Wednesday. That duo spent part of the practice running sprints on the side with head athletic trainer Reggie Scott.

Toward the end of Wednesday's practice, the Rams removed their pads and went to a walkthrough pace. All three players participated at the walkthrough pace.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams were also without guard Harvey Dahl (knee), linebacker Will Witherspoon (not injury related) and safety T.J. McDonald (shin) for Wednesday's workout.

Defensive end Eugene Sims (foot) was limited.
ST. LOUIS -- For the better part of the past decade, whenever the Rams needed leadership in a close and late situation, they turned to running back Steven Jackson.

Trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter Sunday against Arizona, Jackson was nowhere to be found. After an offseason of building an offense with quarterback Sam Bradford as the centerpiece and as he enters another season as an offensive captain, all eyes were on Bradford.

Bradford doesn’t have the fiery, in-your-face personality that many often (and mistakenly) associate with leadership. He’s always been a calm, lead-by-example type who wants to lead with actions rather than words.

So when Bradford entered the huddle with his team trailing 24-13 and less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, his teammates saw exactly what they always see from Bradford. He stayed the same on the next possession and every one thereafter.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesQuarterback Sam Bradford rallied the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Week 1.
“Sam is cool as a cucumber all the time, man,” left guard Chris Williams said. “That’s just Sam for you. He’s not a panic guy. It’s great.”

Starting with that drive late in the third, Bradford went on to complete six passes in a row for 76 yards and a touchdown to draw the Rams within five. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Bradford found another way to add points to the Rams’ tally, taking a snap out of the shotgun, showing pass and bursting into the end zone to trim it to three.

“Yeah, how’d you guys like that?” Bradford said, laughing. “That was pretty good, huh? I think they had no idea that I was going to run the ball on that play and I think that’s why it worked so well. But hey, we’ll take what they give us.”

Bradford’s late-game heroics weren’t limited to sneak-attack runs either. Starting from that late drive in the third quarter, Bradford went 11-of-13 for 128 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 133.3 to close out the game and the Cardinals.

For Bradford to take the next step and become the quarterback he was drafted to be and that the Rams believe he can be, he’ll need to continue to find ways to bring his team back when it falls behind.

In his first two seasons, Bradford struggled in late-game situations. In games where his team was either up or down by seven points or fewer, Bradford posted a rating of 67.6 as a rookie and 75.0 in 2011.

Although it went a bit under the radar, Bradford began to show a penchant for coming through when the Rams needed it most in 2012. With the Rams in more close games last year, Bradford got better and better with victories on the line as the season went along.

When all was said and done, Bradford posted a rating of 92.7 in the fourth quarter of games still hanging in the balance and led the Rams to game-winning drives in fourth-quarter comebacks three times and engineered a comeback that led to a tie against San Francisco. That doesn't include a near-miss in last year's season opener in Detroit.

Bradford led a game-winning, fourth-quarter comeback just once in his first two seasons.

“Sam did a great job,” tight end Jared Cook said. “He kept his composure the whole time. He put everybody on his back and on his shoulders, and he carried us to victory.”

That Bradford is not only embracing his role as a leader but also proving capable of handling the role in winning fashion is a good sign not only for his future but for the Rams. The team invested heavily in surrounding him with talent in the offseason and has committed to making him the focal point of the franchise moving forward.

It’s only one week into the season but a comeback win in which the Rams scored the final 14 points of the game would seem to be a good building block from which to grow.

“He’s a tough kid and he battles hard and I think he works as hard as anybody in this league,” said defensive end Chris Long, a close friend of Bradford’s. “He’s had a lot not go in his favor so far in his career that he can’t control. So to have him with every resource at his disposal and the continuity that he has going into this year, that’s big. You’ll see great results.”

As for any lingering doubt that might have been left as to where to look when a boost is needed, there’s clearly a consensus choice in the locker room.

“It’s Sam’s team,” Long said. “It’s Sam’s team all the way. We have built things around him so it’s Sam’s team. That’s the way everybody wants it.”