- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS – To his recollection, Rodger Saffold hasn’t played guard since he was a member of the Heskett (Ohio) Hornets in seventh grade.
Barring some sort of unforeseen switch, that’s going to change Sunday when Saffold is expected to make his first NFL start at right guard for the St. Louis Rams.
This after Saffold spent the week working exclusively on the inside in an effort to get up to speed at what is his third offensive line position in the past two seasons.
“It’s definitely been different, but it’s also been a new challenge, which kind of makes things interesting,” Saffold said.
Normal starter Harvey Dahl is out again this week as he recovers from a knee injury, and the Rams find themselves looking to create the best possible front five. Last week, it was Shelley Smith who got the start against Tennessee.
Smith had his share of struggles in that game, but the switch to Saffold appears to be more a move toward the old adage of having your best five on the field rather than an indictment of Smith.
In fact, there are some in the Rams organization who have long believed that Saffold -- 6-foot-5, 314 pounds -- was a solid tackle, he had even more potential as a guard.
“I think if I continue to take things the way I have been taking them and coming out and being aggressive, while still being inside, I feel like it doesn’t matter where I play,” Saffold said.
Saffold spent his first three NFL seasons at left tackle, where he started 35 games, but he ceded that spot to Jake Long when the Rams signed him to a lucrative free-agent contract in the offseason.
The Rams opted to move Saffold to the right side in hopes that he could serve as the bookend for Long, but the injury problems that plagued Saffold and caused the Rams to pursue Long in the first place have again hampered Saffold this year.
Saffold suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason opener against Cleveland but bounced back in time to start the season at his new position. It didn’t take long for another injury to hit, as Saffold sustained a knee injury in the second week against Atlanta.
After a quicker-than-expected recovery, Saffold returned to the field on Oct. 20 against Carolina, serving as half of a near-even timeshare with Joe Barksdale, who replaced him when he was injured.
In the two games since, what was an even split has devolved into a strong majority of snaps for Barksdale and less work for Saffold. Against the Titans, Saffold played 19 snaps to Barksdale’s 51.
That sizable playing time difference came just two weeks from a game against the Panthers in which Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Saffold was “just shy of dominant” at times.
So clearly the Rams’ main goal is to get their five best offensive linemen on the field, especially with Dahl unavailable.
“Whatever I’m doing, I’m going to try to do to the best of my ability,” Saffold said. “I’m doing this so I make sure that Harvey can breathe easy and recover without hurting himself so he can come back ready to go.”
In making the move back inside, there’s plenty for Saffold to adjust to; things like learning how to flatten out his blocking angles and getting the correct depth in his pass protection sets.
There’s also an adjustment to things happening a little faster and in a much smaller space. The Rams did all they could to throw different looks at Saffold this week, but it stands to reason he’ll have some growing pains in playing a position he hasn’t played since he was a youngster in Ohio.
Between the injuries, the position changes and his pending free agency, Saffold is to be commended for handling his ever-changing role with grace when it would be easy to pout.
It appears the Rams and Saffold are almost certainly headed for an offseason divorce, but Saffold remains resolute in trying to help the team in the meantime.
“Each day is a challenge, each day is new,” Saffold said. “With so many injuries and so many unknowns, basically it’s just a [question] of ‘where can you help us?’ So that’s why I got moved.”