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Thread: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

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    Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Ben Frederickson

    ST. LOUIS -- Rodger Saffold wasn't pleased.

    The position was a part of his identity. In the 47 games the St. Louis Rams had played since 2010, he had started there 35 times. Only injuries had kept No. 76 from his place. He was the Rams' left tackle, a title synonymous with big money and respect. He was the protector of star quarterback Sam Bradford's blind side.

    Until suddenly, without a chance to fight for it, the job was no longer his.

    "I think it was more of a shock than anything," St. Louis Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said. "He had some moments, as we will say in our room."

    When the Rams signed former Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long to a four-year, $34 million contract in late March, the team described the acquisition of the elite lineman as a no-brainer. Long was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, a 6-foot-7, 319-pound mountain of a man who had made four Pro Bowls in five years. The team celebrated while Saffold wrestled with the request he knew would come next.

    His agent had made it clear Saffold was not interested switching positions when the Rams started courting Long. Some wondered if Saffold, entering the last year of his rookie contract with the team, would skip voluntary organized team activities as a sign of protest.

    "I hadn't played right tackle since ninth grade," Saffold explained, after the dust finally settled.

    Boudreau understood Saffold's initial reaction, the 'moments' he would rather leave in the past. He figured his upset tackle would come around, and he was right.

    "Rodger is not that kind of kid," Boudreau said. "He wants to win. He wants to be part of the winning tradition we are going to start here. So, he’s going to make it work.”

    So here was Saffold this offseason, relearning a position his 25-year-old body had not played in a decade. He says he is on board now, and his coaches have praised his selflessness for embracing the switch. His continued willingness to adapt will be influential for the Rams' 2013 season, as well as the rest of Saffold's career.


    Boudreau uses a baseball metaphor.

    Imagine a Major Leaguer changing his swing from left to right. The instincts that make the hitter a pro, his ability to track pitches and send the ball a certain way, are still there. It's the awkwardness of the unfamiliar swing that makes it hard.

    Or, here's one anyone can try.

    "If you're right-handed, start writing left-handed," Boudreau said.

    Boudreau has coached NFL offensive linemen since 1987. He knew Saffold, unlike some left tackles, could make the switch to the right side. He cited the 6-foot-5, 314-pound player's all-around athleticism, hip flexibility, use of leverage and proficiency at run blocking as evidence.

    There is one disadvantage, though. Saffold became a starting left tackle at Indiana University halfway through his freshman season. Then, as an NFL rookie in 2010, he claimed the starting spot for the Rams. He never spent time on the right side -- something required of backup NFL guards and tackles so they can fill any position at a moment's notice.

    “If you are a guy who is a backup guy, Rokevious Watkins or Brandon Washington, you are a swing guy," Boudreau said. "So, you are going to have to work like a switch hitter. You are going to have to work a right-handed stance, a left-handed stance. And you get used to it. In Rodger’s case, he’s always been there. Let’s say he’s been playing football for nine or 10 years of his life. He’s always been that way. Now, all of a sudden, he’s changed. It is a mental thing. And it is a physical thing.”

    The frustratingly slow transition started during organized team activities. There, absent of shoulder pads and contact, Saffold spent three weeks learning how to reverse engineer the technique that made him successful on the left side, and apply it to the right.

    "You've got this muscle memory from going one way," Saffold said toward the end of the sessions. "Now, you're trying to flip it and go the other."

    Time and time again, he got down into his new stance, took a step and punched his arms out like pistons. Constantly, he checked the position of every body part, from his feet to his head. Boudreau sometimes asked Saffold to complete this footwork barefoot so the player could better gauge his weight distribution and balance.

    Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

    It's the key to creating new muscle memory.

    “When he gets into a situation where he is more comfortable, then his athleticism, his bend, his flexibility, will come up and come to the top -- just like it did on the left side," Boudreau said.

    Saffold left for summer vacation with an iPad that Larry Clerico, the team's director of video operations, had loaded with clips.

    Some showed Saffold during previous seasons, a left tackle dominating defensive linemen with flawless footwork. Others showed him during organized team activities, a right tackle who often fell out of his stance instead of fired, who backpedaled awkwardly, kicking as if on invisible stilts.

    Comparing the two was supposed to help Saffold convert the latter into the former.


    Jim Hanifan chuckles when he tells his favorite story about a switch.

    "Many, many years ago, I made a big move for an individual," the retired NFL offensive line guru said. "That man was Dan Dierdorf. I moved him from left tackle to right tackle."

    It was 1974, and Hanifan was the offensive line coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Before a practice, while his linemen were loosening up, he noticed his four-time Pro Bowl right tackle, Ernie McMillan, was in a left-handed stance.

    "Why did you get down in that stance?" Hanifan asked.

    "I'm a natural left hander," McMillan answered.

    What transpired was a switch that shifted the 36-year-old McMillan to left tackle, where he played his final two seasons before retirement. But it was Dierdorf, Hanifan's 25-year-old left tackle who moved to the right side in the aftermath, who reaped the reward. Dierdorf made the Pro-Bowl five consecutive times as a right tackle, then added one more trip later in his career. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

    There are others.

    Boudreau cites Willie Roaf, who switched from right tackle to left tackle after his rookie year, and Larry Allen, who played right tackle, right guard and left tackle before settling in at a left guard for his final nine seasons. Both are also members of the Hall of Fame.

    Hanifan offers the following advice for Saffold: Bury any blind-side fascination, and embrace a chance to diversify.

    "If I was sitting here with him right now, I would say, 'Rodger, this is an opportunity for you,'" Hanifan said. "Show the people, not only the Rams, but the National Football League what you are made of. For the good of the team, you're coming over to the right side. Come out here with a bang, not a whimper, and get after it. Prove what kind of player you are."


    A full-contact trial by fire awaits Saffold at the end of this month.

    Chris Long, the Rams' defensive end who has 24.5 sacks in two seasons, will line up in front of Saffold's face when training camp begins. He's proof that quarterback threats thrive on both sides of the defensive line.

    "It doesn’t matter if you get hit by the left guy, or the right," Boudreau said. "Our goal is: Bradford ain’t getting touched after he throws the ball. Dwight Freeney was always a right defensive end. If they found a big, stiff guy at right tackle, Freeney would go over there. They’re going to find the weak link. It’s been that way forever.”

    Saffold says he won't be a weak link. He says he will be ready.

    “It’s unexpected," he said. "But, at the end of the day, you’re happy for it. Because it is more experience, more you can do. It makes you a more-valuable player. Knowing I can play right and left is going to be good for me and my family. So, there’s no problem.”

    He paused, then added:

    "I think I'm really going to be able to play well at this position."
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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Saffold says he won't be a weak link. He says he will be ready.

    “It’s unexpected," he said. "But, at the end of the day, you’re happy for it. Because it is more experience, more you can do. It makes you a more-valuable player. Knowing I can play right and left is going to be good for me and my family. So, there’s no problem.”

    He paused, then added:

    "I think I'm really going to be able to play well at this position.
    I'm not sure Saffold is really happy about playing RT, but he's saying and doing all the right things, and has a good attitude about the situation. His ability to stay healthy and be productive will be key.
    thoey likes this.

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Quote Originally Posted by r8rh8rmike View Post
    His ability to stay healthy and be productive will be key.
    His health is going to be the make or break factor. I think one could surmise that Rodger would rather be playing right tackle on a winning team, than left tackle on a losing team. Saffold has experienced plenty of the latter. Hopefully this year will be the transition year where we have more wins than losses. Nothing like winning to elevate a player's mood.
    RealRam likes this.

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    “It’s unexpected," he said. "But, at the end of the day, you’re happy for it. Because it is more experience, more you can do. It makes you a more-valuable player. Knowing I can play right and left is going to be good for me and my family. So, there’s no problem.”
    It sounds to me like he's a guy who fully expects to hit free agency next year.
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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Quote Originally Posted by Nick View Post
    It sounds to me like he's a guy who fully expects to hit free agency next year.
    Quite possibly, we do have two number one picks again .. High draft picks come much cheaper these days ..

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    I don't have a problem with RS's attitude or honesty. Fisher took care of his RT in Tenn, to the tune of 6yrs/38.9 mill, 10 guaranteed. Even with the 12 mill unlikely to be earned in the last two years, it's good money.And those numbers will be 5 years old when Demoff and Saffold's agent deal next off season. If he stays healthy and plays up to his talent, Roger's family will be just fine.

    At worst, he's a good back-up for Long whose own injury history is a wee bit too action-packed to be ignored.
    And even if he does well & someone wants to overpay him, perhaps we need to get used to good players leaving in FA. At least, I hope so. When was the last time we got a decent compensatory pick ?

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Good story, thanks for the post Maui. I'm certainly glad we're executing this move under Paul Boudreau, who is one of the best OL Coaches in the NFL. Similar to the story with Dierdorf under Hanifan's teaching I think we can make this work well without too many mistakes. As I've said repeatedly, we gotta cut down on the O-Line penalties. I'm hoping this switch won't interfere with that effort.

    Go Rams!

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Quote Originally Posted by Mde8352gorams View Post
    ...Paul Boudreau, ...one of the best OL Coaches in the NFL. ...Make this work well without too many mistakes. As I've said repeatedly, we gotta cut down on the O-Line penalties. I'm hoping this switch won't interfere with that effort.

    Go Rams!
    Just think about it, fewer OL penalties AND a better Bradford.

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    Quote Originally Posted by Nick View Post
    It sounds to me like he's a guy who fully expects to hit free agency next year.
    Sounds that way to me as well, which is to be expected from an emerging talent, looking to get the best deal possible. Hopefully, he has a good year, and the Rams are able to retain him.

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    I agree with Nick, he expects to test the Free Agency waters next year and its likely that a team like Miami will overpay for him as they are shy one LT courtesy of us. If Jake Long works out as planned, the Rams will likely let him walk as we aren't going to overpay for the RT position in my opinion.

    Go Rams!

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    Re: Rams' Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

    To be honest, I'm not going to be too upset if Saffold leaves for FA next year. Never was really a fan of his playing style. Hopefully he can perform strong this year and keep Bradford injury-free. The future is his choice.

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