Rams Sorting Out Tackle Spots
Monday, August 2, 2010
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Rodger Saffold has no problems embracing all of the duties that go with his status as a rookie in the NFL.

Whether it’s carrying helmets or pads, getting breakfast or simply standing still, Saffold is more than willing to do whatever it takes to ingratiate himself into the team concept.

So when Jason Smith, who last year also openly took to all of the usual rookie duties, asked Saffold to stand at his side and just listen as Smith took questions from reporters late last week, one couldn’t help but see the similarities in the duo the Rams hope will serve as the offensive line’s bookends for the next decade or so.

“I am excited about that deal,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we are both young, we both fly around and play football otherwise he wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here. So we are just happy the coaches and people upstairs decided to bring us both here.”

After the Rams used the first pick of the second round on Saffold in April’s NFL Draft, it became clear that general manager Billy Devaney has put a premium on forging a dynamic tackle duo for the future. It was the second time in as many years the Rams had spent a valuable pick on a tackle after taking Smith with the No. 2 overall pick the previous year.

In the minicamps and organized team activities, the Rams got a short glimpse of Smith and Saffold together but a toe injury to Smith and Saffold’s knee ailment cut short the beginning of the tandem’s tenure.

Now in the opening days of this training camp Saffold has returned to full health while Smith is edging closer to a return every day.

When Smith does make his return, there’s seemingly no question that he’ll be a starter opposite Saffold. The biggest question is which player will line up on which side.

“The thing as we go through these practices, we will continue to work with both of these guys and look and find the best spot for everybody,” offensive line coach Steve Loney said. “I think whether you are talking right or left side, just settling into a position is a plus for any offensive lineman. Being able to settle into a single position is a real plus.”

In the opening days of this camp, Saffold has taken the majority of the repetitions on the left side as Smith has been limited to individual drills as he continues to work his way back from a toe fracture.

And though it’s a small sample size, Saffold has certainly taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him. Matching up regularly with veteran end James Hall, Saffold has held his own and showed a strong knack for learning on the go.

“I know one good thing for him, well good or bad however he wants to look at it but he’s going against James Hall a lot,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I mean there’s a veteran (who has) been in this league a long time who’s still skilled. I told James he’s doing a heck of a job and he’ll make Rodger better.”

In his career at Indiana, Saffold started 41 games for the Hoosiers, all of those at the line’s glamour position – left tackle.

Along the way, Saffold quietly built one of the most impressive blocking resumes in the college game despite playing for the struggling Hoosiers.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Saffold let it be known that he grew up idolizing the player that perhaps first gave the left tackle spot its reputation, former Ram Orlando Pace.

And though Saffold is grateful that Pace has allowed him to wear his old No. 76, Saffold says he doesn’t worry much about whether he will actually hold down Pace’s former real estate on the line.

“Right now I am just a tackle,” Saffold said. “Being left or right really doesn’t matter to me at this point. All I want to do is try to continue to help the team wherever I am put. That’s where I will be and I am good with that.”

Of course, when Stave Spagnuolo is your head coach, that’s the right approach because Spagnuolo values versatility in all of his players. So while Saffold acknowledges that he is more used to the left side, he also understands it’s in his best interests to work on both sides.

“Of course I am more comfortable there but I am trying to train my body to play both sides of the position so whenever we do drills of anything I make sure I do the left side and the right side,” Saffold said. “I will continue to be prepared.”

That’s essentially the same tactic Smith took last year when he got to St. Louis. Smith worked repetitions on both sides during training camp before finally settling in on the right side where the Rams could take advantage of his run blocking skills while still developing his pass protection.

Smith entered his rookie training camp with expectations to step in right away and replace Pace. But for most of camp, Smith worked as the third tackle, “swinging” back and forth between the left and right sides.

Eventually, Smith won the right tackle job just before the season started. After a hiccup came in the form of an early season knee injury, he bounced back and flashed some of his immense potential before a concussion prematurely ended his season.

At the time of that injury, the Rams coaching staff believed the offensive line was beginning to hit its stride.

When Smith is cleared to play, it’s expected he’ll get looks on both sides and – like Saffold – he’s not worried about whether that look will come on the left or right side.

“The great thing about being an offensive lineman is if you are going to be one you have got to be able to play every position whether it’s guard, center, tackle, tight end,” Smith said. “You have to be able to put the five best on the field. Wherever they put me is fine, wherever they put Rodger I am sure is fine. We are just going to line up and play football.”

Ultimately, that’s precisely what the Rams will do. Because so many of the members of the line can play multiple positions on it, the Rams will mix and match to find the five best. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to figure that out sooner than later.

“That’s what we would do,” Spagnuolo said. “When you really look at it, Jason has been here a year, but I only got a half year out of him. So they’re really almost at the same stage. Certainly Rodger has got a little ways to go because he’s a rookie. That will be one of those…at some point; you’ve got to settle in on your offensive line so we’ll certainly do that.”

Regardless of which side Saffold and Smith end up manning; all parties are just hopeful that when they do settle on a spot, they will be set in those spots for a long time to come.

“These guys are hard working guys and both athletic,” Loney said. “They want to be good and I think anytime you are teaching somebody and working with somebody with that type of attitude, it is exciting. They are like sponges; they soak up everything you give them. That’s important so they don’t try to do everything at once and take it in increments. I think their attitude is contagious. I am excited to be working with them.”