Much to consider on Rams' offensive line
January, 10, 2014
By Nick Wagoner | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- As the offseason approaches, there's no spot on the St. Louis Rams' roster with more questions than the offensive line.

Of the five linemen who opened the season as starters in 2013, it's possible that none will be available for opening day in 2014.

Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. Center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl are under contract, but with salary cap numbers projected at $6.5 million and $4 million, respectively, either or both could become salary cap casualties.

To top it off, left tackle Jake Long suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 against Tampa Bay and at the very least would be cutting a return for the opener awfully close.

Put simply, the Rams have much to figure out in free agency and the draft.

"That's what the offseason is for," general manager Les Snead said. "We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."

As is often the case with offseason plans, Snead declined to elaborate on what the Rams' strategy for the line is moving forward. Regardless, it's probably a safe bet the Rams will be making some changes and adding some new pieces one way or another.

While decisions on Wells and Dahl may be the first order of business, figuring out a way to retain Saffold is the one piece of the puzzle Snead made clear the Rams are looking to figure out.

Saffold moved to right tackle in the offseason and started the year there before a knee injury cost him four games. He returned and began rotating with his replacement, Joe Barksdale, for a few weeks before settling in at right guard when Dahl suffered a knee injury.

There, Saffold showed the ability to be a potentially elite guard. Coach Jeff Fisher even acknowledged that Saffold's unique skills when pulling made him a good fit for the spot long term.

Asked directly if Saffold's versatility makes retaining him an important cog in the offseason plans, Snead acknowledged that it did.

"I would say yes," Snead said. "You love versatility on your offensive line. Take it broader than that, a lot of times you're keeping seven and eight up on game day, so when you've got a lot of versatility you can keep seven up and now your special teams are stronger."

The question then becomes how Saffold is valued around the league and whether teams see him as a guard or tackle and pay him as such. Snead believes the delineation of value among the line spots has blurred in recent years, making that an issue that may not matter much when it comes to Saffold.

"I think today in the NFL, it's not like it (used to be)," Snead said. "Now you see right tackles getting paid if they're really good, you see guards getting paid if they're really good. A lot of teams probably, it's not utopia so your best two players might be your right tackle and right guard so those teams usually pay them. I think it's a little broader now."

One more way for the Rams to fill possible line vacancies is from within. Snead expressed confidence in the development of rookie lineman Barrett Jones and the Rams have other young linemen such as guard Brandon Washington and tackle Mike Person in whom they've invested plenty of time and effort.

Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has proved more than capable of bringing along young linemen and putting them in position to succeed. Barksdale's success in 2013 is a prime example.

The Rams will add to the line in the offseason, likely through the draft. Whether they use a high pick on a lineman remains to be seen, especially given Fisher and Snead's short two-year track record of not drafting linemen early.

Still, with the Rams having an extra first-round pick and likely obvious needs on the line, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make it a priority in this draft.

By the time the draft rolls around in May, the Rams will have a good handle on what form the line is set to take. The contract situations will be decided and free agency will be complete.

For now, it's obvious Snead and the Rams aren't worried about the possible line alterations.

"One will be a rehab situation; one is an unrestricted free agent," Snead said. "Of any group I was most proud of, it was that group this year. I have a heart for offensive linemen because that's your basketball team. It's not just one great player. It's five guys working together."

The question for the Rams in 2014 is who those five will be.