by Ben Muth
It's that time of year again folks, the time of year where we look back and reflect on the teams we've watched all season and start packing them away for the winter. This week we'll review the Rams' game last week against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals, but more importantly we'll look ahead to what St. Louis' offensive line may look like next year. Let's get right to it.
We'll start left and move across the line to the right. Greg Robinson, this year's No. 2 overall pick, is obviously going to return next year. He moved around a bit this year (he started games at both guard and tackle), and where he plays next could be up in the air depending on what happens with Jake Long, but I'm pretty sure he'll start 2015 at left tackle. This would be the right move.
I'll admit I was skeptical on Robinson going as high as he did in the draft, but I've come around. He was a left tackle prospect who wasn't a very good or experienced pass blocker. Yes, he had the physical tools to be a very good pass blocker, but he hadn't really shown it in college (in Auburn's offense he didn't really have to). But because of his skill set and dominant run blocking, St. Louis rolled the dice.
There were some red flags early for Robinson. St. Louis was going to start him off at guard, but he couldn't beat out Davin Joseph in the preseason. But once Jake Long went down with a season-ending injury, Robinson was put at left tackle and he has acquitted himself well since. He hasn't been great, but he has been pretty solid, particularly when you compare him to other recent highly drafted tackles (Eric Fisher, Justin Pugh, Anthony Castonzo, Gabe Carimi, etc.). The run blocking hasn't been as good as you might have hoped from his college tape, but his pass blocking has been a pleasant surprise.
That's great footwork by Robinson (79) and a pass set that he didn't show in school. He gets a good initial set and from there it's quick and it's smooth. Notice how his feet never come too close together during his set. This allows him to redirect inside with no wasted movement. His feet are so good here that it doesn't matter that his upper body is pretty crappy. He catches instead of punches and then he leans in to headbutt the guy. Still, that's a nice job picking up a hard spin inside on a third down with no help.
The other thing I have like about Robinson's game recently is that he seems to have a plan out there. There are times when he'll jump set guys if he knows he has help inside. Or he'll really underset an edge rusher when he knows it's a three-step drop and the angle will be too tight for the end to turn the corner and make a play. He also has a nice little trap move he uses if he thinks defensive ends are teeing off with the bull rush too much.
Robinson did this a couple times. He would kick out to a wide rusher, and as soon as he saw the defender lower his head, he would come down on the top of the shoulder pads and snatch him into the dirt. No matter what the D-lineman in your life tells you, that's not a hold. It's using technique and momentum to counter the defender's big, dumb, animal instincts. It's not revolutionary by any means, but you always like to see young guys winning with technique instead of just trying to out-athlete everyone.
Inside of Robinson at left guard is Rodger Saffold (76). He is also almost certain to be back next year (you may recognize him from his work in the first GIF when he passed off an interior twist, essentially by himself). This is for two reasons. First, he just signed a 5-year contract last year. And second, he's probably the Rams' best offensive lineman and maybe their best offensive player (although that says more about the Rams skill players than it does Saffold).
Saffold moves well for a guard (particularly in pass protection) and plays with natural strength. He and right tackle Joe Barksdale are the two St. Louis offensive linemen that will really knock you around. Take this play against Calais Campbell from the third quarter.
He straight launches one of the five best defensive linemen in all of football. And this wasn't the only time; he did the same thing to the same top-5 defensive lineman earlier in the game. I'd love to get more technical about it, but that's just being a grown-ass man and imposing your will on a defender.
What I really like about Saffold isn't his bench press though, it's his attitude. He plays with a mean streak where he tries to knock guys around the field. Reminds me of Logan Mankins.
[ad placeholder 3]
Saffold rocks that linebacker with his punch, but that wasn't enough. He immediately goes after the linebacker to try finish him off. He doesn't get the knockdown, but he does drive the player off the screen. And this was a pass play in a two-minute drill. Always nice when a lineman shows that pass blocking doesn't have to be passive.
Center is where St. Louis has to start making decisions. Scott Wells has one year left on his deal and is a player in decline. He's not as quick as he used to be and has a hard time reaching shaded nose tackles on his own without giving up penetration. I think whether Wells comes back will ultimately say more about backup center Barrett Jones than it will Wells. If the staff thinks Jones is a NFL starter, I think they cut Wells and see what the former Outland Trophy winner can do. If they think Jones isn't ready (and if he's not ready for at least a look, he'll probably never be ready) then they'll bring Wells back.
The Rams have a couple of options at right guard. They can either start Davin Joseph again, or they can be serious when they tell their fans they're doing everything in their power to end the postseason drought. They cannot do both. Joseph is no longer a starting caliber player, and in all honesty, probably doesn't deserve to even be on an NFL roster at this point. He has a lot of problems, but the biggest ones are that he can't move very well and can't change direction at all. Also, he was responsible for the "football play" you see below.
Good heavens. I don't know what that is, but it ain't ball. Joseph (the right guard, 69) is trying to sell the play action by firing out. Frostee Rucker (he of 17 sacks in eight seasons) is slanting inside into the B-gap. Joseph completely whiffs and does the only thing he can do, which is to grab Rucker from behind with a comical looking hold. But then, somehow, the elastic of Rucker's waistband slingshots Joseph back in front of the defender, giving him a chance at redemption by saving the quarterback from a hit. But Joseph can't throttle down his newfound super-speed quick enough (because he can't change direction) and he just runs by Rucker, resulting in a sack on top of the hold for which Joseph had already been called. Really, Joseph should have been charged with two sacks and a hold on this play. Watching that GIF for too long may cause hysterical blindness.
[ad placeholder 4]
The big question for the Rams' line is what they do with Joe Barksdale at right tackle. The LSU product is a free agent this year and is going to be overpaid by somebody. I don't mean that as a slight against Barksdale at all, it's just a fact. He's a fine right tackle (a good run blocker who can hold his own in pass protection), but when you let a player reach free agency in his prime, someone will pay more than he's probably worth. The Rams have to decide if they want to be the team that can splurge a little bit for a known entity at right tackle.
Barksdale's fate could rest in Jake Long's hands (or knee). Personally, I would let Long go and use the money saved to help re-sign Barksdale. But the Rams front office may be reluctant to cut one of their big acquisitions from a couple of years ago.
Overall, I think the Rams have the makings of a decent unit. I think the left side of the line can be very good if Robinson builds off of a good start. They need to get better at right guard and center, but you can find guys at those positions for fair prices. The biggest question will be whether they bring back Barksdale. If they do, I like where this unit will be next August.