Part 1 and Part 2 of our ongoing preseason conversation with ProFootballFocus focused on the defense: key factors in the front seven and in the secondary. This week, we look holistically at the offensive line, and specifically at the key offseason moves — signing Jason Brown from the Ravens, drafting Jason Smith, and moving Alex Barron to left tackle. What kind of impact do their player ratings foresee from these moves? And what rookie comparables can we use on Jason Smith?
First, a big-picture look from Neil, the lead author at PFF.
Last year, in my (unpublished) OL ranking, I had the Rams rated 18th overall or just below average. They were the 18th ranked for run blocking, 11th for pass protection and dead last in penalties. Please note these rankings aren’t the usual stuff you see on “other” websites. Those tend to use criteria that are only sub-factors of the real measurable (sacks as a guide to pressure) or inherently include other positions in the rating (The rushing rank always include the influence of the HB, FB and TEs). This was probably better than many fans might have thought.
Emphasis on that last sentence there is mine. Considering that both Football Outsiders and FanBall’s own Bryan Douglass ranked the 2008 Rams’ offensive line 28th in the NFL, a middle-tier ranking sounds positively peachy.
Let’s go position-by-position after the break.
Left Tackle — Alex Barron replaces Orlando Pace. Pace was clearly past his best but still an effective all-round LT. Based on previous performance it’s likely that Barron will be a reasonable replacement as a pass blocker but his run blocking was not at Pace’s level and as usual he gave up far too many penalties. Whether the false starts will be exacerbated due to going against more “premier” rushers or reduced due to experience is open to debate. Overall I see this as a minor downgrade.
Barron is better at pass protection than he is at run blocking, but the number is skewed a bit. His penalty number is massive, and they’re largely holding or false start penalties, i.e. born out of getting beaten in pass protection. One of the best scouting quotes i’ve ever heard came from someone before Barron was drafted. “Barron’s a guy who’s going to play 10 years in the league…but you’re going to be mad at him every day of those 10 years.”
So true, so true…
Left Guard — Jacob Bell / Mark Setterstrom. Based on the preseason Mark Setterstrom looks next in line when Bell is out. We liked Mark in 2007 before his injury and actually wouldn’t see a problem with him taking over long term if his injury is behind him. Regardless who plays this looks like a wash.
No credit given to the guards for playing alongside a new center. I find this a little surprising, but Neil explains his reasoning for this:
Center — Jason Brown replaces Leckey/Romberg. Brown is one of those players who grades out better than he looks. He is certainly a good center and our third rated in that position but there is a long drop between the top guys (Nick Mangold and Casey Weigmann) and him. He has talent to go with his nasty streak but is inconsistent, had a poor postseason, and often struggles with big NTs. That said, looking at the NFC West, only the 49ers’ Aubrayo Franklin has the ability to test him on recent form. It’s obviously an upgrade and will help the Rams line. However, you can’t forget that neither Leckey nor Romberg were useless and I would just caution some fans that the difference might not be as stark as they hope.
Well, Jason Brown certainly gives a better interview, for one thing. But this is one of the more pessimistic reviews of Brown’s potential impact that we’ve seen. For a second opinion, we turn to our other correspondent.
Brown I think is a very good signing and a good upgrade at the position. He’s a better pass protector than he is a run blocker, but it’s worth looking at who he had to try and shift from the run lanes in Baltimore… he faced very big, dominant 3-4 NTs in Casey Hampton and Shaun Rodgers for 4 games. In terms of run blocking it’s a lot tougher to shift somebody like that than it is to shift a potentially sub-par 4-3 DT in the run game.
His 2 very bad games last season run blocking came against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. In the NFC West, Brandon Mebane is a top DT and a destructive pass rusher, so Brown will be big in trying to keep him quiet. Arizona lost their best D-line player in free agency and will be hoping they can get Dockett to run hot more often than cold, and the Niners won’t really pose much threat up front, so his life should have just gotten a lot easier in theory.
The Rams gave up 7 sacks in their two games against San Francisco … this is a stat that Brown should be able to immediately improve this season.
Right Guard – Richie Incognito is a very good player with very poor discipline. If he sorts this out he is close to a Pro Bowl berth. Will he? Your guess is probably better than mine. No Change from 2008.
Incognito is actually a pretty good G I think, but they need to be able to keep him under control and limit the penalties, which totally destroy his grading in our rankings, and also destroy the team on occasions. If they can get him in line he can be a good player for them.
Agreement all around.
Right Tackle — Jason Smith. Given that Jason Smith has only started during the pre season when Barron was injured I can’t see him providing much help immediately. Of the rookie Tackles who did well in 2008, most started regularly during the preseason through ability as opposed to in injury. The fact that it’s Adam Goldberg, the Rams worst OL in 2008, holding him out has echoes of the George Foster/Gosder Cherilus battle in Detroit last year. I hope not because that didn’t end up at all well. At the moment this has got to be a downgrade because Barron does have his upside.
Yee-ouch. I had to look up Gosder Cherilus — the Lions’ first-round pick of the 2008 Draft, and his story is not a pretty one. He’s a big guy (6-7, 315 lbs) who earned a golden reputation while playing for Boston College, protecting Matt Ryan. However, he was beaten in camp all preseason by one of the worst linemen in the league, George Foster. He finally earned the job in Week 3, but had a very rough year. He is back in competition for the right tackle spot against a journeyman (Jon Jansen) this year, not an encouraging sign. Nor a positive comparison for our Mr. Smith. Again, we turn to Sam for some sunshine.
Jason Smith looked like a mauling Tackle at Baylor, but a guy who had the footwork to play left tackle too. Of the rookies last year i think he’d remind me the most of Jake Long. He’s got a nasty streak and finishes blocks, but it remains to be seen whether he’s as capable a pass blocker as Long proved to be.
The problem with drafting OTs is that a lot of the times you’re shifting a college left tackle to the right side of the O-line for the NFL. Some guys take to it really well, but it’s not just a ceiling in footwork or a bit of extra bulk that is involved in the switch – they’re learning an entirely different side to move to in their technique. I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy to this and i’m not sure how many are really applicable, but imagine being right footed and being forced to take free kicks with your left foot, or standing on a snowboard with the other foot forwards. It’s not enough to render you completely useless, but it’s a small difference that i think is worth bigger consideration than people give it.
The move isn’t wholly without logic. In theory they have it the right way around if they’re playing to the strengths of the two OTs.
So we went from a Gosder Cherilus comparison to a Jake Long comparison! I think we could live with that second one.
Overall, the range of thinking in this assessment is guardedly optimistic, which is how I think we Rams fans have to operate this season. If we can achieve (or maintain, as Neil would say) a middle-tier ranking from this rebuilt line, and operate our offense more smoothly behind it, the Rams will go along way towards improving their lot.
The real key is discipline; if Barron and Incognito can significantly reduce the number of penalties they give away the Rams could see a marked improvement simply from that. There are some other positives to consider: If they can get Smith into the line-up sooner rather than later, they have a reasonable foundation for building consistency within the starting group. And both Greco and Setterstrom are good back-ups, so depth should not be a problem.