UPDATE, following Saffold’s contract signing today:
So take Saffold’s part in this post with a grain of salt. The larger concern remains, though.
The Rams had their pick of an epic rookie class of left tackles with the #2 pick in last year’s draft, including movie poster boy Michael Oher. They deemed the athletic Jason Smith as the best of ’em all, and then moved him to right tackle, swapping last year’s right tackle, Barron, over to the blind side. Why?
This offseason, that situation resolved itself with the dumping of Barron, and the drafting of a new right tackle prospect, Rodger Saffold. But as reported by Brian Stull on Twitter, Saffold has been working out primarily at the right guard position so far this summer. Why?
It appears to be a part of a pattern where young players are expected to “work their way up” to their natural starting position — much like Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa prefers to have his young starting pitchers (like Adam Wainwright) work their way through the bullpen.
But whose philosophy is this? And will it affect Sam Bradford’s chances of starting Week 1?
The first obvious target is to look to offensive line coach Steve Loney, who managed one of the great O-lines in recent memory, the 2002-05 Vikings. They added premier tackle Bryant McKinnie in that year’s draft to an already stacked line, replacing the departed Todd Steussie. But rather than move him around, the Vikings immediately slotted McKinnie in at Left Tackle, keeping the veteran Chris Liwienski on the right corner. They followed a similar pattern in 2004, using a mid-round pick on tackle Nat Dorsey, and immediately slotted him into his natural position as well, sliding Liwienski to left guard. That apparently didn’t go so well, as he only lasted a year, and the Vikings faced a revolving door situation at the position over the next few years…. a problem that was easily masked over by signing powerhouse guard Steve Hutchinson from the Seahawks, creating such a dominant left side that the weakness on the right was easy to ignore.
Clearly, Loney has a track record of building up units of strength and playing people in their best natural position. The next man up the totem pole is offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, but after a career built on coaching quarterbacks, I find it hard to believe he would overrule Loney on this.
That leaves Spagnuolo as the man to look to. And if we look back to his time in New York, he clearly preferred to “ease in” talented but raw players like Matthias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck. The Rams followed a similar pattern last season with Bradley Fletcher, who didn’t crack the starting DB rotation until October, and Chris Ogbonnaya, who couldn’t get off the practice squad despite only the ineffective Samkon Gado ahead of him. Even a young veteran like Chris Long didn’t start several games in the first half of the season, rotating his way into the lineup until he found his groove.
(However, the big exception to this rule was James Laurinaitis, who came to camp driven to earn the starting middle linebacker job right away. With his stellar preparation work, obvious leadership and physical play, he gave the Rams coaches no choice but to start him from Game 1 of the preseason.)
What does this mean for Bradford? He will be easily the best quarterback on the Rams roster as soon as he signs his contract — which could be as early as tomorrow. With only the semi-retired AJ Feeley and all four games of pro experience under Keth Null’s belt ahead of Bradford on the depth chart, I would expect him to be able to seize the starting job very quickly. However, other observers such as ESPN’s Mike Sando are much more conservative in their assessment.
Sando in particular points to Donovan McNabb’s rookie year, when journeyman Doug Pedersen was able to keep the talented QB on the bench until November.
In my mind, if the Rams take the same approach, it will be a very ugly first year of this franchise reboot. Fans and the team alike will be restless, waiting for the coaches to put the obvious best talent on the field, and give them the best chance of winning games. The Rams schedule is loaded with winnable games early. Starting Feeley would essentially be punting on those games, and on the goodwill the team has developed so far this offseason.