At the end of the 2014 NFL season, the Rams had one of the best front sevens in football, and an offensive line that clearly was deficient and needed reinforcement, if not rebuilding.
Nearly a week into free agency, the Rams have added linebacker Akeem Ayers and defensive tackle Nick Fairly to their front seven, flipped quarterback Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick Foles, and re-signed wide receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Lance Kendricks. Notable by its absence in the transaction listings for the Rams is any mention of additions to the offensive line. In fairness, the Rams may have made additions by the subtraction of injury-plagued tackle Jake Long and disappointing center Scott Wells.
The failure of those two to provide meaningful quality play extends the Rams’ streak of ineptitude in adding offensive linemen to fifteen years, through the tenures of general managers Jay Zygmunt, Billy Devaney and Les Snead, and coaches Mike Martz, Scott Linehan, Steve Spagnuolo and Jeff Fisher. To find the last acquisition through draft or free agency of offensive tackles that played at an above average level for the Rams for any period of time, you have to go back to the 1997 draft, when they selected Orlando Pace with the first pick in the draft and Ryan Tucker in the 4th round.
In 1999, the Rams signed Adam Timmerman and Andy McCollum as unrestricted free agents, and Tom Nutten as a street free agent. All of those moves under President of Football Operations Dick Vermeil served the Rams well for years, with that group staying with the Rams until the mid-2000’s.
Since 1999, the Rams have spent draft choices on John St. Clair, Kaulana Noa, Andrew Kline, Travis Scott, Scott Tercero, Larry Turner, Alex Barron, Richie Incognito, Claude Terrell, Mark Setterstrom, Tony Palmer, Dustin Fry, Ken Shackelford, John Greco, Roy Scheuning, Jason Smith, Rodger Saffold, Rok Watkins, Barrett Jones, Greg Robinson, Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrious Rhaney. That’s fifteen drafts, 22 drafted offensive linemen, six players that were at one point regarded as starters, and no Pro Bowls. The six “starters” would be St. Clair, Barron, Incognito, Smith, Saffold and Robinson.
The Rams traded a second round pick to New Orleans in 2003 for Kyle Turley, who was average for half a season before injuries began affecting him, and after sixteen games and sixteen starts, he never played for the Rams again. They wound up trading Jason Smith…the second pick in the 2009 draft…during Fisher’s first training camp in 2012 for Wayne Hunter, who started four games for the Rams, and dealt a seventh rounder (that wound up being quarterback Matt Flynn) for Adam Goldberg. Goldberg started 48 games for the Rams in six seasons, but was never considered above average.
Free agency has yielded lots of wasted dollars. In 2013 Jake Long signed a four year, $34 million deal and got $11 million of that for playing 22 of 32 games, with the other ten eliminated by ACL injuries. Center Scott Wells was never really healthy for the Rams after being a Pro Bowl performer in Green Bay, and signing a four year, $24 million deal with St. Louis. Center Jason Brown, guard Jacob Bell and guard Harvey Dahl were paid millions of dollars, but their play never matched their paycheck.
In fairness, the current Rams regime did claim Joe Barksdale off waivers in 2012, and he has provided durable, consistent play for the last two seasons. He’s a free agent now, and the franchise would do well to bring him back.
The last time the Rams had consistently representative offensive line play was a decade ago, in 2005. They’ve had some flashes of good play since, but nothing consistent.
An incredible stretch run in 2006 helped Steven Jackson rush for 419 yards in his last three games and 1,528 overall.
The 2013 edition helped Zac Stacy and company rush for 1,752 yards and allowed just 36 sacks. But there hasn’t been a reliable, solid Rams offensive line since Pace, Timmerman, McCollum, Nutten and Barron started that ’05 campaign.
It’s been long enough. We haven’t yet had a week of free agency, but it’s time for Fisher and Snead to sign and draft a group that’s capable of imposing their will in the running game and reasonably protecting Foles. If the Rams hope to compete for a playoff spot, regardless of the style Fisher and new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti want to employ, it all starts up front.
They can make all the moves they want, but until they repair the offensive line, that streak of non-winning seasons will extend beyond eleven seasons.