The Rams made a pair of moves on Monday that should give pause to fans that have grown frustrated with not seeing the team connected to some of the big money free agents available this offseason.
The Rams have cut center Scott Wells and tackle Jake Long, which saved the team roughly $12 million in salary-cap space for the 2015 season. Wells never played up to the $24 million price tag that he commanded prior to the 2012 season while Long’s short tenure in St. Louis will be marred by back-to-back ACL injuries in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
In hindsight, the Rams never should have handed Long a multi-year contract worth $34 million, especially given his injury history in Miami. But in fairness to Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the team desperately needed a blindside protector for Sam Bradford and the roster was still devoid of talent thanks to the Billy Devaney era.
Long was worth the risk at the time, even if the result was predictable.
The most proactive thing the Rams can do now is to not repeat mistakes made in prior offseasons. Mike Iupati is the best free agent guard available and is a perfect fit for the Rams’ power blocking scheme.
However, he could command up to $8.5 million annually with teams like the Cardinals, Raiders, Jets, Bills and Vikings also interested in his services. Free agency is often an opportunity for teams to overpay for players’ past performances instead of their future potential and I don’t think Iupati will prove to be the exception.
The more sensible solution for the Rams to address their need at left guard is to sign veteran Justin Blalock. He’s four years older that Iupati but he wouldn’t command nearly as much money or years, plus he’s also a fit for the team’s power blocking scheme. Granted, he’s not the mauler that Iupati is, but Blalock could still give the Rams solid production for the next 2-3 three years and again, at a more reasonable cost. He’s also durable, having missed only three out of 125 games played, and he’s familiar with St. Louis offensive line coach Paul Boudreau after the two spent three years together in Atlanta. (If you’re wondering why the Falcons released Blalock, it wasn’t because of production, as he was the team’s best O-linemen last season. He simply wasn’t a fit in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.)
The Rams reportedly have interest in free agent center Stefen Wisniewski, a former second-round pick of the Raiders in 2011. One of the keys to a power-based rushing attack is the ability of the interior of the O-line to generate an initial push at the snap. Wells failed to do this consistently last year, but run-blocking has been a strength of Wisniewski’s since entering the league. Assuming he won’t net a massive contract on the open market, he’s a logical fit for the Rams as well.
Or, if Wisniewski’s price tag is too rich for the Rams’ blood with fellow free agent center Rodney Hudson set to net $44.5 million from the Raiders, they could choose instead to sign Blalock and a free agent right tackle (re-signing Joe Barksdale may still be a possibility), then roll the dice on 2014 seventh-rounder Demetrius Rhaney (or a mid-rounder from this year’s draft) to fill the hole at center.
Cutting Wells and Long seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Rams at the end of the 2014 regular season.
Now that their releases are official, Fisher and Snead have the daunting task of filling three holes along their offensive line. But signing a pair of free agents to reasonable contracts could address two of those holes and give the Rams flexibility when it comes to the draft. Instead of ostensibly forcing themselves into taking an offensive lineman with the 10th overall pick, they now have an opportunity to draft the best player available. Or, better yet, they can trade out of that selection, acquire more picks (which could be a benefit, seeing as how the Rams only own five selections at the moment), and not feel obligated to fill one of their offensive line needs with a prospect that isn’t worthy of a top-10 pick.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Rams address their needs along the offensive line. Having to find three new starters will be a challenge, but with the right approach, the team could add both production and value.