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Free Agent OL Preview

Maybe’s free agent tracker isn’t the best resource to work from when researching this year’s offensive line market. I had to remove signed players, RFAs, UFAs turning into RFAs by the CBA, retired players, players who aren’t actually free agents and players who aren’t actually in the NFL. But by the time I got done, I was left with a fairly manageable list, though one as likely to be fully accurate as any given Obama administration “jobs saved” figure.

My favorite scratch-off was tackle Jon Runyan. KFFL’s not incorrect to list him as a free agent, but in fact, Runyan is now running for Congress. If he wins there, maybe the White House is in his future. President Ford was a lineman for the University of Michigan, and President Reagan was the Gipper for the cinematic University of Notre Dame. You’d have to like how the 6’7″, 330-lb Runyan lines up against the sub-5’5″ (and clearly compensating) likes of Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Runyan at negotiations: Who needs nuclear arms when you have (flexing) guns like these?)

On now to the Department of the Interior and (QB) Homeland Security…

Offensive line

Rams current depth chart:
Center: Jason Brown, Mark Setterstrom, Drew Miller

Guard: Left: Jacob Bell, Roger Allen
Right: John Greco, Mark Lewis

Tackle: Left: Alex Barron, Eric Young
Right: Jason Smith, Adam Goldberg, Phil Trautwein, Ryan McKee

Long snapper: Chris Massey, Ryan Neill

Notes: Barron and Setterstrom will be restricted free agents with the current CBA still in place. Neill is apparently a RFA no matter what happens with the labor agreement. Massey is an unrestricted free agent.

Analysis after the jump!

Analysis: The Ram offensive line gave some reasons for optimism in 2009, but other than in the lone win over the Lions, never really pulled together into a cohesive, effective unit. That’s certainly part a talent issue, but at least half the problem was injuries, where the Rams haven’t seemed to catch a break since 1999. Season in a nutshell: they were down to their in-effect 4th-string RG Allen by the season finale, and -he- suffered a major injury during that game, forcing 4th tackle Trautwein off the bench.

The line has a solid foundation in Pro Bowl alternate Brown. Bell’s game improved in 2009 over a disappointing 2008, but just to average. You’d like to see him get pushed around less in the run game than he does at times. Richie Incognito was probably the line’s best run-blocker but proved not to be worth the cost in penalties and knuckleheaded plays. Setterstrom originally filled in for him, and capably, but his extensive injury history’s proving he’s best used in small doses. Setterstrom has added value in that he backs up Brown as well as the guard positions. The 2010 starter would seem to be Greco, who’s still something of an x-factor since we haven’t seen him for an extended period. He’s hard to move, a definite plus. Swing tackle/guard Goldberg plays just well enough at times you think he can start, just bad enough at times you wonder how he’s on the team. For the amount of moving around he did last year, though, he did a pretty admirable job and is valuable in his ideal role of “sixth man”. Goldberg and Setterstrom are the only proven veteran o-line talent the Rams can bring off the bench, though. Their depth is tenuous at best, and given the rash of injuries this unit has experienced, needs to become much stronger.

That leaves us the tackle position. 2009 top pick Smith was playing NFL starter-quality RT by week 9, but was lost for the season after that due to a concussion. Smith is an enthusiastic, powerful run blocker, though he had his rookie moments in pass protection. He was drafted to play LT here, but was blocked by the paradox that is Alex Barron, a player who somehow manages to become more useless, yet more indispensable, season after season. Barron’s mental errors border on constant. He’s the most-penalized man in the NFL, and plenty of plays blew up last year because Barron’s head didn’t appear to be in the game. If not for this year’s weird CBA conditions, he’d almost certainly be on his way out of town. But Barron has one positive quantity the rest of the Rams’ line has lacked for a while: he stays healthy. That’s not worth keeping him at LT and stunting Smith’s growth, and probably isn’t worth keeping him this year, since he’s more than likely gone next year and the Rams would be making a mistake not to start looking forward now. But his physical reliability, on this offensive line, is worth something.

On special teams, the Rams are very well-set at punter and placekicker, but may have a difficult decision to make at long snapper, convenient to address here since it’s a line position. Chris Massey has been rock-steady here for 8 years, but is now a UFA and coming off a blown knee. Ordinarily, you’d say, no-brainer, lock the guy up, but mid-season replacement Neill is 3 years younger and was flawless in his stead. At least it’s the rare position where the Rams have a couple of good choices available.

Free agency

Top 5 UFA OTs: 1) Chad Clifton 2) Mark Tauscher 3) Barry Sims 4) Tony Pashos 5) Artis Hicks

Top 5 UFA OGs: 1) Keydrick Vincent 2) Stephen Neal 3) Chester Pitts 4) Rex Hadnot 5) Bobbie Williams

Sleepers: T: Jonathan Scott G: Kevin Boothe

Thanks, we’ll get back to you: Junius Coston, Brandon Gorin, Tutan Reyes, Ephraim Salaam, Tra Thomas, Ryan Tucker, Langston Walker, Guy Whimper, Kynan Forney, Ben Hamilton

The doctor will see you now: Russ Hochstein, Jon Jansen, Levi Jones, Montrae Holland

Gawd no: Jeremy Bridges, Mike Gandy, Cornell Green, Damion McIntosh, Mike Williams

Viewing the field: This blog’s supposed to be about the Rams, but it’s clear the Packers have some important decisions to make at tackle in the next 2-3 weeks. LT Clifton’s been to the Pro Bowl several times, but the Packer line was shredded repeatedly last season until Tauscher settled things down for them at RT. As for the two 49er backups, 35-year-old Sims is still thought a good pass protector, while Pashos is an aggressive, physical RT best at run-blocking. I also like him because for TV player intros, he says he’s from “the University of Chief Illiniwek”. Hicks has been a versatile backup for the Vikings, a good “glue guy” off the bench who rookie Phil Loadholdt beat out there for the starting RT job.

The guard market is really bad and extremely difficult to evaluate, with almost every candidate coming off some kind of injury. Panthers guard Vincent was one of the few to start every game in ’09 while playing at a decent level, though he’s not the best pass blocker. Neal has been a solid member of the Patriot o-line, but has struggled with injuries for 5 years and is considering retirement at 33. Pitts is an original Houston Texan who played every game in team history before a knee injury cost him almost all of 2009. If he bounces back from microfracture surgery, you’d have a good athlete and tough-to-move lineman with guard and tackle versatility. Hadnot came into last season scheduled to start at RG for Cleveland before an MCL injury set him back. He got the starting job back by the end of the season and can also help a team out at center. (Kevin Mawae is the only UFA I could identify as a full-time center, and the Rams won’t be looking for help there anyway, so no center run-down.) 345-lb road-grader Williams has missed only 3 starts since 2004 and none since 2006, but draws a lot of penalties. Yeah, been there, done that.

Scott’s about the best sleeper tackle I can come up with. He’s just 27 and physically ideal for tackle but hasn’t played up to his potential in either Buffalo or Detroit, in part because of injury troubles. Boothe is only 26, has great speed and feet for his size and did a passable job for the Giants last year off the bench.

Bridges is the Big Dead tackle who’s really a guard and was pwned by Chris Long last year. Another Dead tackle, Gandy, has never impressed me, especially against speed rushers, and he’s coming off a sports hernia injury suffered around Christmas. Green was a starter in Oakland but has a domestic violence arrest on his rap sheet. Probably the wrong guy to bring in here right about now. McIntosh wasn’t even good enough to win a starting position in Seattle over Sean Locklear. Williams played guard for the Redskins last season at 370 pounds, after losing 100 pounds in the offseason. No wonder he had a torn foot muscle at the end of the season. Poor foot was probably crying, no mas, no mas!

RamView’s move: I don’t make a very big secret out of wanting to get rid of Barron. Let’s get Smith over to LT where he’s supposed to be and bring a guy like Pashos in to replace the Human False Start, with Goldberg backing them up. Bell, Brown and Greco start in the middle, but I’d love to steal away a guy like Boothe to bolster the line’s depth. Guards don’t get much love on draft day, so the Rams could also find a very nice bargain in the later rounds. I’m a Massey fan and hope to keep him around at least another 8 years.

Prediction: Barron’s not going anywhere, partly because the Rams want to drive me crazy, and a lot because he’s too cheap, too dependable, and good enough when he’s on to justify the non-move. Barron played his best right after Bulger called him out a couple of years ago, and right after Steve Spagnuolo briefly benched him last year, if anybody’s taking notes. Smith will win them over and start the season at LT, though, while the younger and cheaper Neill nudges Massey out of the long-snapper spot. A veteran guard wouldn’t be a bad pickup – maybe Forney, a Falcons starter while Billy Devaney was down in Atlanta. But, 44 sacks last year and Barron’s penalties notwithstanding, I don’t see a lot of change coming to the look of the Ram offensive line, through free agency, at least.

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