Following the 2016 season, the Rams’ offensive line looked like one of the worst units in the NFL. Los Angeles’ front five was fresh off a campaign in which it had ranked 29th in Football Outsiders‘ adjusted line yards, 29th in adjusted sack rate, and 21st in pressure rate allowed. No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was sacked 25 times over the final six games of the year, and there was at least some concern that the rookie quarterback would languish à la David Carr, eternally too worried about incoming pressure to ever succeed.
Sean McVay took over as the Rams’ head coach that offseason, and the club’s new regime made fortifying its offensive line a priority. Longtime Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth was signed to a three-year, $33.75MM deal to replace failed former No. 2 overall selection Greg Robinson on Goff’s blindside. Tim Barnes struggled as Los Angeles’ center in 2016, so the Rams inked veteran John Sullivan to a cheap, one-year pact. McVay also added Aaron Kromer — who’d previously worked wonders in New Orleans and Buffalo — as LA’s new offensive line coach.
Whitworth and Sullivan, combined with holdovers Rodger Saffold, Jamon Brown, and Rob Havenstein, transformed the Rams’ front five. Los Angeles improved to third in adjusted line yards, ninth in adjusted sack rate, and 12th in pressure rate allowed. Goff absorbed only 28 sacks on the season. And Pro Football Focus, which had ranked the Rams’ line as just the 27th-best unit after 2016, assigned LA its sixth-highest offensive line grade after the 2017 campaign.
Things mostly stayed the same in 2018. The Rams arguably posted even better results along their offensive line, and the only major change came at right guard, where former waiver claim Austin Blythe took over for Brown. Brown, who was suspended for the first two games of the 20198 campaign and never regained his starting job, is now a member of the Giants.
But entering the 2019 season, real concerns have emerged on LA’s front five. Saffold is gone, having signed a four-year, $44MM pact with the Titans. The Rams should pick up a compensatory fourth-round pick in 2020 as a result of Saffold’s departure, but that won’t offset his loss during the upcoming year. At center, Sullivan saw his option declined, and he’s yet to latch on with another team.
Rams 2018 third-round pick Joseph Noteboom — who is expected to eventually take over for Whitworth at left tackle — is currently penciled in as the club’s starting left guard. While he’s a relative unknown, there are reasons to be excited about the TCU product. Noteboom posted elite measurables during the pre-draft process, and shined during the 2018 preseason, allowing zero pressures on 71 pass-blocking snaps. He played in relief of Whitworth during the Rams’ 2018 regular season finale, and didn’t give up any pressures on 47 total snaps.
Brian Allen, selected one round after Noteboom in the Rams’ 2018 draft, will take over for Sullivan at center. Allen has even less experience than Noteboom, as the former played only 36 offensive snaps during his rookie year. Pro Football Focus graded Allen relatively well (in an admittedly small sample size) when he filled in for Sullivan in Week 17, and Brandon Thorn of The Athletic — one of the best offensive line analysts in the media — called Allen an “undersized technically sound guy in the mold of Blythe.”
Noteboom and Allen have played fewer than 150 combined NFL snaps, but they aren’t the only potential problems along LA’s line. Blythe was an excellent find on the waiver wire, but his play fell off during the second half of last season, raising concerns that he may have been exposed. And while Whitworth’s play hasn’t yet begun to slip, he’ll be 38 years old by the end of the 2019 campaign, so there seemingly has to be some sort of decline approaching.
If last season was any indication, Goff needs elite offensive line play to stay effective. Per Evan Silva of Establish the Run, Goff ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating when kept clean in the pocket in 2018, but fell to 28th in passer rating when under pressure. The Rams also ran the ball at the ninth-highest clip in the league last year, so Todd Gurley, Darrell Henderson, & Co. need LA’s front five to consistently open holes in McVay’s outside zone scheme.
What will the Rams do if their line begins to falter in 2019? They may attempt to insert rookies Bobby Evans or David Edwards into the lineup, but that’d mean adding even more inexperience up front. Los Angeles could try to swing a trade for someone like Lane Taylor (Packers) or Stefen Wisniewski (Eagles), but the importance of offensive line continuity makes an in-season addition difficult. What about a reunion with Sullivan, especially if Allen struggles at center? It’s probably telling that Sullivan remains on the open market four-plus months after being cut.
None of those options are overly appealing or all that feasible, so the Rams need to hope for the best with the current projected starters. We haven’t seen a McVay/Rams offensive with a poor offensive line, and LA is certainly hoping we don’t see one next season.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.