Without doing any research, my idea was to base today’s column on how I’ve come to terms with (and would actually encourage) the Rams selecting either Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Auburn’s Greg Robinson with the second overall selection in May’s draft.
I was ready to make the case that if the Texans take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney at no. 1, the Rams should pass on playmaking wide receiver Sammy Watkins and make a safer, if less exciting, pick of one of the draft’s top two offensive tackles.
The reason I was ready to burst my own inflated Watkins bubble was because I was blindly making the case to myself that the teams that advance the furthest in the playoffs and win Super Bowls are the ones with the most solid, consistent play from their offensive line. The ones that keep the quarterback upright, mow down defenders in the running game, and stay relatively flag-free. However, when I went to find some numbers to back this case and shore up my pick two flip-flop, I found that the assumptions I’d made don’t always hold up.
What I found, to my surprise, was that the teams that made conference championship games and Super Bowls in recent seasons very often had offensive lines that ranked outside of the top 10 league-wide. Now, what follows is simply a presentation of the opinions I gathered and not at all an attempt to belittle the importance of the offensive line to a team’s success. Hell, eight years and 70 pounds ago I was a proud second-string guard/center on a conference-winning high school football team (Go Knights!) (I sucked).
What I’m presenting with this column is merely the fact that in recent years teams have had great success with middling – and sometimes outright bad – offensive lines.
What’s difficult about judging offensive line play is that there aren’t many concrete stats with which to rate their level of play. Sacks allowed, rush yards gained, and penalties all factor into the equation, but without watching each play and determining whether assignments were missed or made, it can get pretty subjective at times. That’s why I chose mostly to rely on the football minds over at Pro Football Focus, who I pay $27 a year to watch and grade every down of NFL action. They began putting out their offensive line rankings in 2009, so that’s where we’ll begin. Small sample size, I know, but bear with me:
Pro Football Focus’ offensive line grades 2009-2013 for AFC/NFC Championship teams and the Rams (Super Bowl winners in bold):
2013: Seahawks 27, Broncos 3, Pats 14, 49ers 9 – Rams 13
2012: Ravens 17, 49ers 1, Pats 2, Falcons 15 – Rams 26
2011: Giants 31, Pats 3, Ravens 8, 49ers 20 – Rams 28
2010: Packers 12, Steelers 32, Bears 31, Jets 1 – Rams 26
2009: Saints 4, Colts 16, Jets 1, Vikings 25 – Rams 19
The first thing that jumped out was that there hasn’t been a Super Bowl-winning team with a top-10 offensive line since the Saints won it all in 2009. In fact, the only other team that sniffed the top-10 was the Packers at 12 in the following season. For balance’s sake, I must also note that nine of the 20 teams that at least made conference championship appearances in that span did have a line worthy of a top-10 grade. Last season, the Seahawks (much like the Rams) had injury issues along the front five that led to inconsistent play and a lot of rotation. It was their stifling defense and tricky offensive philosophy led by quarterback Russell Wilson that simply negated it.
The 2011 Giants and 2010 Steelers were even worse, which magnifies the respective efforts put in by quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in those seasons. The only conclusion I can make is that a strong offensive line can take you very far (ahem, New York Jets), but poor play can also be masked by high-level playmaking elsewhere.
So, then, getting back to my original point, the Rams do have offensive line depth issues to address in the draft. That goes without saying. However, with a healthy Jake Long, Rodger Saffold, and Joe Barksdale (should he continue to trend upward), they have the core of a capable offensive line that could be good enough as long as plays are being made elsewhere. That puts even more pressure on quarterback Sam Bradford and the young receiver unit. While it is very sensible to take one of the draft’s top tackles as a result of those depth issues, loading up on talented skill position players can have just as high an upside. Matthews, Watkins, Robinson, Clowney…dammit I still can’t decide!