Ever since drafting Sam Bradford No. 1 overall in 2010, the St. Louis Rams have been looking for an All-Pro blind-side protector. The organization was hoping former first-round pick Jason Smith would come around after having suffering multiple concussions during his rookie season.
However, there are no guarantees in professional football, so general manager Billy Devaney decided it was best to invest in another left tackle prospect. The initial idea was to possibly play Rodger Saffold at right tackle and Smith at left tackle.
But the tables quickly turned, and by the time training camp opened up it was an open competition. Saffold impressed coaches enough to solidify himself as the starting left tackle from Day 1. Smith slid over to right tackle and all seemed well based on the fact St. Louis now had one of the most talented offensive lines they had in years.
Yet the once-promising build to St. Louis' young offensive line quickly faded after injuries ravaged the group in 2011. Saffold and Smith combined for 15 total starts that season and the Rams allowed 49 quarterback sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 142 quarterback hurries.
Pro Football Focus had offensive line coach Steve Loney's unit as the sixth-worst pass-blocking group in the league. So it was inevitable that a change had to be made when Jeff Fisher and Les Snead took over in 2012.
They cleaned house and inserted new starters at left guard, center and right tackle. Smith was traded prior to the start of the 2012 season while Saffold remained at left tackle, which wasn't surprising given Smith's injury history and his large cap number.
I truly believe the new head coach-general manager combination would have loved to keep the former No. 2 pick, yet his cap number was just too high. He was still making first-round money under the old collective bargaining agreement.
Saffold was under the old collective bargaining agreement as well, but his cap number was substantially lower because he was a second-round pick. His cap number in 2012 was only $1.33 million compared to Smith's cap number of $11.03 million.
So restructuring and trading away his hefty contract was the logical choice, even if newly appointed offensive line coach Paul Boudreau believed he could squeeze some talent out the 26-year-old offensive tackle.
Life seemingly went on without Smith, and by the start of the season people in St. Louis had already forgotten about him. Collectively the Rams offensive line stepped up its play in 2012 and proved to be more efficient when it came to protecting its franchise quarterback.
They allowed 17 fewer quarterback sacks and 39 fewer quarterback pressures—a major improvement despite Saffold missing six games due to various ailments. Whether it's bad luck or being prone to injuries, he just can't stay healthy, plain and simple.
With the organization not being completely sold on him, they took the time to investigate potential replacements on the free-agent market. Luckily for the Rams, this year's market featured a couple of left tackles who had been amongst the league's best in years past.
Yet there was none bigger than four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long. Long was on the Rams' radar prior to the start of free agency, but they were concerned about the injuries he had dealt with over the course of the past couple seasons.
From 2008 to 2010, he appeared in 48 consecutive games. Yet 2011 and 2012 weren't as kind to him. In 2011, Long missed two games after dealing with a torn right biceps muscle. In 2012, he missed four games total while nursing a torn triceps muscle.
Back-to-back seasons that ended on injured reserve had St. Louis proceeding with caution. This meant the first two days of his visit to Rams Park included a lengthy medical evaluation process. Here's what Fisher told Tim Ryan and Pat Kirwan in regards to Long's medical evaluation and initial visit:
Initially, what we wanted to do is have him come in and do the physical. Poor guy, we MRI'd like six different body parts over 45 minutes, a giant man in that tube. He checked out well.
After Long was cleared medically, contract negotiations with his representatives began shortly after that. It was believed that the franchise left tackle also contemplated staying in Miami with the Dolphins, which easily explains why the deal took so long to complete.
He and his wife Jackie went back home to South Florida for about a week-and-a-half and mulled over their future. Yet they didn't have much of a decision to mull over, according to Pro Football Talk. The Rams ultimately offered him the most guaranteed money. Not to mention the fact they seemingly pushed the hardest for his services.
When the contract was officially signed, sealed and delivered, the numbers came out lower than expected. It’s a four-year deal with a base value of $34 million. Based on certain playing time incentives, the deal could ultimately reach $36 million.
The contract includes $16 million in fully guaranteed money, with another $4 million that is set to become fully guaranteed in 2014. If someone would have told me at the start of free agency that Jermon Bushrod would get more guaranteed money than Long, I would have told that person they were crazy.
Regardless, it's a win-win situation for both parties. Fisher and Snead now have the franchise left tackle they have been yearning for, and Long gets the fresh start him and his family were desiring. Which means there is only one question left to answer:
How will Long make life easier for Bradford?
There's no real easy answer to that question. But if we examine Long's skill set, we can get a pretty clear picture of what exactly he brings to the table.
Last year the Rams ran 637 pass plays. And of those 637 pass plays, the offensive tackles had blocking help from a tight end 21 percent of the time. St. Louis would undoubtedly prefer to see that number fall. A player of Long's caliber doesn't need that help. The Rams are paying him to be on an island.
Above is an example of Long when he's at his best on an island. On this play, speed-rusher Kamerion Wimbley is looking to come around the edge hard and beat Long with an inside fake. As the ball is snapped, Wimbley immediately has his eyes focused on the inside.
By doing this, he is hoping Long will start to shade closer to the left guard. But you can see Long doesn't fall for the false attempt. He keeps a good base underneath of himself with the proper footwork and bends at the waist accordingly.
The key is to not be completely hunched over, yet you also don't want to be straight up and down. Once Wimbley accepts the fact that Long is not going to move any further inside, he tries to get out extremely wide by utilizing his speed.
At first it appears as if he may have Long beaten around the corner, but the All-Pro offensive tackle recovers with a well-timed kick step to seal him off. Long appropriately finishes the block off by dropping Wimbley to the ground.
Only elite offensive tackles make pass protection look that easy. Sure, other tackles have to ability to make that play as well. The difference is Long consistently makes that play 99 out of 100 times, where an average to above-average tackle would only make that play 50 percent of the time.
On this 13-yard touchdown run pictured above, the Dolphins' offensive line is blocking down to the left, which means tight end Anthony Fasano chips down on the defensive end and beelines to the second level to get a hit on a linebacker.
Long engages with the right defensive end, who is in hot pursuit of Reggie Bush. Unfortunately for the defensive end, he doesn't stand a chance against No. 77 in the run game. As soon as Long places his hands on him, the end gets stood up and is consequently taking out of the play.
In the top screenshot, you can see Long first engages at the left hash mark. By the time Bush marches in the end zone, he is still mauling the defender at the yardage marker. If the former Michigan Wolverine gets his hands inside and locks the opposition up, it's over.
While his run-blocking skills aren't as dominant as his pass-blocking skills, Long is still a better run blocker than 90 percent of the offensive tackles in the NFL.
Both of those examples I presented were from the 2012 season. If you were to go back to the 2010 season you would see that type of domination practically every play. Even if he never fully returns to form, the Rams still have a top-tier pass protector who allows for offensive flexibility.
St. Louis will mow have an opportunity to go to more spread sets if they want to because they won't have to worry about keeping one or two extra blockers in on passing downs. And in run situations Long will help the Rams pick up more first downs, which in turn takes pressure off Bradford's passing attack.
It's also worth mentioning No. 8 will be able to hold onto the ball longer in the pocket. Obviously it's important to get the ball out as quickly as possible, but not every play calls for that. There are certain situations that call for five- and seven-step drops with deeper developing routes.
On average, Bradford had roughly 2.7 seconds to throw last season. If that number were to jump up to 2.85 seconds because of Long, receivers would have more of an opportunity to get open and Bradford could potentially get to his third and fourth read.
Rams fans aren't accustomed to seeing that, so it would be a welcomed change for sure. However, those things only catch a glimpse of reality if Long can regain his All-Pro form.
Long will be 28 years old on May 9, so he still has time to get back in his groove. At his introductory press conference, he told reporters (via Turf Show Times) that he is feeling the best he has in years, maybe ever.
If that's truly the case, the Rams are in store for one hell of a year along the offensive line. Not only does he bring his physical talent to the table, but his leadership skills will be something St. Louis hasn't had since Orlando Pace was manning the left side of the offensive line.
All statistics were gathered from Pro Football Focus' premium subscription area.