Rodger Saffold's Difficult Journey Is Starting to Come Full Circle

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Rodger Saffold's Difficult Journey Is Starting to Come Full Circle
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When the St. Louis Rams drafted offensive tackle Rodger Saffold in 2010, general manager Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spanguolo believed he was one of the most skilled offensive linemen in the entire draft.

Apparently, Devaney and Spanguolo weren’t the only ones who thought Saffold had immense talent. Mike Mayock of NFL.com viewed the 316-pound mauler as someone who had excellent versatility and could play every spot along the line offensive line other than the center position, via David Leon of Bleacher Report.

Moreover, Spanguolo was big on high-character players. So, the Saffold pick made that much more sense at the time. The four-year starter at Indiana was not only well-liked by scouts, but he was voted a team captain at the collegiate level.

Even though he had proven he was a dominant left tackle in the Big Ten, there were questions as to where he would play with the Rams.

More than a few pundits thought he would be best served at right tackle since the organization already had offensive tackle Jason Smith on the roster. Yet, St. Louis made the right move and allowed Saffold to protect quarterback Sam Bradford’s blindside.

Rodger Saffold's performance break down from 2010, via Pro Football Focus

Saffold didn’t find immediate success in his first season, but more often than not, he flashed real potential. Despite struggling in the run game, he made up for it in pass protection. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the second-round pick allowed 40 quarterback pressures in 626 pass-block snaps.

This, in turn, meant he allowed one measly pressure every 15 pass-block snaps. Additionally, PFF awarded him the fourth-highest pass-blocking grade on the team at the end of the season. With plenty of positive performances to build on, the coaching staff had high hopes for Saffold’s second season.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold’s sophomore campaign was cut short due to injury.

After appearing in the first nine games of season, St. Louis’ budding star tore his pectoral muscle while lifting weights. MRI results following the freak accident showed significant damage, which ultimately forced the team to put him on season-ending injured reserve.

All in all, the 2011-12 season was one the franchise wanted to forget. The Rams finished dead last in the NFC West with a 2-14 record. However, better days were on the horizon, considering owner Stan Kroenke dumped Devaney and Spanguolo in favor of head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.

Fisher’s track record as a coach stood for itself, and Snead was regarded around the league as an innovative mind who had a keen eye for talent.

Furthermore, Fisher brought in a top-notch coaching staff that complemented his style of play. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, secondary coach Chuck Cecil and defensive line coach Mike Waufle were the most notable hires, while offensive line coach Paul Boudreau was the most underrated hire.

Boudreau had 25 years of experience under his belt at the time and had a reputation for maximizing a player’s skill set. This proved to be good news for Saffold. After a disappointing year in 2011, he was ready to refine his technique and take his game to a whole new level.

With Boudreau’s help, Saffold took the necessary steps in 2012. In spite of missing six games due to injury, he graded out as the 16th-best pass-blocking offensive tackle in the NFL. Yes, he still needed to improve as a run-blocker, but his overall progress was inspiring nonetheless.

Heading into 2013, Saffold was looking to stay healthy and continuously develop. Yet, St. Louis seemingly had other plans for the fourth-year player. Instead of taking a gamble on his health for the third year in a row, Fisher and Snead locked up All-Pro left tackle Jake Long in free agency.

The move caught Saffold off guard and temporarily strained his relationship with the franchise.

There were even reports that claimed he would ask the Rams for a trade, because he didn’t want to play right tackle. Those reports ended up being erroneous when it was all said and done. Scott Bierman of KMOV.com reported in late April that Saffold and his agent never formally asked the organization for a trade.

Coach Fisher confirmed that notion to the media after St. Louis started its offseason workout program. “No issues. He’s having fun, working out, in really good shape. We started our offseason program a week ago today with 100 percent attendance, which was impressive.”

In all likelihood, Saffold wanted to play left tackle based on the fact it had been his natural position since college. But he knew it was important to get on the field, even if it was at right tackle. Why? Because 2013 is a contract year for him.

If he performed well on the right side, he could then market himself as a guy who could successfully play both tackle spots.

Lo and behold, his stint at right tackle was short lived due to injury and the emergence of Joe Barksdale. When Saffold suffered a knee injury versus the Atlanta Falcons, Barksdale filled in opposite of Long and flourished.

The evolution of Barksdale was unexpected, but that’s the NFL. The “Next Man Up” philosophy often gives unknown backups the opportunity to shine. With five games left to play, the third-year pro out of LSU has established himself as the Rams right tackle of the future.

Currently, he is the 15th-best pass-blocking offensive tackle in the league. In terms of pass protection, PFF has him ranked ahead of guys like Duane Brown, Nate Solder and Michael Roos. So, where does Saffold fit into the mix with Barksdale playing so well?

Luckily for him, he garnered a chance to get back on the field when right guard Harvey Dahl went down with a knee injury. Dahl’s ailing MCL wasn’t a season-ending injury, yet he has been forced out of action for several weeks.

This meant the Rams decided to roll the dice and play Saffold at right guard in Dahl’s absence. Surprisingly, the gifted offensive lineman has fully embraced the roll and exceeded expectations. In two starts, he has surrendered two measly quarterback pressures.

Rodger Saffold's performance break down from 2013, via Pro Football Focus

His run-blocking on the inside has turned out to be a hit as well. Since he consistently struggled to open up holes at tackle, his move to guard may prove to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Yes, more time needs to pass before we can fully evaluate Saffold, but his start has been outstanding no matter which way you slice it.

Fisher agrees: Here’s what the 55-year-old coach told the Associated Press following St. Louis’ win over the Indianapolis Colts, via Fox News:

Well, I thought he did a great job, obviously, in the game against Indianapolis. I think the bye week certainly helped to get him more comfortable with it, but doing a good job. You talk about a guy with great hip flexibility, the ability to bend and strike people.

The praise didn’t stop there as Schottenheimer had a few words of encouragement as well. “Absolutely, he's been great. I think he likes it in there and we all just want to find a way to win.”

Being selfless goes a long way in the NFL. It’s not easy for particular players to be selfless, because of pride issues and high-dollar contracts. Yet, Saffold is proving that when a player finds a way to help his respective team any way possible, wins are just around the corner.

Should the St. Louis Rams re-sign Rodger Saffold and play him at right guard in 2014?

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In two short weeks has Saffold positioned himself to be the Rams right guard of the future? Given Dahl’s age and the status of his contract, the answer is obvious. If No. 76 wants to continue his career in the Lou at guard, one has to think the stars are aligning for him perfectly.

St. Louis should be able to bring him back at a reasonable price next season based on his injury history. Plus, Saffold won’t turn 26 until next June, which means his better days are still in front of him. For the sake of continuity, the Rams would be smart to bring him back.

A lot can happen from now until the end of the season, but Saffold seems to be settling in, and he knows it:

This is a new challenge. Everything is going real well. I'm getting a lot of help from (center) Scott Wells. I get advice from Harvey, too, so that makes it a lot easier for me. I just want to keep getting better.

Even though the Rams have been snakebitten on the offensive line for years, things are starting to finally come together, thanks in large part to Saffold.

 

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