INDIANAPOLIS -- In Jeff Fisher's nearly two decades as an NFL head coach, his teams have never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round.
It’s a streak that should come to an end in 2014.
The St. Louis Rams might have individual spots more in need of help, but there’s no position group requiring more attention across the board than the offensive line.
By the end of the year, the Rams had started seven different line combinations, and that doesn’t include in-game adjustments made to account for injuries.
It would be easy for the Rams to lean on the tried and true methods of draft and develop that have been tenets of Fisher’s coaching years. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a reputation for taking late-round picks or undrafted free agents and molding them into productive or better NFL starters.
Boudreau did just that in 2013, despite all the aforementioned moving parts. The Rams finished tied for 14th in the league in sacks allowed per dropback, giving up a sack on 6.5 percent of those attempts -- despite facing three of the top seven defenses in the league a total of six times.
“He did an outstanding job,” Fisher said. “We didn't track how many combinations of guys and who was playing where, but there were a lot of people playing. It was a good group. He puts together a really unique group in the classroom and they enjoy working together. They get close. They’re very disciplined and, for all intents and purposes, each one of them really wants to come back, which is good.”
The reality is, however, that it’s unlikely they all return.
When the 2014 season begins, it’s a possibility the Rams could have as many as five new names in place on the offensive line. That’s because Williams and Saffold are scheduled for unrestricted free agency, Wells and Dahl are potential salary-cap casualties and Long is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL.
Fortunately for the Rams, if ever there was a time to revamp the offensive line through the draft, this is it. The team holds two picks in the first round: Nos. 2 and 13.
According to one AFC scout, Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews are top-five-caliber talents. But that doesn’t mean the Rams would have to pursue one of them with their second overall selection. The same scout believes as many as four offensive tackles, adding Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio, could go in the top 15, which means the Rams could wait and address the position at No. 13.
As always, the draft is about finding a way to marry need and value. While many believe South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is clearly the best player in the draft, two scouts believe Robinson and Matthews aren’t far behind.
While Fisher’s streak of not drafting linemen in the first round is worth noting, it also doesn’t tell the whole story and assumes he was making all the decisions with the Titans.
In 18 NFL drafts, Fisher's teams have selected 23 offensive linemen. Two of those came in the second round and two came in the third. Then-line coach Mike Munchak also made a habit of developing picks lower on the totem pole.
Of course, Fisher’s Titans/Oilers teams also never found themselves with the pressing needs the Rams figure to have on the offensive line, either.
Brad Hopkins held down one tackle spot from 1993 to 2005 and Bruce Matthews was an All-Pro guard and center for the franchise from 1983 to 2001.
When Fisher’s team did need to fortify the line, it often did so through free agency, adding the likes of Fred Miller, Wells and, most recently, Long.
Boudreau has done fine with linemen of all shapes, sizes and ability, but considering what the Rams are going to see from the front sevens in the NFC West for the foreseeable future, it’s time to start investing some draft capital that doesn’t require the Rams to go shopping for new linemen seemingly every offseason.
That could mean drafting a tackle in the first round, adding to the interior in the second round or any number of possible combinations. Much will depend on what becomes of Saffold, who is the Rams’ top priority to retain in free agency.
In his day-after-the-season news conference, Fisher said the Rams needed to score more points to be more competitive in 2014, particularly against the likes of San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona. Three of the four tackles to land on the All-Pro team in 2013 were first-round picks.
The Rams can probably get by with drafting and developing lower-ranked offensive linemen, but against the dominant defenses in the NFC West, getting by simply isn't good enough.