Rams would be wise to invest in Saffold

ST. LOUIS – Before Rodger Saffold III stepped on the turf at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday afternoon, he received some sage advice from his father, Rodger Saffold II.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Saffold said. “He called me and said, ‘God forbid anything happens, just be ready.’ I was like, ‘OK, so obviously I’m probably going to be playing tackle again.’ So of course after the first series I’m playing tackle for the rest of the game.”

Breaking down the precognitive powers of Mr. Saffold will have to wait for another time. For now, it’s more important to look at what the younger Saffold means to the Rams both in light of the injury to left tackle Jake Long and in the longer term.

Three plays into Sunday’s 23-13 win against Tampa Bay, Long suffered a right knee injury that required him to be taken off the field on a cart. After the game, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the team fears Long has a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Long’s status will be confirmed in the next 24 hours, but if Fisher is acknowledging that as a possibility, it’s probably the case. That injury would mean a long road to recovery for Long, the team’s prized free-agent signing in March.

It also means that Saffold should become the single-most important offseason priority for the Rams. After starting at right guard for the fifth time this season, Saffold hopped over to left tackle on the team’s first drive after Long left the field.

Despite the musical positions Saffold has played all season, he remained unfazed by the move, making the switch and holding up just fine as quarterback Kellen Clemens was sacked just once and hit only three times on the day.

“Rodger is a great asset for us,” Clemens said. “To have the ability to go from right guard to left tackle, I don’t know if any of you have ever played offensive line but your footwork is different, your calls are different, he’s a true pro. We are really lucky to have him. He gives us a lot of versatility there on that offensive line.”

Versatility is a fine quality, but plenty of linemen around the league have played multiple positions in a pinch. The Rams had a lineman named Blaine Saipaia in 2004-05 who played nearly every position on the line and even took snaps at tight end.

But standing in at many spots is one thing. Having the type of success Saffold has enjoyed is something different entirely.

Saffold has started eight games this season, five at right guard and three at right tackle. Before this season, he had started 35 games in his NFL career, every one of them at left tackle.

That makes moving back to his old position something akin to riding a tricycle, but it also makes moving to other spots where he isn’t as comfortable more difficult.

“Right guard is a position I was never used to playing,” Saffold said. “I have a lot of experience playing left tackle, and I think that’s what saves me the most. When I had to go back and forth to right tackle I was able to practice it all through OTAs, all throughout training camp and that helped me too. It’s basically just the experience of playing the game that allows you to move.”

In Saffold’s case, there’s a lot more to it than that. At 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, Saffold’s strength and quickness make him a powerful run-blocker, particularly inside, but also more than capable as a pass-blocker against speedy edge rushers.

“The thing about Rodger, you all may not know this but he’s probably one of the most athletic guys on the team,” running back Zac Stacy said. “So with that his versatility is a big key in this game. He’s able to play inside [and] outside, so he did a great job today being in a tough position trying to move to tackle. Hopefully he can keep that going.”

With only one game remaining, next week against Seattle, the Rams should be fine simply plugging Saffold in for Long at left tackle. What the future holds beyond that is more important in determining how the Rams’ offseason shapes up.

Saffold is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the outset of the new league year. His extensive injury history could make teams, including the Rams, a bit wary, though his turnaround since an early season injury is rare.

By now, it’s quite clear that Saffold’s value when healthy should be enough to land him a healthy payday. Even before Long was hurt, a strong argument could be made that Saffold was the team’s best offensive lineman. He’d been particularly adept at guard, with all the makings of an elite player on the interior.

Some would argue that Saffold could make more money as a pure tackle on the open market since it’s a higher-profile position. Teams might also look at Saffold and want to offer him a big contract as a top guard.

Whether it’s as a top guard or an above-average tackle is beside the point. The point is that Saffold can be any and all of those things at the drop of a hat. That’s where his true value lies.

And, after losing Long to a potentially long-term knee injury, that value should be greater to the Rams than anyone else.