Decision looms for Rams at right tackle

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The day hasn’t arrived just yet but soon the St. Louis Rams are going to have to make a decision at right tackle.

That’s true in a long-term sense with right tackle Rodger Saffold scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, but it’s also true in the context of the next few weeks.

Saffold has returned from a knee injury this week, practicing fully Wednesday and Thursday to the point where he isn’t on the injury report. He hasn’t played since suffering the injury in the Sept. 15 game against Atlanta.

Joe Barksdale has stepped in on the right side with Saffold out and the Rams’ offensive line has seemed to find some continuity and chemistry the past two weeks after a couple of poor outings against Dallas and San Francisco on the heels of Saffold’s injury.

Standard protocol for a returning starter is that he doesn’t lose his job to injury but that rule isn’t hard and fast.

So, how does a team go about deciding between maintaining continuity or going back to the player who earned the job in the first place?

“You just see how the week goes,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “You see how the practice week goes. [Saffold] did a nice job today. We’re fired up that he’s back and we’ll see how that plays out. But, again, whoever we put out there, they’re going to know the plan and they’re going to play well.”

It remains to be seen who will get the start this week but if the Rams choose, they can delay the decision until at least next week under the guise of Saffold having to knock off some rust and work his way back into playing condition.

Saffold said Thursday he’s at about 90 to 100 percent health and feels nothing shifting or moving below the brace on his knee. He did acknowledge returning to work on the right side is a little more difficult since he doesn’t have the experience there that he did at his former spot on the left side.

This week, Saffold has spent time going out on the practice field early and working on his sets and footwork to try to get back up to speed on the right side.

Given his extensive injury history, the Rams may be more hesitant to throw Saffold back on the field before they’re 100 percent convinced he’s ready. He’s also considered to be ahead of schedule, which may increase the Rams’ reticence to putting him back in the lineup. That idea is not lost on him, either, but he believes he can return this week against Carolina.

“Of course I expect to play,” Saffold said. “I have taken some reps, so yes, I do expect to play. But at the same time, it’s going to be their decision. If they feel they are going to put me in harm’s way, they are not going to put me in.”

If only it were that simple. There is much more at play than who plays right tackle against the Panthers this week or even next week against Seattle.

In some sense, Barksdale has enjoyed a four-week audition as a possible long-term heir to the job should Saffold depart as a free agent in the offseason. Barksdale has been solid if unspectacular in Saffold’s place and has done enough to at least earn some consideration for keeping the job.

The Rams running game has been working in the past two weeks and Barksdale helped limit star Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt to zero tackles last week.

Schottenheimer said Barksdale has been an asset with Saffold out.

“He’s done very well,” Schottenheimer said. “I think he’s been a big part of our success the last couple weeks, again, running the football. There’s certainly something to chemistry, but when you’re dealing with veterans and guys like that, which most of that group is a bunch of veterans, they plug in and whoever gets called, whether it’s (guard) Chris Williams moving to tackle at some point -- different things that come up during the course of the year, they’re always ready to go.”

During the preseason, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said that players don’t “typically” lose their job to injury when asked about safety Rodney McLeod possibly claiming a starting safety job with Darian Stewart out injured.

Against Carolina on Sunday, McLeod is expected to make his sixth consecutive start and fourth in a row with Stewart active.

In other words, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Barksdale hangs on to the job. For both the short- and long-term prospects of the offensive line, that might be the most prudent move.