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Position Battles: Offensive Line

Posted Sep 2, 2015

There has been plenty of competition across the Rams' offensive line in training camp, and now the team will bring its best five into the season opener.

Throughout training camp, the Rams have been working to find the best combination of offensive linemen who can not only effectively protect quarterback Nick Foles, but also pave the way for the club’s strong stable of running backs.

Along with selecting running back Todd Gurley, using four draft picks on “mauler” offensive linemen in the spring -- and adding another through the supplemental draft in July -- was an indication of the way St. Louis would like to play up front. The Rams expect to be able to run the ball well, which should then open up the rest of the offense.

And so far, there are two rookies who have progressed well enough to be expected starters for Week 1: Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown.

Offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau said part of what has made those two ready to go is their attention to detail and experience with pro-style offenses in college.

“They didn’t have to learn how to put their hand in the ground,” Boudreau said. “That’s a plus, because some guys coming out of these read-zone teams, they never put their hand down.”

“Their situation is basically figuring out our language,” Boudreau continued. “First, learn a new language, and now, react to the defense and the speed and the adjustments that happen. ‘Why do you make a call? Why do you have to change a protection based on not the guy across from you? It might be based on the safety.’ So they’re learning the whole picture a little bit better and cleaner now.”

While the pair of rookies worked together on the right side for much of OTAs and camp, Brown has spent more time at left guard as of late. Boudreau said Brown’s experience playing swing tackle in college has helped the rookie make that transition.

“If they were in right formation, he was the left tackle. If they were in left, then he was a right tackle,” Boudreau said of Brown. “Most people can’t make that foot switch and that balance switch because it’s too hard to do every other play.”

Brown’s shift may have an added benefit for Havenstein, it puts veteran Rodger Saffold at right guard.

“A lot of times, the offensive line is about feel, so you have to be able to feel certain things,” Saffold said. “I can point those things out to [Havenstein] because he’s a smart player. He’s really been able to get this offense down. And hopefully I can get him to the next level so that if I miss something, he can help me. It’s all about helping each other.”

Havenstein has already been using Saffold as a resource, saying earlier in camp the veteran had been providing plenty of advice for how to succeed in the NFL.

“Rodger’s the type of guy you really want to stick close to in any aspect of life -- whether that’s the weight room, practice, film room, anything that has to do with how to be a professional football player,” Havenstein said. “He demands a lot out of us young guys, but it’s something that we’re definitely more than happy to prove to him that we have his back.”

While Saffold has been held out of the last two preseason contests as a precaution for his mild shoulder injury, the situation has presented opportunities to mix and match up front in order to maximize versatility. Boudreau said it’s important to do so because head coach Jeff Fisher will vary the group’s numbers on the gameday roster.

“Some weeks, coach [Fisher] will say, ‘Hey, you’ve got seven linemen.’ Some weeks you might have eight linemen,” Boudreau said. “Right now, we’re just working combinations for the disaster situations.”

“Last year, we played Seattle in the last game of the season and Rodger played four positions,” Boudreau added. “So that’s kind of what we’re doing now.”

Many of those variations are going on in the interior of the line.

“With the way we drafted this year, we had an opportunity to keep guys who are tackles in the tackle spot, and mix and match the guys inside,” Boudreau said. “Now, we’re keeping guys inside who are playing inside, and guys who are outside playing outside.”

To increase that versatility, some of the mixing-and-matching has come with the three players in the competition for center -- Tim Barnes, Barrett Jones, and Demetrius Rhaney. Rhaney, for instance, started at right guard last week against the Colts.

“The beauty with him is, he came into every meeting and he took notes on center and he took notes on guard,” Boudreau said of Rhaney. “He played guard and center in college, so I knew he had some flex in him.”

“My biggest thing has just been getting the playbook down pat, and being ready whenever my name is called,” Rhaney said.

Over the last two games in particular Rhaney has shown his ability to impact a play downfield.

“He’s been playing well at both positions, especially productive on the second level in the screens and downfield,” Fisher said. “He’s very athletic and made some really good blocks.”

The center competition remains tight because players like Barnes and Jones have both shown an ability to make all the proper line calls.

“When you have a center who comes up and makes the right calls, [Foles] doesn’t have to trump it and change them to the next spot,” Boudreau said. “He can just read the safety, know how we’re going to set the front, know how we’re going to set the protection, and it takes one more thing off of Nick’s plate.”

No matter who earns the starting role, the Rams should have a solid player snapping the ball.

“It’s been a great battle,” Jones said. “All three of us want to make the team better, and all three of us are trying to make each other better.”

“Obviously, you’re a competitor and you want to be the starter,” Jones added. “But you just have to lock in on the things you can control, and for me that’s going out every single day and having a good practice, having good games, working hard in the film room -- just doing those little things. And hopefully, at the end of the day, I’ll achieve my goal.”

And so while the Rams have not revealed exactly who their starting five will be on Sept. 13, with the unit’s talent infusion, St. Louis’ offensive line has potential to be in good shape for years to come.