With free agency just 15 days away, one of several key decisions the Rams face is what to do at the center position.
Austin Blythe is a pending unrestricted free agent for the second time in as many years and has been a valuable presence along the Rams offensive line. However, like other pending free agents, Rams decision makers will have to weigh it with other needs the team has.
"He really has done a nice job," Rams head coach Sean McVay said during a Feb. 25 video conference with reporters. "It's funny that you mentioned that, because we were talking amongst coaches and with (General Manager) Les (Snead) and his group over the last couple of weeks. We've talked about the importance of that center position, having the command and the capacity that you're looking for because of the amount of responsibility that you put on that specific individual with where the communication starts, he and the quarterback working in unison."
It was Blythe's command and communication that helped stabilize an injury-riddled offensive line during the second half of the 2019 season. Coupled with missing just one regular season game that year, those efforts led to the Rams bringing him back on a one-year deal last offseason in order to help maintain continuity for a group that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL (22) in 2019.
With Blythe assisting with calls and protections at the line of scrimmage in 2020, the Rams offensive line tied with the Titans for the sixth-fewest sacks allowed in the regular season. The 28-year-old Blythe also started every game last season, including the playoffs.
"Looking at what (former Rams center) John Sullivan was able to establish his first couple years, then seeing Austin start to play in the latter half of 2019, then watching where he took it and ran with it last season was really impressive," McVay said. "He did a great job and he's definitely somebody that we appreciate, we value."
At the same time, McVay is cognizant Blythe is one of many roster choices the Rams have to make this offseason. Besides Blythe, 15 other Rams players are scheduled to become free agents when the new league year arrives on March 17.
Additionally, Los Angeles – like the league's 31 other teams – will also be navigating those decisions with a potentially reduced salary cap due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported last month the cap floor was being raised from $175 million to $180 million, but that's still a significant shortfall from the $198.2 million clubs operated under in 2020.
"I think there's going to be a lot of things that we've got to really navigate through as we're trying to figure out the best way to put our team together as we figure out what is that cap? What does it look like specific to some of the things that we're in the midst of trying to figure out?" McVay said. "You even talk about restructuring, some of the guys that have some of those bigger deals and where we can find some of that money. There's a lot of layers and a lot of numbers that (Vice President, Football & Business Administration) Tony Pastoors is a lot smarter than me on that hopefully we'll be able to figure out to put together the best team."
Take a look back at top shots of the Rams offensive line from the 2020 season.