The Rams have a decision to make at right tackle, and modern football theory suggests it's every bit as important as the one they made at left tackle.
Andrew Whitworth is back at age 38 to protect quarterback Jared Goff's blind side. But while the right tackle position may not have inspired a Michael Lewis best-seller, it's no less critical to any storybook season.
"The truth is, anybody who has been paying close attention to the league the last few years realizes (or at least should) that there is no longer a distinction between the two positions on the edges of a team's offensive line," former NFL lineman Ross Tucker wrote last summer.
Two years prior, an Andy Benoit article "Death of the Blind Side" proclaimed, "We'll soon see right tackles valued equally to left tackles."
While we aren't yet there in terms of contract numbers, the sentiment was recently echoed by NFL Network commentator Bucky Brooks.
And Sean McVay agrees.
"Now you see a lot of these best rushers, like you talk about, they're going to say, 'Let's find the matchup that we want'," the Rams head coach said. "And in a lot of instances, they're rushing that guy off the right side."
"Really all five linemen can be stressed at any point in time based on how the defense aligns or tries to overload your protections," Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell added.
But it's more than just what opponents are trying to accomplish on defense. It's also system-specific on offense. According to McVay, "the things that we're asking (left and right tackle) to do are very similar across the board in our run game, in our protections."
Unfortunately for the 2019 Rams, things did not go according to plan at right tackle, or really anywhere up front.
As Pro Football Focus put it, for the Rams offensive line, "it all came crashing back down to earth, and they finished (2019) with only the Miami Dolphins ranked lower."
In particular, the author pointed to right tackle Rob Havenstein and his injury-plagued season as a primary reason for the collective decline.
"Havenstein had four straight seasons with a PFF grade of at least 69.7 and was coming off the best year of his career (83.6) before collapsing to an overall figure of 59.0 last year," Sam Monson wrote. "Typically, that means he was struggling through some kind of physical issue or injury, and you would expect some kind of bounce-back in 2020."
"(Rob) was pushing through some injuries that I do think led to not seeing him play consistently at the level we're accustomed to," McVay said, lending credence to PFF's evaluation that Havenstein was less than 100 percent, even before he sustained a knee injury in Week 10 at Pittsburgh. He also echoed PFF's optimistic prediction for 2020.
"I'm fully confident that he'll get back to that," McVay continued. "He's feeling good."
When Havenstein missed the final seven games, rookie third-round pick Bobby Evans stepped in with mixed results, individually. But overall, the offense thrived.
"I personally, just watching the tape and studying those guys, I've got a ton of confidence in both of them," O'Connell said. "It's going to be a great situation for us to have the depth there."
To hear McVay tell it, it sounds like he's inclined to trust Havenstein's track record.
"I thought Bobby Evans, being able to step in and play well towards the latter half of the season was really good for his confidence," McVay said. "But I'm not convinced that guy couldn't play guard, either."
I can't think of many instances in the past few years in which McVay has floated an idea like that – Evans playing guard, not starting at right tackle – without having a pretty solid sense that he's leaning that direction.
If that's the way it plays out, Evans could join David Edwards and Austin Corbett in a three-for-two battle at guard. (After starting the first six games of last season at left guard, Joe Noteboom may also be in that mix.)
So many things could happen between now and Week 1, including the Rams being able to orchestrate a trade or collecting another option off the waiver wire during roster cuts. And complicating matters is the lack of on-field work so far in 2020.
"Until we get out and are really playing football again, that's the challenging part of what these times entail," McVay noted.
For the moment, the options presented here reinforce the logic behind why the Rams did not invest draft capital in their offensive line this April. It's also worth noting, they'll be able to leverage that depth with an extra lineman active on game day thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Havenstein may not have Whitworth's resume, but he is in his prime and carries the second-largest cap hit in the position group this season. It sounds like he'll get the first right of refusal at right tackle, and the Rams need him to recapture his Pro Bowl-worthy form.
"For us, we feel great about Whitworth and Havenstein," McVay said. "We value those positions equally."
"The importance of having both of those edges being firm and being something that we can have a lot of confidence in is huge," O'Connell said. "And I think that's where we're at right now."