Balzer: Tackles' Contracts Aren't An Issue

Jason Smith (AP/Michael Conroy)

As the second pick in the draft last season, tackle Jason Smith signed a six-year contract worth $60 million. As the first pick in the second round this year, Rodger Saffold signed a four-year contract worth $4.1 million.

However, finances won't be considered when the Rams' coaches decide who to play on the left side and who to play on the right. While it had been assumed after Saffold was drafted that he would be on the right and Smith on the left, it was notable that Saffold was at left tackle when training camp opened.

Yes, Smith was sidelined as he recovered from an offseason toe injury. However, it stands to reason that Saffold would be on the right side now if that is where he was likely to end up.

Naturally, some of the critics came out in force when even the thought of having Smith on the right side was broached. "How can a team pay a guy $33 million guaranteed and not play him on the left side," was what some people screamed.

However, I look at it differently. The real question is to ask is this: How could coaches decide to play a guy at left tackle (Smith) if they thought someone else (Saffold) on the roster was better? And, how could they decide to play Saffold on the right side if they believe Smith is better there?

The Rams' coaching staff is desperately trying to win games, not justify contracts or where a player was selected in the draft.

When Smith was drafted in 2009, it was widely known he was expected to be better immediately as a run blocker than pass blocker. That's why he began his career on the right side and Alex Barron, the better and more experienced pass blocker went to the left side.

Entering this offseason, the plan was to move Smith to the left side. But perspective began to change when Saffold was selected. If that hadn't happened, Smith would certainly be at left tackle. Who knows, Barron might not have been traded. But once Saffold was picked, different options presented themselves.

Keep in mind this isn't about Smith being a bad pass blocker. After all, there are plenty of excellent pass rushers to contend with on the right side. But Saffold is simply a better natural pass blocker than Smith, so when the final decision is made, coaches will go with the combination they believe makes the team better.

"That's what we would do," coach Steve Spagnuolo said when training camp opened, while acknowledging Saffold could end up on the left side. "Jason started out that way (at right tackle) last year. Both those guys in my mind right now are interchangeable."

Said line coach Steve Loney, "The thing that's got to be established is what's going to be the best spot for those two guys."

Smith seemed unconcerned about possibly being at right tackle.

"You want to put the best five on the field at all times, and where you feel they can play," he said. "Wherever they put me is fine. Wherever they put Rodger, I'm sure it's fine. We're just going to go out and play football.

"Sure, I was a hot pick or whatever, but between those lines, none of that matters. It's who's going to hit the hardest each play."

Said Saffold, "Right now, I'm just a tackle. Being left or right really doesn't matter to me at this point. All I want to do is continue to try to help out the team. Wherever I'm put is where I'm going to be, and I'll be happy with that."

Smith, of course, has to show he can stay healthy. Last season, he started only five games because of a knee injury suffered in the second game of the season and a concussion in November that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Then, there was the toe injury that cost him several weeks of OTAs and had him limited at the start of camp. Smith got limited reps in the "team" segment of practice Wednesday when he was the second-team right tackle in 9-on-7 running offense work.

Because of his injuries, Spagnuolo said, "When you really look at it, Jason's been here a year, but only got half a year (of playing time). So they're really almost at the same stage. Certainly Rodger's got a little ways to go because he's a rookie. ... Now at some point ... you've got to settle in on your offensive line, so we'll certainly do that."

I'm betting it's Saffold left and Smith right, and the Rams will be better that way.

At the end of the day, that's all that really matters.



Howard Balzer is the Editor/writer for GridIronGateway Magazine. For subscription information visit GridIronGateway.com (reduced online rate of $39.95) or call 888-501-5752. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/HBalzer721

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