The Los Angeles Rams have a handful of free agents that they will be looking to re-sign this offseason. Whether that is John Johnson III or Leonard Floyd, the Rams will be looking to bring back at least one of those two players. However, one player that does not get brought up in that conversation of important Rams free agents is Austin Blythe.
Blythe should absolutely be considered one of, if not the most important Rams free agent to be re-signed.
This isn’t to say that John Johnson III or Leonard Floyd aren’t important players that should be top priorities. Because they absolutely should. However, the willingness for the Rams to simply move on from a player like Austin Blythe from some fans seems to be misguided.
Learning from 2019
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Rams did rebuild their offensive line and let an important piece walk in free agency. In that offseason, the Rams allowed Rodger Saffold to sign with the Tennessee Titans and then simply didn’t opt to re-sign John Sullivan.
The result was the 31st ranked offensive line by Pro Football Focus and a full-year of shifting players around in order to find the correct rotation. Of the offensive line, PFF said about the Rams offensive line:
The offensive line was a strength of the Los Angeles Rams’ NFC champion team in 2018, but that changed in a hurry this season. Injuries, shuffling pieces and declining play from players who performed well last season — such as Rob Havenstein — resulted in a pass-blocking unit that allowed a pressure rate four percentage points higher than it did a season ago despite Jared Goff getting rid of the football significantly faster on average and running play action at one of the highest rates in the NFL. Given how much Goff relies on a clean pocket, improving the group up front will be a priority heading into 2020.
The Rams finished 3-2 down the stretch to end the year 9-7. However, that was after trading for Austin Corbett, moving Austin Blythe from guard to center, and getting lucky with David Edwards at guard.
Jared Goff didn’t play well in 2019, but some of that can be credited to poor offensive line play. Week in and week out, it was a group that got dominated. The offensive line and Brian Allen were so bad in 2019, some fans were hoping an out-of-shape Sullivan would return mid-season.
Because of the losses of Saffold and Sullivan the Rams threw in players like Brian Allen and Joe Noteboom who clearly were not ready. After Noteboom got injured, the Rams were forced to throw a rookie into the fire earlier than anticipated in Edwards. It took almost a full year for the offensive line to grow and build continuity together.
Improvement in 2020
Unlike 2019, the Rams allowed those players an entire offseason to grow together and build continuity. They very easily could have drafted someone 52nd overall. Instead, they trusted the players that they had in place. Players that had experience as a single unit.
Last season, the Rams kept Austin Blythe at his more natural position at center and Edwards remained at guard. Whitworth was healthy, Corbett proved to be a great trade from Les Snead, and Rob Havenstein remained solid. It wasn’t as good as 2017 or 2018, however, the result was PFF’s third ranked offensive line. Of the offensive line, PFF stated:
It is safe to say that the Rams got the bounce-back season they badly needed from their offensive line following the disaster that was the 2019 season for Los Angeles up front.
There really wasn’t a whole lot of movement from the Rams this past offseason to add to the group, so the change centered around improvement from the players who were already on the roster. Andrew Whitworth improved his PFF grade by 16 points before his injury, while Austin Blythe’s and Austin Corbett’s grades each jumped nearly 20 points. Those improvements paled in comparison to Rob Havenstein’s jump from a 50.9 PFF grade in 2019 to 80.0 heading into this year’s postseason.
As a result, Jared Goff has been pressured on fewer than 30% of his dropbacks after that number sat at 36% in 2019. That remains one of the biggest keys to this offense moving forward, given Goff’s career clean pocket vs. pressure splits.
Pro Football Focus isn’t the end-all-be-all and shouldn’t be followed like scripture. Analysis is always subjective no matter how objective you try to make it. However, what is clear is that the Rams didn’t have a bottom-3 group like they did the year before. Even if you don’t think the Rams were the third ranked offensive line, they certainly weren’t bottom three.
Austin Blythe steady in the middle
A seventh round pick from the Colts in 2016, Indianapolis cut Blythe in the summer heading into 2017 training camp. The Rams picked him up and he has turned out to be a crucial piece up front ever since. He’s started 47 out of a potential 48 games over the last three years. In that time, he’s consistently been on of the more important pieces on the offensive line.
Last season, Blythe was the ninth rated center according to Pro Football Focus. Again, not using PFF as the end-all be-all here. It’s important to separate the grade and use context. Blythe had a 73.2 run-blocking grade and was a key cog in the Rams’ No. 10 rushing attack.
What makes him even more important is his ability to move back and forth between guard and center. If the Rams need to shuffle the offensive line, Austin Blythe is more than capable. That can’t be understated.
Where Austin Blythe needs to improve
However, Blythe is far from perfect. Where Blythe needs to improve is in pass blocking. His 52.5 pass-blocking grade ranked 22nd and his 29 pressures tied for the fourth most allowed. Taking that a step further, his pass-blocking efficiency ranked 25th among centers. That’s certainly far from ideal.
Stafford has more mobility that Goff, but the Rams need to be able to keep a clean pocket for their new star quarterback. The Rams need Austin Blythe to get stronger so that he is able to better handle larger defensive tackles. He got bull-rushed consistently which caused the pocket to collapse.
The alternatives to Blythe
Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of better alternative to Blythe. What needs to be remembered is that the Rams are in a position in which they are built to win-now. The Rams threw ‘looking three years ahead’ out the window when they traded two first round picks and their 26-year old quarterback for a 33-year old quarterback.
It would be easy to say for the Rams to draft a center this year and let them develop. However, the Rams don’t have the luxury of essentially waiting a year for a player to develop who may or may not be better than Blythe. The Rams could also sign a free agent center. The options in the free agent market for what the Rams can afford are limited, however.
Replacing Blythe in the Draft
Only one center since 2010 has been drafted in the second round and become a starting center.
Since 2018, six centers have been drafted in the third round that became starters. However, the quality of player is a different story.
Drafting a center and watching them become a quality player takes time and drafting outside of the top-50 is very risky. If you take the rookie centers from last season, only Tyler Biadasz had a better pass-blocking grade than Blythe. Even then, it was only marginally better (3.5 points).
Biadasz may become a better player than Blythe in two or three years, but the Rams no longer have 2-3 years to wait like they did with Goff. By that time Stafford will be 35 or 36 and there is no guarantee he’s the same quarterback he is heading into 2021.
A look at free agency
The Rams also don’t have the money to spend in free agency. Alex Mack could be a cheap option, but at 36, he’s not a significant upgrade to Blythe. Last season in Atlanta he allowed just four less pressures and committed three more penalties.
Most other options will be too expensive for the Rams to afford. According to Pro Football Focus, Blythe’s market value will be $2.75M per year which is half that of Mack and David Andrews.
The realistic option
The Rams could draft someone like Creed Humphrey, Quinn Meinerz, or David Moore in the draft. However, the likelihood they they make an immediate impact as stated above is slim to none. Throwing into the fire right out of the gates is asking for a repeat of 2019 and a thrown away season. That’s something that the Rams can’t afford in their current ‘win-now’ situation.
The best option and the realistic option is for the Rams to bring Blythe back on a two-year deal. The team can then draft someone like Meinerz or Moore, and let them develop for a year or two. Those are two players who could also play at guard and then move to center in a year or two.
Consistency is everything on the offensive line. That’s a lesson that the Rams learned after 2019. While the offensive line was far from perfect in 2020, keeping that consistency but bringing in young talent as depth is the idea scenario moving forward.
Unlike Johnson III or Floyd, Blythe won’t cost a lot in free agency. Keeping that consistency up front for Stafford and therefore keeping Blythe should be a priority for the Rams this offseason.