The Titans landed the top free agent guard on the market on Tuesday when it was announced that Rodger Saffold was signing a four year, $44M deal to join three time Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan on the left side of Tennessee’s offensive line.
#Rams OL Roger Saffold, who was spotted in the facility saying goodbye to teammates, is signing a 4-year, $44M deal with the #Titans, source said. He gets $22.5M in guarantees. Obviously, the physical will be important (as we learned a few years ago).— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 12, 2019
Let’s hit on the note at the end of Rapoport’s tweet for a moment before we get into who Saffold is and why Titans fans should be extremely excited about this addition. Back in 2014, Saffold was set to leave the Rams and sign a lucrative contract in Oakland, but failed his physical with the Raiders and ultimately returned to the Rams for less money (this turned out to be a major stroke of luck for the Rams). The issue found had to do with Saffold’s shoulder and it turned out to be accurate as a season ending shoulder injury in 2015 sent the big guard under the knife to repair a torn labrum. Since that repair, Saffold has missed just one game due to injury over three years — a minor knee injury in 2016 — and his play has taken off to another level.
Saffold was originally drafted by the Rams at the top of the second round in the 2010 NFL Draft after a successul college career at Indiana University. His transition to the NFL was bumpy, in part, due to playing on some really bad Rams teams. He also was moved around quite a bit, starting at left tackle early on before moving to the right side and then eventually inside to guard. Saffold was viewed as a solid, but unspectacular starter until Sean McVay arrived in LA and move the Rams to a zone based blocking scheme. That system fit Saffold’s athletic game like a glove. He got a Second-Team All-Pro nod in 2017 and was excellent again in 2018.
He was arguably the best offensive lineman on an offensive line that ranked third and first in 2017 and 2018 in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. When you break those numbers down based on where the run went, you find that the Rams finished — comfortably — in two areas: off left tackle and middle/guard. Those just happen to be the areas patrolled by Saffold. The Rams also ranked third and sixth in Adjusted Sack Rate in those two seasons. Saffold has been credited with just four sacks allowed over the past two seasons per PFF charting.
Saffold has always been an above average pass blocker ever since moving inside to guard. His quick feet and powerful frame at 6’-5” and 321 pounds allow him to mirror quicker players while still being able to anchor against power rushers. However, where Titans fans will really see a difference is in the running game. The jump from Quinton Spain to Rodger Saffold is going to be striking when it comes to the zone blocking scheme the Titans want to run (if you weren’t sure before, this signing confirms that ZBS will remain the staple in Tennessee under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith).
Let’s take a look at some examples. Very few NFL guards move like Saffold and he has an outstanding feel for technique in the outside zone. Here you can see him helping center John Sullivan get squared up on the 1-tech before climbing to the next level and completely removing linebacker Mychal Kendricks from the box.
Here’s another example of combination blocking as Saffold effectively helps both Whitworth and Sullivan on either side of him before climbing to cut off Jaylon Smith. Want to know how the Rams made C.J. Anderson look like Todd Gurley late last season? It was blocks like this from the league’s best run blocking line.
In zone blocking systems, the guards are often uncovered and therefore asked to climb to the second level and block linebackers. That can be a tough ask when you look at the speed and agility of modern NFL linebackers, but Saffold makes it look easy. Here, he quickly gets to the second level, gets Leighton Vander Esch in his sights, and then locks on and takes him for a ride ten yards away from the play.
This time he’s on the front side of the zone run and shows off his power as he literally bounces Smith out of the hole.
Saffold moves in space with rare grace. That’s on display here as he manages to pancake not one, but two Eagles on the toss play.
Those movement skills were a key part of the Rams prolific screen game the past two seasons. Here you can see him getting out in front and managing to pick off the Vikings safety 30 yards downfield to spring Gurley.
As I mentioned above, the major difference between Saffold and Spain will be seen in the running game, but Saffold is a very competent pass protector as well. He does a good job of anchoring at the top of the pocket and not getting pushed back into the quarterback’s feet. Here, you can see his quickness and power at work against one of the league’s best pass rushers in Brandon Graham.
The Titans got Saffold for $11M per year which slots him in as the sixth highest paid guard in the NFL behind Zack Martin, Andrew Norwell, Kevin Zeitler, Kelechi Osemele, and Trai Turner. Given the way the free agent market operates, I think that’s a surprisingly reasonable deal for a guy that ranks as a top ten guard and fits exactly what the Titans want to do.
The #Titans bring in 31 year old OG Rodger Saffold on a $44M contract that includes $19M guaranteed at signing. It’s good for at least 2 years, $23.5M before the dead cap drops off.— Spotrac (@spotrac) March 12, 2019
NFL Network analyst and former NFL offensive lineman, Brian Baldinger is a big fan of Saffold’s.
Find me one poor performance by Saffold over the last 2 seasons. Talented & Consistent— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) March 12, 2019
So what does this mean for the Titans in 2019 and beyond? Well, for starters, they now boast arguably the best left side of an offensive line in football with Lewan and Saffold. Those two will be blocking for a running back in Derrick Henry who loves to run left because it allows him to unleash his dominant right-handed stiff arm. This really seems like a match made in two-tone heaven.
The Titans now figure to be in good to great shape at three offensive line positions with Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, and either Jack Conklin or Dennis Kelly (I tend to believe that we see a bounce back year from Conklin in his second year removed from the ACL surgery) manning the left tackle, left guard, and right tackle spots. Ben Jones and Josh Kline are returning starters at center and right guard, but I think it’s pretty clear that those are still upgradeable spots.
The Titans currently have some options on the roster for those two spots though as Corey Levin, Kevin Pamphile (who was re-signed yesterday), Aaron Stinnie, and Hroniss Grasu (another free agent addition earlier in the offseason) can all play either center or guard in addition to Jones and Kline. However, I would not be surprised if they still address this position early in the draft. With the money they have committed at left tackle and left guard (and potentially right tackle if they exercise Conklin’s fifth year option), they’ll need cheaper solutions at center and right guard beyond 2019. Jones is heading into the final year of his current contract and the team could move on from Kline easily in 2020 if they can find a long term replacement. A Garrett Bradbury or Chris Lindstrom could really lift this group over the top for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of what happens at center and right guard, Saffold’s addition changes the ceiling for the Titans offense as he and Lewan will form a formidable and ridiculously athletic left side that should make Derrick Henry a very productive back in 2019.