As one left tackle after another went down, Rodger Saffold learned to speak up.
The 2020 season was Saffold’s 11th in the NFL and his second as the Tennessee Titans left guard. For the first time, though, he learned that he is not so much a puzzle piece that locks into his spot along the line as he is a drop of water that takes whatever shape is necessitated by his surroundings.
Saffold started 15 of the 16 games and along the way adapted as Taylor Lewan (five games) got hurt and gave way to Ty Sambrailo (five games), who likewise was injured and was replaced by David Quessenberry, who started for the final six contests. The one game Saffold missed was during Sambrailo’s tenure.
“I think I really found my calling through just being able to be a better communicator and more of a leader to guys that weren’t necessarily preparing for the left tackle job,” Saffold said at the end of the season. “And through working with Ty and David and Taylor, I think I understand that as long I can make the best possible situation for any one of those guys out there, we’re going to be able to make plays. We’re going to be able to have great blocks. We’re going to be able to pass off twists and games.”
The shuffle on that side was out of sync with what took place to Saffold’s right. Center Ben Jones, right guard Nate Davis and right tackle Dennis Kelly all played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps for the season.
The only other time during the Titans era (1999-present) that Tennessee needed more than two starting left tackles to get through a season was 2014, Lewan’s rookie year. Then, he replaced Michael Roos after five games but played just six before he too sustained a season-ending injury. After that, journeymen Will Svitek (three games) and Jamon Meredith (two games) got the team to the finish.
The first time was a disaster. The Titans finished 2-14, were one of six teams that allowed at least 50 quarterback sacks and managed just six rushing touchdowns (only one team had fewer).
This one was decidedly different. Tennessee went 11-5 and ended up atop the AFC South for the first time since 2008, had the NFL’s second-best rushing attack in terms of yards and touchdowns led by Derrick Henry, who produced the fifth highest single season rushing total in history, and was one of seven teams that allowed 25 or fewer sacks.
During Saffold’s last two years with the Rams, left tackle Andrew Whitworth never missed a start and played better than 95 percent of the possible snaps. In 2016, Greg Robinson started 14 games and played nearly 90 percent of the snaps after having played every possible snap the previous season.
After he joined the Titans as a free agent in 2019, he played alongside Kelly for four weeks before Lewan returned from a suspension and finished the season.
So, this season was a change, one that he believes will be for the better.
“It just all comes from communication, and I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to see that,” Saffold said. “I think it’s going to make me and Taylor work better together when we come back next year.”