As we approach the end of July and move a day closer to camp, the excitement of a new, drama free Saints season is becoming closer to a reality. While it is obvious that Saints fans are anxious to see how Rob Ryan and the Saints defense plan to improve from league worst numbers in 2012, the Who Dat Nation is also wondering if the Saints offense can once again recover from losing a Pro Bowler on the offensive line.
Two time Pro Bowler (2006, 2008) and former First Team All Pro (2006) Jamaal Brown was replaced by 4th round pick Jermon Bushrod in 2009. All that led to was the first year starter at left tackle being part of a Super Bowl winning team.
After losing 2009 Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin to the 49ers in 2011, the Saints added 6 time Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz. He had proven to be past his prime, and an unknown kid (and training camp guard) named Brian de la Puente came in and filled in admirably as the new Saints center.
After a record breaking offensive season in 2011, two time Pro Bowler (2010, 2011) and former First Team All Pro (2011) Carl Nicks was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints responded by bringing in a cheaper but capable replacement in 2011 Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs.
It's a classic example of the "here we go again" scenario for the Saints. The Saints passed on the opportunity to resign 2011 Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod, allowing him to sign with the Chicago Bears for a nice pay day (5 years, $36 million). The Saints have always seemed to have a plan to solve this problem, but will the trend continue?
According to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, despite the loss of Nicks last season, the Saints still had the 6th best offensive line in football in 2012 (link here). If you read the analysis, it sites Bushrod as being the weakest link. Honestly, I can't say that I disagree with him. Evan Silva of Rotoworld seems to think that losing Bushrod will hurt because of the health issues of possible replacement Charles Brown, ranking the Saints offensive line 15th for 2013 (link here). That may also be a valid point. Let's take a look at the 15 players hoping to continue what has been a recent tradition of solid offensive line play:
BUSHROD'S POTENTIAL REPLACEMENTS:
#71 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Apr 10, 1987
Coming into his fourth season, the 26 year old Brown has yet to prove that he can stay healthy. The former USC Trojan was drafted in the 2nd round with hopes of competing for a starting tackle spot. The 2013 season will be his best chance to do just that and should be the early favorite to start at that position. The talent is there, as he has shown flashes of improvement over the years in limited opportunities. The competition for the left tackle position will be tough for Brown, so he better bring his "A" game and find a way to avoid injury or he may find himself as a reserve in 2013 and off of the team in 2014.
What to watch: It's literally now or never for Brown. His health concerns are holding him back from his potential, but the Saints need a left tackle that they can depend on. He's in the final year of his contract, so look for him to play his best football if he can stay on the field. If not, there's little chance that he will be back on this roster in 2014.
#72 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Jul 23, 1991
It is not unusual for football fans to be excited about rookies and the unknown of what they can possibly bring to the table. Terron Armstead was a projected 2nd rounder that fell into the laps of the Saints in the 3rd round. The combine numbers for Armstead were jaw dropping. His athletic ability is something to be really excited about, but athletic ability alone will not keep pass rushers off of Drew's blind side. Armstead will have to prove that his technique is ready for what he is about to see in the NFL.
What to watch: I LOVED this pick in the draft and believe that Armstead is the left tackle of the future. He is no longer in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, so I am ready to see how he holds up against the NFL's best pass rushers. Personally, I believe in his potential, but it is possible that the Saints could take it slow with the raw but talented Armstead.
#78 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Apr 30, 1986
While he seems like an outside shot to start at left tackle on opening day, let's remember what the situation is here. We have an injury prone Charles Brown and a raw, unproven prospect in Terron Armstead competing for the same spot. Smith has been a huge disappointment so far in his NFL career, but there have been times where teams have taken underachievers and motivated or developed them into a serviceable player. While I do not believe that Smith is the answer, I will keep an open mind and hope that he can contribute something and possibly half way live up to his draft status as a former 2nd overall pick.
What to watch: We will either see a motivated player that will take advantage of finally playing for a winning team, or we will see a guy who could be cut before the season opener.
THE REST OF THE TACKLES:
#64 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Sep 22, 1983
The 8th year monster out of Northwestern is all but guaranteed a spot as the starting right tackle. He has had his ups and downs in his career, but has had some really solid games from both tackle positions. As a starter for the past two seasons, he has had injury issues of his own, playing in 23 of a possible 32 regular season games. The Saints may need Strief for 16 games this season more than ever.
What to watch: Strief will be 30 in September and is in the latter part of his prime. If he is unable to stay healthy, Strief may end up in the same boat as Charles Brown. He is also an unrestricted free agent after this season and needs to have a big impact on the field to get his big pay day before its too late. If he stays healthy, expect for Strief to continue to do his part on the right side of the line.
#70 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Sep 04, 1988
Marcel Jones is huge. We haven't seen much from the huge offensive tackle, but he is in a nice spot to push for some playing time. With the depth at tackle fairly wide open, Jones will get his opportunity to be part of this 53 man roster.
What to watch: With the previous health issues of most of the competition, Marcel Jones fits in just fine. If he can stay on the field, Jones may have the chance to prove what he wanted to last season. At Nebraska, Jones did a solid job in run blocking situations, so that skill would be one that could benefit the Saints in the long run.
#79 / Offensive Tackle / New Orleans Saints
Jan 16, 1989
The former Fresno State tackle may be a sleeper to watch out for. He's an athletic kid who could open some eyes in camp. If injuries continue to plague the other contenders for the tackle spot, Harris may prove worthy enough not only to stick around, but also to get some playing time.
What to watch: As a rookie, Harris had already earned his spot as a Saints reserve. A season ending injury bumped him to the IR. With more competition to overcome in 2013, will Harris prove once again to be roster worthy or will he be a potential practice squad guy?
#73 / Guard / New Orleans Saints
Aug 22, 1983
Jahri Evans may be the best guard in all of football. For the past four seasons, Evans has not only been a Pro Bowler, but also a First Team All Pro. As the only remaining starter from the Super Bowl offensive line, Evans has been the one constant up front, starting every game since game one of his rookie season (his 112 consecutive starts is tied for 4th most among active players). The reliable Evans have allowed the Saints to carry minimal depth at the guard position and there's no reason to believe that this season will be any different.
What to watch: Expect a fifth straight Pro Bowl and a fifth straight First Team All Pro season. Anything less would be shocking.
#66 / Guard / New Orleans Saints
Mar 10, 1984
As the season went on in 2012, Ben Grubbs' play seemed to improve every week. When Grubbs replaced Carl Nicks last season, some Saints fans were concerned that Grubbs' pass blocking would be a true drop off from Nicks'. Grubbs adjusted well to the up tempo pass offense and actually didn't get to show enough of what he may be strongest at, which is run blocking. Grubbs is an outstanding run blocker and could be a key player to the re-emergence of the Saints' rushing attack.
What to watch: Look for Ben Grubbs to continue to become even more comfortable on this offensive line. While it may be true that Carl Nicks is a better overall guard, Coach Payton will love Grubbs' versatility and ability to run block. Expect for Grubbs to be a huge reason as to why the running game gets back on track in 2013.
Brian De La Puente
#60 / Center / New Orleans Saints
May 13, 1985
While not too many people outside of the Who Dat Nation know this, Brian de la Puente is one of the best centers in all of football. Since taking over for Olin Kreutz in 2011, de la Puente has started 28 straight games and has developed a great relationship with his All-Pro quarterback. Like his two guard teammates, the well balanced center is a guaranteed lock to start.
What to watch: I have no doubts that de la Puente will continue right where he left off. If anything, the league may start to notice de la Puente even more, as he is an unrestricted free agent after the 2013 season. He may be in for a nice pay day and I'm hoping the Saints are able to keep him locked up.
THE REST OF THE GUARDS/CENTERS:
Eric Olsen: The versatile Olsen has lined up as a guard, center, and a blocking tight end in the NFL. The 3rd year player out of Notre Dame appeared in all 16 games as a Saint last season, so unless some of the competition steps up, Olsen may be part of the roster due to his versatility alone.
Andrew Tiller: After being drafted in the 6th round in 2012, this is basically a redo of his rookie season. Tiller was on injury reserve by August 12th of last year. Tiller deserves this opportunity to prove what he can offer as a reserve guard, but he better stay on the field because there may not be a third chance.
Ricky Henry: As a member of the 2012 Saints practice squad, Henry was activated to the active roster for the final three games of the season. Like Olsen, Henry may have an edge on earning a backup guard spot, but will have to beat out Tiller and the rookies to keep his spot on the roster.
Elliott Mealer: If you are not familiar with the story of Elliott Mealer, take the time to click here. What a mentally and physically tough young man. Mealer is an easy kid to root for, but has his hands full in making this roster as a rookie. Whatever happens, I wish this kid all of the best.
Tim Lelito: The rookie guard is an excellent athlete, lettering in football, basketball, and track and field in high school. As an offensive lineman for Grand Valley State, he was Offensive Lineman of the Year of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He's a small school guy who seems to have a very small chance to make this roster.
Jeremiah Warren: The South Florida guard seems like a camp body. I would rate him as the last interior lineman to get a job on this roster.
The left tackle position is one that needs to be filled with the best player possible, but the rest of the offensive line seems to be set. There could be some surprises with the depth chart, but we can definitely expect to see Grubbs, de la Puente, Evans, and Strief along the offensive line. While I believe that a healthy Charles Brown is most likely to get the nod at left tackle to start the season, Terron Armstead has the potential to do what Evans did; start immediately as a rookie and never look back. Will Jason Smith finally figure it out and make this a competition? Is Armstead not as raw as we may think? Can Brown be the next Bushrod? Feel free to comment.
Our next Countdown to Camp preview will cover Drew Brees' dynamic wide receivers. Don't fall asleep on the side of the road for this one!
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