There is one rule in the NFL: No one likes their own offensive line. Everything is always their fault and if a single thing goes wrong on offense, it’s because the line broke down. They’re like referees. No one notices if they’re doing their job well, but people are quick to point out their flaws. Saints fans have been spoiled with some pretty strong offensive lines in the last 5 years, most notably the squad during the magical 2009 Super Bowl run, but there are a lot of questions to be addressed on the line going into the 2014 season.
The challenge of evaluating this squad is amplified by the fact that the offensive line has to do entirely different jobs in the running & passing game, and offensive line is one of the more frequently injured positions. Depth suddenly become a massively important part of evaluating the line. In the running game, the goal is to clear out the defense and create a lane for the running back, whereas in the passing game it’s less power and more technique. Linemen must contain pass rushers while giving the quarterback (particularly a quarterback like Brees who doesn’t tower over his line) throwing lanes.
With that being said, the most oft criticized position on 90% of teams is the Left Tackle. This is likely because it’s pretty simple to pretend that you know football because you saw Sandra Bullock narrating over a clip in which Joe Theismann broke his leg. As of now, Terron Armstead is the probable favorite heading into camp at LT, particularly after his improvement start for start at the end of last season. After getting ravaged by Carolina’s Greg Hardy, Armstead stepped his game up against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, and it showed in offensive results. Despite Brees’s struggles in the Wild Card matchup against the Eagles, he was rarely pressured. Furthermore, Armstead is ideal for the Zone Blocking Scheme that Sean Payton is trying to implement, as he is a smaller, more agile tackle. The Saints drafted Tavon Rooks in the 6th round in order to attempt to address depth at the position, as the only other Saint on the roster with LT experience was Bryce "The Human Turnstyle" Harris.
At Right Tackle, the Saints currently have Zach Strief, Ty Nsekhe, and Marcel Jones. Harris also sometimes plays this side of the field. Strief is, of course, the clearcut starter here, as the Saints re-signed him this offseason and he is one of the stronger Right Tackles in the league. Strief has only played less than 10 games in one season, but he also hasn’t played all 16 in 4 years, thus making depth an issue here as well. Neither Jones nor Nsekhe have sufficient playing time to determine their worth. Strief isn’t a fantastic pass blocker, but he is capable. He can sometimes miss assignments (think Ahmad Brooks at the end of Saints Niners in 2013), but his run blocking is some of the best in the NFL. Strief has been named an offensive captain and an anchor of the Saint’ O-Line, and it’s very good for the Saints that they were able to retain him through 2018.
The guards are where the Saints offense comes together. On the left side, the Saints are fielding Ben Grubbs and on the right it’s Jahri Evans. Both of these players made the Pro Bowl last season (although the snub of LaVonte David has made Pro Bowls even more meaningless to me) and both of them have held their positions down with consistency. In Grubbs’s 2 years with New Orleans, he is yet to miss a start, and Evans has missed 2 games in his NFL career (which began in 2006). Both of those games came last season. These guards have a rapport with Brees, and they have a great deal of understanding as to where he wants to go on any given plays. The only area where they leave a little to be desired is in terms of forming a pocket around Brees. They clear out defenders very well, but he sometimes is forced to go the 12 year old playing Madden route and scramble backwards, whether than stepping up. The ZBS has helped these two as well. They’re both agile and are very good at the techniques that the ZBS requires, due to a long reach and a solid first step. Senio Kelemete, Micajah Reynolds and Tim Lelito back these two up, although they have 3 years of NFL experience between the 3 of them, and Lelito is the only one to see any game time (more on him below).
And then there’s Center. Only one word describes this situation: Yikes. De la Puente walked to join Aaron Kromer and Jermon Bushrod in Chicago, and until very recently the Saints didn’t even have a Center on their roster. There have been rumblings for ages about Johnathan Goodwin rejoining the Saints, but nothing has come of it. Some folks were high on Marcus Martin out of USC, but the Saints didn’t pull the trigger on him either. As of right now, the competition appears to come down to two graduates of D-II Grand Valley State University. The Saints have signed an offensive lineman from Grand Valley in each of the last two years. Last year it was Lelito, this year it was Matt Armstrong, an undrafted rookie. Having seen most of these two’s games in the last few years, either one could be a capable Center. They both have good feet, and they both have a firm grasp on the reach block that DLP so thoroughly struggled with in the ZBS, but they can get pushed back in pass blocking at times and are susceptible to the flaws of any young NFL Center. It’s a highly cerebral position, particularly at the pro level, and no matter who wins out in camp it will be a battle that will continue throughout the preseason, likely with a revolving door of guys coming in through camp. There are reservations about converting a Guard to Center, but it’s certainly doable and an option worth looking into, particularly if the Saints don’t like what they see out of Armstrong in training camp and can’t find another player in a pinch.
The Saints offensive line is, unfortunately, very top-heavy. The jury is still out on Armstead, but he has solid potential. Grubbs, Evans and Strief have all earned their keep, and center to this point has been a nightmare for Saints fans. Armstrong could be capable, but it’s impossible to tell until he takes a snap at the pro level, particularly a D-II talent. The same goes for Lelito, who at least has NFL blocking experience, but hasn’t yet had to deal with the new beast that the center position brings. The lack of depth is also a serious concern. If anyone on the front 5 gets hurt, particularly the outside players, then someone will inevitably be thrown to the wolves. The only reason that I would rate this group anywhere near average is due to the strong core that they have starting, particularly between the tackles. Offensive line’s unpredictability in terms of injuries, however, makes this group a seriously glaring concern going into the 2014 season.
Overall Grade: C+