There is one word that could be used to aptly describe the 2014 New Orleans Saints offensive line: Enigmatic. Now that it appears that the tables are set for everyone to participate in their respective competitions, there are far more questions than answers going into the season.
As of now, 15 offensive linemen are on the roster. Nine of those players are Tackles. Of course, this raises issues on the Saints depth on the interior, but Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans are basically the Ford F-150s of interior linemen. They've proven to be reliable, consistent talent on the line, and therefore having three guards on the roster is not a major concern.
Former Saint and 49er Center Jonathan Goodwin has also been signed, surprising exactly no one. This at least creates the illusion of competition at the position. Team officials have reportedly been impressed with former tackle Tim Lelito's transition, while Matt Armstrong was brought on in order to presumably push his former Grand Valley State teammate. At this point, the Saints 3 options at Center are as follows:
1.) A 35 year old center that, while still upholding his end run blocking, suffered a severe drop-off in pass blocking last season due to lack of a dynamic opening hip motion.
2.) A second year Division II player that is already being forced to transition from an outside position to a highly cerebral inner one.
3.) A rookie Division II player that has faced no competition anywhere near the NFL level and is entirely unproven against sufficient talent.
As of now, this job is likely Goodwin's to lose, if only because he may be the only player in Saints training camp that adequately knows the position. De la Puente was a very intelligent center, but he also struggled pass blocking. Perhaps Goodwin's improved run blocking could be exactly the formula that the Saints need to succeed, particularly (as I've belabored time and time again and therefore won't go into here) if the zone blocking scheme is to be implemented. With that being said, replacing a center that sometimes struggled with range with a center that seems to struggle with explosiveness from time to time may not be the ideal solution.
However, it isn't all doom and gloom in the front 5. Terron Armstead the Zach Strief are the bookends again, and if there's one thing that we know about running back Mark Ingram, it's that he loves those B & C gaps. These two will be instrumental in the Saints success next year. Armstead has a very strong first step off the snap, which will give Brees the pocket he so sorely lacked last year, and Strief was graded as one of the best run blockers in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus. Of course, PFF's rankings should be taken as guidelines rather than spoken word, but the Saints have always subscribed to the philosophy that left tackles should specialize in pass blocking while right tackles should specialize in run blocking. Charles Brown, of course, specialized in neither. There is nowhere to go from the abysmal pass blocking last season but up. Brees took 10 more sacks last year than he has taken in his entire career, as I mentioned in my article last week. There's no excuse for anyone to do that to their quarterback throughout the course of a season.
The Saints little experiment in the front 5 proves to be an interesting one, because there are a lot of moving parts to it. Evans and Grubbs are the anchors. The two interior linemen that kept everything from blowing up last season. Strief is a strong tackle prone to the occasional mental lapse (see: the hit that Ahmad Brooks laid on Brees at the end of the Saints Niners game last season). While they're few and far between, they sometimes have the potential to be catastrophic. That's the risk you run when you have a guy like Strief up there. He is very strong athletically, which can sometimes cover his lapses in judgment, but with great reward comes great risk. Meanwhile, Armstead on the other end presents an almost opposite problem. Armstead is quick, he's fast, and he's smart. What he isn't, however, is big. This presents a problem that spans twofold. First, Armstead needs to ensure he's not pushed back into Brees on any given play. Second, he needs to give Brees a throwing lane when he does hold his ground. His size issues are mitigated by the ZBS, he was certainly drafted for that scheme, but he needs to be able to hold his blocks on weakside defensive players, notoriously some of the best pass rushers in the league. Finally, there's center, which is still up in the air and is therefore very difficult to comment on. As things unfold in training camp, the center battle will get more and more interesting as the athleticism of Lelito and the experience/intelligence of Goodwin unfold & manifest themselves throughout the competition.
On paper, the Saints offensive line isn't a terribly cohesive unit. Going from the 6'7", 320 lb Strief to the 6'5", 304 lb Armstead on the outside presents a strange staggering. However, this give the Saints a great deal of versatility that can be implemented throughout a game. Offensive line strategy is some of the most fine and subtle strategy in the game of football, and we all know by now that Sean Payton is a master of the subtleties of the game. The Saints offensive line won't exactly be the 2013 Eagles, but it won't be the 2013 Falcons either. The Saints needed to try something new after Brees was on his back as much as he was last year. It will be interesting to see if they have found the answers up front for a deep run in 2014.