How awesome is it to wake up today knowing that yesterday, on February 7th, the Saints just won their first Super Bowl? Wait...what? What do you mean it was five years ago? Damn it, I was on CSC all week and you'd have thought it was February 2010 all over again. It isn't? Bummer.
The Saints finished 7-9 in 2014, missing out on winning the NFC South for a second consecutive year and of course, missing the postseason altogether. The glory years aren't that far removed, yet their memory fades a bit with each year passing since that awesome 2009-10 season.
Is the Saints championship window closed? If you believe some pundits and mostly hopeful fans of other NFC South teams, it is. But you know the Falcons, Panthers and Bucs simply wish it were. It isn't. As long as quarterback Drew Brees draws breath and can throw a football, the Saints will be a contender. That is why despite having a fairly horrendous year in 2014, pregame.com still has New Orleans with 30 to 1 odds of winning Super Bowl L in 2016. That's tied for eighth in the entire National Football League.
However, one way to keep that championship window not just cracked but wide open, is for the Saints to better protect their future Hall-of-Famer of a quarterback and to make his life as easy as possible inside the pocket. To achieve that, there's one thing they need to do ASAP:
Find a Center
The Saints offensive line was oft-criticized in 2014. To the naked eye, they allowed too much pressure and sacks on quarterback Drew Brees and somewhat helped in having him throw 17 interceptions and look mortal all year long. There is truth in these observations, however I always like to look a little deeper than the surface and into some cold hard numbers.
For this exercise, I have decided to use the statistics from Pro Football Focus (PFF). The main reason is that they grade each player individually, on every snap taken in every game, which will allow us to evaluate every player independently of the unit in which he plays.
Without going into too many details about PFF's grading process (which would just give a headache to everyone including myself), here's what they do: their statisticians review every snap for every player after a game and assess a grade between +2 and -2 to each player for each play. The grade "0" represents the average play. The positive grade is for a play in which the player executes his assignment correctly and vice versa. However, a positive grade for an individual player or vice versa does not necessarily mean that the result of the play itself was positive or negative.
To give you a quick example, a lineman that completely whiffed on a run block will still receive a negative grade, even if the play resulted in positive yardage because the running back found a way to elude defenders' tackles. On the other hand, a lineman that correctly executed his assignment will receive a positive grade even if the running back made the wrong read and the run got stuffed.
Like every grading method, there are flaws and subjective factors. However, in my opinion, the PFF method is exhaustive and detailed enough to be trustworthy. In fact, it seems to be valued enough to be used by NFL executives and players agents in contract negotiations. In view of that, I think it is good enough to help us get a better idea of players' effectiveness (or lack thereof) on the field.
Apologies for this lengthy intro to the PFF madness, now let's get back to the Saints, shall we? Here's what New Orleans' O-line starters looked like in the 2014 regular season:
What do we see in this chart?
a) Tackles Did Their Job: Both left tackle Terron Armstead and Zach Strief played admirably well in 2014, in both pass and run blocking. One significant blemish however is that they still allowed a very high number of quarterback hurries, which at times are just as damaging as actual sacks.
b) Letting Our Guard Down: In fact, it was the other way around in 2014, as both left guard Ben Grubbs and right guard Jahri Evans let the rest of the team down in a big way. We now know that Evans was fighting a bum wrist, which could explain why he was dead last in the NFL in allowing 34 QB hurries over 16 games. Grubbs wasn't far behind, with 27 QB hurries allowed. Either Evans or Grubbs will likely not be in Black and Gold when the 2015 season starts, but we'll get back to that later.
c) Center of the Problem: Jonathan Goodwin's name is forever etched in the New Orleans Saints' lore as the man who anchored the Super Bowl-winning offensive line that gave Brees so much time to throw in 2009. However, he had a fairly dreadful 2014 season. The only slightly positive grade he received was in run-blocking, which was an overall strength of the Saints O-line. Everything else Goodwin did was below average or downright bad. Added to the poor play was the fact that Goodwin had health issues all year long and played the second fewest amount of snaps among the starting offensive lineman.
So Um...What Am I Saying Exactly?
The Saints need a new center and Goodwin, thankfully, is an unrestricted free agent, meaning that New Orleans doesn't owe him anything and I think the front office has already decided to let him move on, either to another team or even into retirement.
The Saints now have two possible ways to go: 1) they could decide to make Tim Lelito the starting center in 2015 and figure out their guard situation via free agency or through the draft. 2) They could look for a center in free agency and move Lelito to either right or left guard, depending on whether they release either Ben Grubbs or Jahri Evans, who both terribly underachieved in 2014.
Lelito's play at center in 2014 was nothing stellar as illustrated by the numbers below. Despite a limited number of snaps, his pass-blocking also showed some rather concerning flaws. For a team that passes the ball as much as the Saints do, a good pass-blocking center is a must.
However, one could think that Lelito would improve during an offseason where he'd likely receive more first team reps and hopefully develop into a starting caliber NFL center.
Who's Out There on the Free Agency Market at Center?
If New Orleans decides that its 2015 center isn't on the roster yet, then look no further than free agent center Rodney Hudson, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs. Hudson is the best out there at the position and isn't likely to come cheap. This is where releasing either Grubbs or Evans would help money-wise.
What makes Hudson so appealing? First off, he's only 26 years old (for the sake of comparison, Goodwin is 36 years old). Secondly, not only was is he one of the best young centers in the league, if last season is any indication, he is also durable, as he played 1.031 of 1,032 offensive snaps at center for the Chiefs in 2014. Incase this sounds too good to be true, here are Hudson's numbers and rankings from last season:
Hudson's numbers are ridiculously good. Of course, one could argue that with the Chiefs, he didn't have to pass-protect as often as he would have to, if he signed with the Saints. Indeed, Kansas City had only 493 passing attempts for 28th in the league. Meanwhile, New Orleans was second in the NFL with 659 attempts. However, even with such an adjustment to make, Hudson would still arguably be the best offensive lineman on the Saints' roster and would have an entire offseason to get more comfortable in the pass-happy offensive style of Sean Payton.
Is there a Consolation Prize?
Should the Saints not be able to snatch Rodney Hudson in free agency, they would have the option of bringing back a familiar face in Brian de la Puente, something that I'm sure would have a lot of Saints fans up in arms, since the whole "bring back a familiar face" somewhat fell on its face with the return of Jonathan Goodwin to the Saints in 2014.
However, de la Puente, although he is 30 years old, knows Payton's system very well and played quite admirably for the Saints in 2013 when they made a run into the divisional playoffs. Despite playing a somewhat limited number of snaps in Chicago in 2014 (501) de la Puente rated as the seventh best center with an 8.2 grade. He rated positively in both pass and run-blocking and PFF rates him as the third free agent center just behind Colts center A.Q. Shipley, who the Saints could look at as well.
Whatever the Saints decide to do with the center position, they'll have to think long and hard before making their decision, as it will likely heavily impact the rest of quarterback Drew Brees' career in New Orleans. If the mantra "Win Now" is what New Orleans wants to live by for the next three to four years, it may have to start with having Rodney Hudson visit New Orleans as soon as the Free Agency period starts on March 10 and never letting him leave the city without a contract.