One of the main question marks for the Saints this offseason was most definitely the offensive line. Despite Sean Payton putting an emphasis on a balanced run game in 2015, the play calling was still pass heavy as always. Right tackle Zach Strief almost got Drew Brees killed a couple times, and his major whiff against Tampa Bay led to Brees sustaining a serious enough shoulder injury that he missed a game due to injury for the first time as a Saint.
Many fans were happy to see Jahri Evans released following his worst season. After a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks during the preseason, the Saints re-signed Evans to help shore up the right guard spot. The Saints appeared ready to address the offensive line in the draft, but they never felt comfortable pulling the trigger with any of their draft slots. In hindsight, Titans rookie Jack Conklin would have been a dream addition, but that ship has long sailed.
Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete were both retained, but it’s evident neither is a true starter, though Kelemete has filled in admirably at times. Last year’s first-round pick, Andrus Peat, couldn’t crack the starting lineup during his rookie campaign, but has been fantastic this year, particularly after moving to his natural position at left tackle following Terron Armstead’s move to injured reserve. Max Unger, the center whom the Saints traded Jimmy Graham for, played well enough to earn a five-year contract extension with the Saints.
Both Armstead and Unger have played through injury this year, and both have missed games due to injury as well. Perhaps, Armstead would have been best served beginning the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list with a designation to return after six weeks. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but since the Saints lost four of their first six games anyways, maybe it would have been better to let our rising star left tackle fully heal before trying to return early on half a leg.
Though Unger has missed only a fraction of the games Armstead has missed in 2016, I couldn’t help but notice how completely awful the Saints offense was without him in their Week 14 stinker against Tampa Bay. Possibly the most important momentum swinging game of the season, that loss spelled disaster for the Saints and all but mathematically ensured their missing a third consecutive playoff appearance.
The offense was so putrid at Tampa Bay, the thought actually entered my mind: “Could Max Unger be more important to the Saints offensive line than Terron Armstead?” So, I looked up the offensive stats for each game this season while focusing on games in which either Unger or Armstead were inactive due to injury.
The results were stark. Both players were critical to the run game, in particular. Of the six games that Armstead missed, the Saints lost four and averaged only 83 rush yards per game. When Armstead played, the Saints averaged a markedly improved 135.5 rush yards per game. At Tampa Bay, with Unger out, the Saints rushed for only 46 yards. But following his return in the past two weeks, the Saints have averaged a respectable 126.5 rush yards per game.
So, I don’t think it’s a question of who is more valuable. They both clearly anchor the offensive line, especially with regard to rushing production. I think the more important factor is: What offensive line positions have better backups?
Clearly, Lelito is not a good enough backup to anchor the center spot when Unger is out. But Peat is a good back up at left tackle when Armstead is out. It’s his natural position from his Stanford days after all. When Peat shifted to left tackle, though, someone had to play Peat’s previous position at right guard. Kelemete, a very versatile backup, is capable of playing multiple positions, but right guard seems to be his strongest.
The final product has actually been surprisingly productive as Brees has enjoyed upwards of almost three seconds of protection in the pocket for most games this season. The 42-yard completion to Cooks last week came after Brees had 2.85 seconds to dissect the Tampa Bay defense and make an accurate throw. Protection and time in the pocket are crucial to offensive success.
With Mark Ingram 67 yards away from becoming the Saints first 1,000-yard rusher since Deuce McAllister in 2006, it’s clear the run game has finally returned to New Orleans. Even Tim Hightower has enjoyed a career renaissance behind this offensive line. If the offensive line was just a little bit younger, I would be super stoked about what the future holds. It will be extremely important for the Saints to evaluate and target players for more offensive line depth in this year’s draft.
Maybe the Saints will actually pull the trigger this time so we don’t miss out on another Jack Conklin.