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New Orleans Saints position outlook: Offensive line competition should be fun to watch

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With the exception of Jahri Evans, the Saints offensive line looks to return in full force for 2017.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the preseason, the New Orleans Saints offensive line was arguably the worst position group on the team. Nothing looked right, the ‘development’ of Andrus Peat was in question, and the Saints didn’t have an adequate replacement for Jahri Evans (but then he came back). However, it seemed to all come together when the season started, and the O-Line didn’t exactly miss a beat.

Our position outlook series for next year’s Saints close out by looking at the important guys on the front line. Free agents, free agent targets, players set to return (including practice squad), and some potential draft options are all considered.

What the Saints are working with

  • Terron Armstead, LT: After signing a five-year contract extension last offseason, Armstead turned in a disappointing 2016 campaign. He toughed it out as much as he could, but ended up missing over half of the season with knee and quad issues. After being placed on injured reserve in mid-December, Sean Payton gave us a good sign that Armstead won’t need surgery. His outlook for 2017 should be back with a vengeance.
  • Andrus Peat, LG: In the preseason, it looked like Peat was destined to be the next big bust the Saints drafted. However, he appeared to get better and better as the season progressed. When the offense had to shift him to left tackle for Armstead, he held his own. Sure, Peat had his fair share of struggles, but showed good signs of improvement.
  • Max Unger, C: Unger’s value ever since joining the team via the Seahawks-Jimmy Graham trade has been incredible. He’s been a stellar pass blocker, and graded out as the sixth-highest pass blocking center on Pro Football Focus with a grade of 85.7. After a rocky road with the center spot over the past several years, Unger is the staple and answer for the middle guy for another couple of seasons.
  • Zach Strief, RT: After a horrid 2015 season, the Saints gave Strief another opportunity to shine, and it was one of the best decisions they made. He looked like a completely different player at right tackle, being durable and reliable for the team in pass protection and run blocking. Set to turn 34 in September and under contract through 2018, it’d appear that Strief could be on his last run with the team in 2017.
  • Senio Kelemete, OL: Kelemete provided a good bit of versatility for the offensive line, and was able to fill in, start, and shift as needed. Kelemete was certainly a better run blocker for the team, and would be the clear frontrunner as the team’s reserve lineman for the new season.
  • Landon Turner, G: We didn’t see much of Turner in the regular season, as he appeared in just six games. Even when he did, it was mainly on special teams. Still, the undrafted rookie stuck with the 53-man roster and has hopefully learned a lot in his first professional season. He could be considered a dark horse for more playing time in 2017, but we’ve got a long ways until we go there.
  • Jack Allen, C/G: Allen’s preseason was simply atrocious, but he hung around the team on the practice squad and would even be called up when the team took a hit with injuries. If there’s one guy who needs to make the big leap, it’d be Allen.
  • Avery Young, T: An intriguing player, Young spent the majority of his rookie season on the NFI (non-football injury list). One of the big reasons he was brought on with the flurry of offensive linemen after the draft was because he offered coveted resourcefulness the Saints have been able to use over the years. Getting back into the football shape is key for him, and he’ll be one to watch.
  • John Fullington, G: After bouncing around several clubs since entering the league in 2014, Fullington put in some work during training camp and preseason for the Saints and did enough to warrant a spot on the practice squad for the season. After signing a reserve/future deal, it’ll be interesting to see what he makes of it in the new season.

Free Agents

  • Jahri Evans, G: The 2015 of Evans versus the 2016 version was noticeably different. Perhaps Evans got a large wake-up call when his market wasn’t as high as he wanted and the Seahawks didn’t keep him, which likely fueled his stellar performance. Evans looked like the ‘player of old’ for the Saints, and it’s like they didn’t miss a beat. His football future is up in the air right now, and he’ll be 34 by the time a new season rolls around. What Evans eventually decides to do will dictate a lot of what the Saints will do over the next couple of months.
  • Tim Lelito, G: The Saints tendered Lelito as a restricted free agent last season to the tune of $1.67 million. As a reserve lineman, he appeared in 406 snaps for the offense in 2016. It would appear that Kelemete is the better reserve option for the Saints over Lelito, and it would be hard to believe Lelito comes back under that price tag.
  • Tony Hills, OT: Although Hills didn’t play a lot of football for the Saints, his presence was felt in the team’s locker room. His passionate halftime speech against the Chargers was one of the things we’ll remember him most for in 2016, and if the Saints don’t have another reserve option present itself in place for Zach Strief, then I could see Hills (or Khalif Barnes) coming back.

Free Agent targets

I wouldn’t expect the team to go after a big name offensive tackle, as they look to be set with Strief and Armstead, and as free agency gets closer, better reserve options will present itself.

  • Ronald Leary, G: Naturally, Leary makes sense for the Saints since there was rumored interest early in the season that the team was going to make a play for him via a trade. While that never transpired, Leary is going to get paid when free agency starts. Whether the whole social media engagement is some type of omen or not, it’d be hard to think the Saints won’t host him for a visit.
  • Chance Warmack, G: Coming off season-ending hand surgery (torn tendon), Warmack will be considered a risk by some. He wasn’t particularly the best in run blocking for the Titans, but it’s a shame that he didn’t exactly get a chance to prove himself under offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Dan Roushar has worked wonders with the Saints O-Line, and a one-year ‘prove it’ deal could work in their favor.
  • Larry Warford, G: An underrated name on the market, Warford looks to cash in on a deal (reportedly $6-7 million annually). Warford put up pretty strong performances in both pass and run blocking. The Lions are in a tough spot with their salary cap, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be back. The former third-round pick will have some big interest on the open market.

Draft possibilities

Here’s a mix of what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft.

  • High - Ethan Pocic, G/C: If, and I mean a big if, the Saints look at offensive line help early, then Pocic could fit the bill. Arguably, he was LSU’s best pass blocker, and there’s something to be said when you generate the type of run lanes for Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice that the Tigers offensive line was able to do. For the Saints, Pocic would absolutely go into the guard category. Of course, it goes without saying, but insert your Saints’ aversion to drafting LSU player comment here.
  • Mid - Taylor Moton, G/T: If there’s anything the Saints value, it’s versatility. Moton has experience as a right guard and right tackle, and is a favorite of fellow analyst John Sigler. His combination of athleticism and strength would make it hard for any NFL team not to find a place to plug him in. An honorable mention and very underrated prospect to also keep an eye on would be Jordan Morgan out of Kutztown.
  • Low - Storm Norton, T: Here’s a guy to keep an eye on during the East-West Shrine Game, and he won’t be hard to miss. The 6-foot-8 lineman was Toledo’s starting left tackle, and his projections are all over the board. As of now, Norton would likely be considered a Day 3 grab, but can easily boost his stock. He’s been able to provide both run blocking and pass protection for the Rockets.

In a nutshell

We’ll know pretty quickly how the Saints feel about some of their younger prospects. Naturally, if this is the ‘all in’ season, then it would make a lot of sense to pursue a veteran guard to help protect Drew Brees if Evans is out of the picture. There’s promising young talent in development, which will provide some interesting camp battles. However, this offensive line seems pretty set in stone entering 2017.