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New Orleans Saints 2016 Year In Review: Offensive Line surprises us all

The surprise of the 2016 Saints season for many, was the stellar play of the offensive line.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Most, myself included, were very worried by the depth and talent of the offensive line roster heading into 2016. Much to our surprise, the line played above everyone’s expectations. Ranked at the very top, the O-line was largely responsible for Mark Ingram being able to produce his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

Key Players the Saints had to work with

Max Unger: Unger centering the line was and is essential heading into 2017. Fortunately, he is under contract through 2019. If you doubt his value, then just look to the one game he did not play in, Week 14 against the Buccaneers. Under duress for most of the game, Drew Brees would turn in his worst game of the season and worst QB rating of his career, recording zero touchdowns while throwing 3 interceptions. Depth is still a major concern at this position.

At the tackle position, thankfully the Saints were blessed with talent. After signing a new contract, starting left tackle Terron Armstead would battle injuries for the most of the season, and ultimately was placed on IR. Armstead would only appear in 7 games in 2016, and left two of those early.

Andrus Peat was pressed into service at the left tackle position and made great strides. With the expected return of Armstead in 2017, you can look for Peat to settle back into left guard while remaining the backup LT.

Right tackle Zach Strief continued to play at a very high level by having one of the best seasons of his career. Strief is 33, and depth at the position is Andrus Peat and Tony Hills. Hills’ play when pressed into service was less than stellar, and can best be remembered for numerous false start penalties.

Jahri Evans, who was released and resigned by the Saints, also produced at a very high level. Evans is a free agent and could return next year. Our depth here consists of Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete. Kelemete is also a backup at center.

Potential Targets for 2017

Center: There are only 8 free agents at the center position. The highest ranked of these at No. 11 is Tampa Bay’s Joe Hawley. Hawley is 28. A budget signing might be John Sullivan, 31, a soon-to-be Redskins free agent.

Guard: At the guard position, an oft-injured Luke Joeckel tops the list. Perhaps a better solution would be TitansChance Warmack. Warmack went on IR after Week 2 with a hand injury, but has been a consistent starter since drafted in 2013 and previously only missed two games back in 2015.

Tackle: Don’t really look for the Saints to spend big money on the O-line here. Historically, they look to the draft. This isn’t a very strong class to draft for the line, so they may look to a budget signing such as Buffalo’s Jordan Mills. Mills would provide depth at RT. At LT, they could look to Minnesota's Matt Kalil for depth.

Draft Possibilities: It’s not a very strong class, as previously mentioned. I actually only have one player with a first-round grade. That would be OT Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin. Ryan is expected to undergo surgery for a hip injury with a four month recovery time. This could let him drop to the eleventh pick for the Saints, but I would hope and expect them to go defense first and often.

A mid-level prospect could be Taylor Moton, OT/G, Western Michigan. At 6-foot-5, 326 pounds, Moton has experience at both the RT and RG position. His strengths are in pass protection.

The top rated center is LSU’s Ethan Pocic. Centers are usually never taken in the upper rounds, so he could be a mid-level or lower prospect. Pocic can also play guard, and is good both in run blocking and pass protection. If the Saints were to take a chance on a center in the draft, this is one I could get behind.