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Saints free agency targets: Lions guard Larry Warford not obvious choice, but the right man for the job

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The Saints finally bringing Cowboys guard Ronald Leary into the fold feels inevitable, but Lions guard Larry Warford is a better fit.

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GREEN BAY, WI - Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford (75) clears Green Bay Packers linebacker Julius Peppers (56) out of the way during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.
GREEN BAY, WI - Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford (75) clears Green Bay Packers linebacker Julius Peppers (56) out of the way during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints had something of a carousel at guard last year, with Jahri Evans, Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemete, and Tim Lelito each seeing time on the starting unit. For most Saints fans, the ideal solution to the problem of what to do at guard is sign Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Ronald Leary. Leary and the Saints have flirted in the past, even going so far as trade talks between the Saints and Cowboys last spring.

But with former first round pick Andrus Peat seemingly destined to stay at left guard, the answer to this question becomes murkier. Leary is also a career left guard, and would face a move to right guard should he be signed. Though Leary would probably fill in decently on the opposite side, that assumption is too big to wager a hefty free agent contract. Spotrac.com estimates Leary’s value on the open market as highly as $9.1-million per year, so signing a free agent at that cost and then making him switch positions seems more than a little perilous.

That’s where Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford (6-foot-3, 317-pounds, 26-years old this June) enters the equation. Warford has started 57 of 64 possible games in Detroit since being drafted in the third round back in 2013. He sat out a week last year after injuring his hip in practice, but otherwise was a steady starter. Pro Football Focus praised Warford in their review of the NFL’s offensive lines, grading him out as an above-average presence on passing and rushing plays.

Because Warford is a career right guard, he would not disrupt the Saints’ plans for Peat and whatever chemistry he has built while working in between left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger. Longtime Saints right guard Jahri Evans feels like a ticking time-bomb; while he played well after being cut and re-signed last year, Evans will be 34-years old this year and may opt to retire than come back for one more season. Warford could slot in between Unger and underrated Saints right tackle Zach Strief. He and Strief would form one of the league’s most-bruising pairs of run defenders while keeping quarterback Drew Brees clean in the pocket.

Of course, the most enticing reason for targeting Warford over Leary is the price tag. Spotrac.com projects Warford to command nearly $3-million less than Leary in free agency, describing an ideal contract worth $6.2-million per year. But the actual number for Warford may be higher considering the New York Jets paid free agent-to-be guard Brian Winters $7.25-million per year. There’s a good chance that both Leary and Warford beat their contract projections.

Regardless, Warford is a better marriage of position fit and contract value than Leary. I think either of them could succeed in the Saints’ efficient blocking schemes, but Warford presents a safer long-term investment at a younger age (25 rather than 27-years old) with more starts (57 in four years compared to Leary’s 47 in five). Warford should also see a less-robust free agent market due to Leary playing on the highly-lauded Cowboys offensive line. It should be fun to see which teams pony up the cash for all of these offensive linemen in a few weeks.