After being released following the 2015 season, no one expected Jahri Evans to return to anchor the right guard position for the New Orleans offensive line. Not only did he return, but he improved from the year prior. From playing eleven games in a shortened, injured season that led many to believe his career was over, to starting every game this past season Jahri might still have more in the tank than many thought.
If Evans returns to the Saints, he’ll turn 34 in August. Jahri’s full season last year brought him to 169 games. That number is second all time for offensive linemen trailing only Stan Brock who has 186 games with New Orleans. He is also the only Saints OL to lead the team in AV for three years (surpassing Drew’s AV grade in 2009, 2010 and 2012). 2016’s AV grade for Evans was a 9, improving on the grade of 6 from 2015. If Pro Football Focus is more your taste, Evans’ grade was 76.8.
The first thing most players start to lose in any league as they get older is speed. We see it in the NBA with superstars such as LeBron James or in the NHL with Alex Ovechkin. They simply have to adapt to the game. Now, LeBron is a more physical presence than in his earlier years, and Alex is no longer “just a sniper”. In the NFL players are forced to take the same route for prolonged success.
This is a transition we have seen Evans start to make with the Saints. Evans was always a great run blocker, it’s his pass blocking that had seemed to take a dip during the 2015 season, but this past year he came out improving his run blocking while stabilizing his pass blocking. In short, Jahri adapted. For a team that Payton preaches yearly that they “must focus on running the ball”, this adds to his value.
According to ESPN’s stat books, the New Orleans Saints averaged 6.0 yards per carry on 134 attempts for 809 yards running behind Evans. On top of that, Ingram, Hightower and company also produced 43 first downs and 7 rushing touchdowns in the same running lane. For comparison, during the 2009 season running through the same lane the Saints averaged 4.8 yards per carry for 716 yards and 5 TDs.
A lot has changed in those seven years. The Saints changed blocking schemes (now running a zone blocking style), runningbacks and even most of the offensive line has changed. One thing that has stayed a constant is Jahri Evans. Finally, the rushing statistics listed above are double that of any other gap in multiple categories: First Downs, Touchdowns and Yards.
Obviously New Orleans is a passing team first, and a rush attack second. While there was improvement in this area (noted by his Improved AV grade, which matches his grade from his first two seasons in the league) the concern for the team moving forward has to be will Evans be able to duplicate his success, coupled with his climbing age, or are they better off finding his replacement.
Rarely is there not a player or position that is upgradeable in the NFL. While a replacement for Evans must be found sooner rather than later, Evans’ return to New Orleans could have the team thinking “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Whether he returns as a starter next year or not Evans has earned another year with the club after the 2016 campaign should he want to continue his NFL career.