Most any football coach will tell you that the lifeblood of their offense is in the play of their offensive line. The 2017 New Orleans Saints were certainly no exception. Veteran quarterback Drew Brees was allowed the time to complete an NFL record 72% of his passes, getting sacked just 20 times in 556 dropbacks, his fewest since the 2009 season. Mark Ingram and offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara received the headlines for a devastating rushing attack that ranked 5th in the league, but it was a dominating performance by the offensive line that paved the way for an offense that finished 2nd in the league in total yardage. They opened holes for a New Orleans running game that averaged 4.7 yards per carry, good for second in the NFL, and scored a league best 23 touchdowns on the ground. Despite some injury woes, the Saints offensive line played as well as any unit in the league a year ago. All five starters from that unit return, but the team will have some questions about it's depth when training camp officially begins on July 26th. In today's training camp preview, we take a look at the personnel for one of the most underrated part of any football team.
Key Losses: Zach Strief (retirement), Senio Kelemete (free agent, Texans)
Key Additions: Jermon Bushrod (free agent, Dolphins), Rick Leonard (draft, 4th round), Will Clapp (draft, 7th round)
The Saints surprised some with their selection of Ryan Ramczyk in the first round of the 2017 draft, the 32nd overall pick. The pick paid almost immediate dividends. Ramczyk opened the year as the starter at left tackle, due to an injury to Terron Armstead, then was moved to the right side when longtime fixture Zach Strief was lost to injury, where he remained for the rest of the season. After some early struggles, Ramczyk settled in to have a fine first year, earning a spot on the NFL's All-Rookie team and having the look of a Pro Bowl fixture. The 24-yr. old Ramczyk and 27-yr. old Armstead form one of the better offensive tackle pairs in the league. Strief, likely to be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame someday, retired after a successful 12-yr. career, but appeared in just parts of two games in 2017. Armstead is considered throughout the league to be an All-Pro quality left tackle. A force against the run, as well as the ability to handle the top edge rushers in pass protection, he is a valuable part of what the Saints do offensively. The only concern for team officials is the mounting injuries to their star offensive lineman. Armstead has missed 15 full games, and parts of numerous others, over the last two seasons. His absence from the lineup has caused a shuffling along the offensive line that not only results in lesser quality at left tackle, but often weakening another part of the offensive line as well.
Andrus Peat has often filled in at left tackle when Armstead has missed time. Originally drafted as a tackle when selected by New Orleans with the 13th overall pick of the 2015 draft, Peat has proven to be a more effective fit inside at guard. The 24-yr. old former Stanford standout played at a Pro Bowl level at times in 2017 at left guard, teaming with Armstead to give Brees outstanding protection on his blind side. Peat has a powerful punch as a run blocker as well, and athletic enough to get into the second level of the defense quickly to open holes downfield. Peat suffered a broken fibula in the team's wild card playoff win over Carolina, but appears to be on his way to a full recovery by training camp. Right guard Larry Warford was a key free agent signing by the Saints during the 2017 offseason. He stepped in for the departed Jahri Evans and the New Orleans offense never missed a beat. The 27-yr. old Warford started 14 games, was named as a Pro Bowl alternate, and teamed with Ramczyk to form a dominant run blocking duo on the right side.
32-yr. old Max Unger is the elder statesman of the Saints front five, and enters his fourth season as the team's center. He helps Peat and Warford keep clear passing lanes for Brees, who stands just 6'0 tall, also allowing their veteran quarterback to buy extra time by consistently stepping up into a clean pass pocket. The loss of Senio Kelemete in free agency leaves a big question mark concerning the team's depth. Kelemete capably played every offensive line position, and effectively started 18 games over the last two seasons, giving the Saints a quality injury replacement. New Orleans brought back an old friend, signing former Saints Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod in free agency. Bushrod, who will turn 34 during the preseason, re-joins the Saints for his 12th NFL season, after playing his first six years with the team. New Orleans spent a 4th round draft choice on Rick Leonard from Florida State, then a 7th round pick on Will Clapp out of L.S.U. Leonard impressed the team's coaches with his athleticism leading up to the draft, and is expected to compete primarily at tackle, while Clapp will likely be looked at for the inside positions of guard and center.
The Saints will likely keep 9-10 linemen on the active roster, with a few more to the practice squad. Leonard and Clapp will compete primarily against Josh LeRibeus, Cameron Tom, Michael Ola, John Fullington, Landon Turner, and Andrew Tiller, among others. New Orleans has one of the better starting offensive lines in the league, with Armstead's durability being the only real concern, as well as the always present specter of injuries that exist in football. Quality of play from the reserves is worth paying close attention to once training camp begins and the preseason games commence. The Saints have little proven depth behind the starting five. LeRibeus played fairly well in limited opportunities a year ago, and the team's coaching staff is high on Tom. Bushrod is on the downside of his career, and Turner regressed from the potential he had showed in 2016. Questions of quality and versatility from their backups must be answered quickly, otherwise an injury or two along the offensive line could easily derail the championship hopes of a talented roster.