The New Orleans Saints finished the 2018 season with a 13-3 record, rolling to their second straight NFC South championship. They responded to an opening day upset loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by rampaging through the league for ten consecutive victories, and winning 13 of 14 games. The Saints have never lacked star power, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and 2018 was no exception. Quarterback Drew Brees was as efficient as he's ever been, completing an NFL-record 74.4% of his passes while throwing 32 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. Running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas continued to be match up nightmares for opposing defenses, and each were dominant for the league's 3rd highest scoring offense. A major reason for the Saints superiority in many games though, were the warriors up front. The New Orleans offensive line pummeled and bullied opponents, imposing their will and shutting down some of the best defensive lines in the league. Injuries did take a toll along the line down the stretch, particularly along the left side, causing Brees to be hurried a bit more than he had been earlier in the year. Coming into 2019, the unit is still one of the most respected in the NFL, but they do have some questions, including filling a big hole in the middle. Today's training camp preview looks at the most underappreciated unit on any football team.
Max Unger (C), Jermon Bushrod (T/G)
Erik McCoy (C), Nick Easton (G/C)
The Saints lost one of their leaders when center Max Unger retired after ten NFL seasons, and starting 63 of 64 games in four years with New Orleans. Unger's play in the middle had dipped a bit from his own high standards, but he was still voted to the Pro Bowl and anchored arguably the best line in the league.
Identifying interior line as a need going into the 2019 draft, New Orleans made a move to get one of the best prospects available in Erik McCoy from Texas A&M. Trading up from the end of the second round at pick #62 to the middle of the second at #48, the Saints used their first draft selection on McCoy, who is expected to be an immediate starter at center. Although somewhat limited in space, the 6'4 303-lb. McCoy is a mauler who can handle both power and speed on the inside.
Right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk form perhaps the best right side duo in the league. The source of the majority of the Saints rushing yardage comes over their side, as both players get to the second level of the defense quickly to flatten would-be tacklers, and provide a stout wall of pass protection for their quarterback. The 28-yr. old Warford, now the elder statesman of the line, made his second straight Pro Bowl in as many seasons with the Saints. Ramczyk was certainly worthy of a Pro Bowl nod himself in his second season, despite being overlooked, after an All-Rookie selection in 2017. A mountain at 6'6 314-lbs., the 25-yr. old Ramczyk is already one of the better tackles in the league with his unique blend of power, athleticism, and footwork.
Both Warford and Ramczyk are as durable as they are talented, missing only 3 starts combined out of 64 possible games. The same cannot be said for the other side of the New Orleans offensive line.
Left Tackle Terron Armstead and left guard Andrus Peat are as talented as there is in the league, but each have had injury issues over the last three seasons. Peat, the 13th overall pick of the 2015 draft, has missed only a little time (six games in three years), but has had his performance affected by numerous nagging injuries each year. Originally drafted as a tackle, the 6'7 315-lb. Peat has found a home inside, where he has developed into a Pro Bowl caliber guard. He remains a versatile lineman as well, able to slide over into the tackle spot when injuries have hit the position, which unfortunately has been often.
Armstead is one of the finest left tackles in the league---when he can stay on the field. The almost 28 year old Armstead has missed 21 games in the last three seasons, mostly with upper body injuries. When he is in the lineup, the 6'5 304-lb. tackle makes the league's best edge rushers nearly nonexistent. He has an elite mix of power, footwork, and athletic ability to give Brees a clean blindside to survey the field.
After Unger announced his retirement, the Saints quickly signed former Minnesota Vikings center Nick Easton to a 4-yr./24 million dollar contract in free agency. The 27-yr. old Easton was expected to be the frontrunner for the starting center spot, but with the drafting of McCoy may now be the very important swing man along the New Orleans line. The 6'3 303-lb. Easton can play either guard spot as well as center, and shows good footwork on the interior to keep leverage advantage.
The team's coaches were high on both Cameron Tom and Will Clapp last season. The 6'5 311-lb. Clapp appeared in three games with 1 start after being drafted in the 7th round from L.S.U. last season, and also has the versatility to play any of the interior spots. Tom has shown that same versatility since coming to New Orleans as an undrafted rookie in 2017, giving the Saints good depth and versatility at their inside spots. The tackle spots could get a little dicey though, should Armstead or Ramczyk miss any time. Sixth year pro Michael Ola returns for his second season in New Orleans, while undrafted rookie Ethan Greenidge from Villanova has some intriguing raw ability. The most likely scenario should a tackle go down though, is to again move Peat into the spot and let the Saints take advantage of their interior depth.
Most eyes will obviously be on the rookie McCoy to see his transition into filling Unger's big shoes. Saints fans should also closely watch the performance of Easton. He may not win the starting center spot, assuming McCoy can hold him off, but he may very well be the team's starting left guard in 2020, in addition to manning the often used task of interior swing man this season. Peat is in a contract year, and with so many big contracts looming for this team it seems unlikely that they will be able to afford the talented guard. Easton was signed to starter type of money, making it likely that he'd be the next man up if he performs well. The Saints starting five linemen were a dominant force when healthy, causing some analysts to call New Orleans the bullies of the league. That same mentality and skillset must happen once again, along with health, if the Saints are going to establish superiority throughout the NFC, and the rest of the NFL.
Who is the Saints most valuable offensive lineman?
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