Shortly into the 2019 offseason, New Orleans Saints center Max Unger announced his retirement. The franchise moved decisively to replace him, inking both a free agent lineman then trading up in the draft to grab a top-flight center. Both moves paid off, as the Saints continued to have one of the league's best offensive lines in both talent and depth. The Minnesota Vikings battered the inside of the New Orleans line during a first round playoff loss though, raising some questions about those spots heading into the offseason. As free agency draws closer, we take a look at those spots along the Saints offensive line.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
Free Agents: Patrick Omameh (T/G), Andrus Peat, Cameron Tom
Under Contract: Will Clapp, Nick Easton, Erik McCoy, Larry Warford
New Orleans swung a trade to move up in the 2nd round of last year's draft to select center Erik McCoy from Texas A&M with the 48th overall pick. McCoy quickly grabbed the starting job in the preseason and started every game while looking like a long term fixture at the position. The 6'4 314-Lb McCoy is both nimble and powerful in the pivot, handling some of the finest defensive tackles in the game over this past season while earning All-Rookie honors.
Seven-year veteran right guard Larry Warford wrapped up his third season with the Saints with a 3rd consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. The powerful Warford continues to be one of the NFL's best run blockers inside, and the bulk of the Saints rushing success has come over his side. The 28-Yr old Warford struggled at times with his pass blocking this past season though, struggles that were extremely evident during his team's first round playoff loss to Minnesota. His current contract runs through the end of this season, but he will count nearly $12.3 million against the team's salary cap. New Orleans would save $8.5 million dollars of cap space if they were to release Warford, but given his abilities a renegotiation of his current deal seems more likely.
Left guard Andrus Peat is one of the team's biggest free agent names this offseason. The five-year veteran came to New Orleans with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft as a tackle. After struggling at that spot over his first two seasons, Peat was moved inside where he's put together a solid career. After missing six games with a broken arm, Peat played poorly in the Saints playoff loss, though he is expected to attract heavy interest as a free agent.
Veteran lineman Nick Easton played well at left guard when Peat was sidelined last season. An offseason free agent signing, the 27-Yr old Easton was beaten out for the starting center job by McCoy and was inactive for the first portion of the year. He did prove to be a punishing run blocker and capable pass protector when given the opportunity to play. Easton's contract runs through 2023, but he will count $5.3 million against the salary cap this season. New Orleans would save over $3.8 million in cap space if they were to move on from the three-year pro.
Third year lineman Will Clapp has supplied interior depth and can play any of the inside spots. A 7th round draft choice from L.S.U. in 2018, Clapp has appeared in 17 games over two seasons and often serves as an extra lineman in short yardage situations.
Unrestricted free agent Patrick Omameh also provided key depth in 2019. A natural guard, Omameh played well when replacing the injured Terron Armstead
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has had his most productive seasons when the team has been stout on the interior. New Orleans has not had any hesitation investing in the position in recent seasons. New England Patriots left guard Joe Thuney is expected to be in high demand once free agency begins, and would be a good fit with the Saints in the event that Peat is not re-signed. One of the things that made Peat valuable was the versatility that allowed him to slide over to left tackle when Armstead has missed time. A free agent like Washington Redskins left guard Ereck Flowers would bring that kind of versatility. Flowers was taken with the 9th overall pick by the New York Giants in 2015, the same draft as Peat. After struggling outside, he resurrected his career with the Redskins at guard.
Because of Warford's pending contract situation, New Orleans may also choose to address the position in the draft. Solomon Kindley of Georgia, Oregon's Shane Lemieux, and Jonah Jackson of Ohio State are among the top draft prospects expected to get selected in the first or second day that could contribute immediately. The Saints interior line was exposed during their surprising playoff loss to Minnesota when the Vikings slid their talented edge rushers inside. While the line is still among the league's best, the team is expected to insure the best possible pass protection for it's 41-Yr old quarterback with an eye toward future success up front.