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Drafting Cesar Ruiz presents bevy of options and hard choices for Saints on offensive line

The Michigan product’s presence may be bad news for an anchor on the Saints’ interior

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that the New Orleans Saints took an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft last night isn’t mind-boggling in and of itself. However, hearing “Cesar Ruiz, center,” definitely gave some Saints’ fans pause. With rookie Erik McCoy stepping in after Max Unger’s retirement and playing at an outstanding level last year, and the Saints re-signing Andrus Peat, an interior lineman may seem like a luxury pick. Ruiz’s presence certainly changes the Saints’ immediate plans.

The player who had the most doubt cast onto his future with the Saints last night was Larry Warford. Warford, 28, has been a mainstay on the Saints’ offensive line the past three seasons, and he’s missed only four games in that span. Warford, however, is entering the final year of his contract with a cap hit of $12.875 million. With that in mind, he may become a trade piece.

The next question to address, of course, is what this means for Ruiz, who is very likely a day one starter. Ruiz was a signal-caller for the University of Michigan’s offensive line, so he’s comfortable with reading a defense. According to Maize & Brew’s Anthony Broome, Ruiz was graded the top pass-blocking center by Pro Football Focus in 2019, and he only became better during his time at Michigan. Broome also acknowledged that Ruiz could slide over to guard if the Saints don’t want to make McCoy be the one out of position.

One good way to look at an offensive lineman is to look at how he fared in some of his team’s worst games of the season. The best example of that for Michigan last year was its bowl game against Alabama.

From the center position, you can see Ruiz get off and engage quickly, but that’s not what’s impressive about this play. His hands are active throughout the entire play, and even when Donovan Peoples-Jones is on the other side of the formation, Ruiz is still engaging with his man. The Saints have built an identity up front in engaging with their guys throughout the entire play. Ruiz will not break that mold.

Motor and activeness are great, but where Ruiz will really be tested is in identifying and diagnosing plays. The Saints’ offensive line works best when it’s moving fluidly as a unit. Terron Armstead, Peat, McCoy, Warford and Ryan Ramczyk have an established rapport. Any way you slice it, if Ruiz starts this season, he’s the new guy on the block. He’ll have to adapt quickly with the new group — especially if he reprises the role he had at Michigan as a signal-caller.

This is the bare minimum the Saints expect out of their linemen.

McCoy and Warford have to pull for Alvin Kamara on the slip screen. While easy in premise, it requires a ton of athleticism from the linemen being asked to pull. You can see how far downfield they get. That’s what Ruiz has to be able to do to be effective.

The Saints — and the NFL in general — also ask a lot of linemen in terms of getting outside the tackles.

This play is less about complexity and more about effective identification. Armstead is doing the heavy lifting, as he pulls on a sweep play. Peat and McCoy, meanwhile, crash down to ensure the play isn’t blown up in the backfield. Latavius Murray is able to break off a big gain due to effective downfield blocking at the second level.

In addition to all of this, the Saints will do two things that not many other teams in the league will be doing next year. One of them Ruiz is already very comfortable in: The zone read. While the Saints use the zone read as a gimmick for Taysom Hill, Sean Payton has never had an idea he hasn’t liked to evolve. Blocking for Hill will be very different than blocking for Shea Patterson, mind you. Ruiz will need to be very aggressive coming out of the blocks.

The other thing is the jet sweep. While the Saints haven’t run it much to this point, the addition of Emmanuel Sanders is likely to change that. Payton also has never seen an idea he hasn’t liked to steal, and Kyle Shanahan’s use of Sanders as a jet sweep threat was extremely effective for the 49ers last season. The sweep requires a lot out of the linemen running it — tons of pulling guards and moving parts — so Payton must be confident that Ruiz can run it.

Regardless of who ends up starting on the line for the Saints next year, it will be one of the more athletic lines in the NFL. It’s entirely possible that the drafting of Ruiz is the Saints implementing the philosophy that an offensive line is only as good as its sixth man — Many fans bemoaned the presence of Will Clapp and Nick Easton when Peat was hurt (though they bemoaned the presence of Peat as well). Ruiz gives the Saints a lot of choices in terms of interior formations, with Armstead and Ramczyk continuing to bookend the line.

All things told, even though Ruiz may not have been what Saints fans expected, their track record in drafting offensive linemen recently earns them the benefit of the doubt on this pick. While plenty of needs remain, this shores up a position that people love to say is important but don’t praise when it’s addressed. For that, the Saints should be praised.

Ruiz is going to have his work cut out for him as he competes against players who are familiar with the NFL next year. This pick may be boring on paper, but ultimately, the Saints are getting a really good player and adding some competition. That’s what good teams do.