When Cesar Ruiz was drafted last year at just 20 years of age, it was evident that the uber-talented center from Michigan had some growing to do.
Not only was he transitioning from a different position, but he was just a young pup with a lot of strength and skill to be added to his already-talented repertoire.
And while he struggled a bit out of the gate having to play and start in a lot of pivotal games against Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen, those struggles and experiences have given him and the coaching staff a good idea of what he needs to improve upon going into the 2021 season.
Some of the things that Ruiz needs to get better at were also visible even at the college level. As you can see in (This Piece), a couple of the things he struggled with at Michigan included a lack of strength against bigger, stronger DT’s and a tendency to be late recognizing stunts.
You saw him get overpowered at times in college when he faced NFL-caliber strength — like when he faced Alabama and current Miami DT Raekwon Davis ate his lunch a couple of times.
(He’s at the center position in the play below)
This is something that we saw quite often last season when he faced tackles known for their strength at the point of attack.
One of the toughest games to watch from Ruiz this year was Week 8 against the Chicago Bears, where Akiem Hicks absolutely tore the poor guy to shreds. In 24 true pass sets, he allowed eight total pressures in this game.
A good portion of them were from Hicks just overpowering him and even pushing him into his own quarterback at times.
To be fair, Hicks is a very good player and a tough matchup. But it reinforces the idea that Ruiz is simply going to have to get stronger to be able to handle guys with brute strength because he’s going to see them quite often in his career.
And at times, Ruiz would try to overcompensate for his strength disadvantages by lunging at D linemen, resulting in him getting blown by.
Adding strength to his game will also come in handy in the run and screen game, which is his bread and butter — getting out on the move and using his athleticism to break open big runs for Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. His mobility and fit in a zone running/heavy screen game offense was one of the primary reasons Sean Payton liked him so much to begin with, and getting in the weight room will enhance his abilities there immensely.
In a more cerebral sense, being late while trying to recognize stunts is an aspect of Ruiz’s game that is going to have to develop as he develops through the years.
It’s just the slightest hesitation of sticking on the defensive tackle for that extra split second that allows the defensive end to swoop in and get a pressure on the play above.
Recognizing stunts is something a lot of young players, and oftentimes players in general, struggle to do well. It’s especially challenging for younger players who are new to certain positions because it’s such a quick-twitch, reactionary skill to have.
Recognizing that your blocking assignment is veering to the side, while almost simultaneously noticing another blocker’s assignment coming towards you when you’re facing the opposite direction is just a lot. It’s basically an instinctual thing at a certain point.
But stunts are a huge part of the game and something defensive coordinators are cooking up more and more as defensive game planning progresses.
I would feel comfortable saying I expect steady improvement from him in that area as time goes on, especially with so many quality offensive linemen around him — like Ryan Ramczyk, Terron Armstead and Erik McCoy — to learn from.
The reason I highlight these as potential improvements and not catastrophic shortcomings is because they are issues that many young linemen encounter and can be rectified by time and work. You add that with a change of positions and more-than-expected early playing time due to injuries to Nick Easton and a release of a starting guard in Larry Warford, and you’ve got a recipe for a challenging rookie year.
However, Ruiz is a very good athlete and a smart, coordinated lineman who has the makings of a long-time starting interior lineman if things fall correctly for him in his career.
With a guy as talented and young as Ruiz, I tend to think it will just be a matter of time before he starts making a positive difference — barring injury.
You even saw a slight progression in the right direction towards the end of the year from the rookie guard — not allowing more than two pressures in any game from Week 10 through the Divisional Playoff game, after having three such games in the first nine weeks.
Let’s hope this positive trend can continue into 2021.
What are your thoughts on Cesar Ruiz? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.