Today we continue our look at New Orleans Saints position battles, this time focusing on the offensive line.
The good news is that most of the Saints line is already locked down, with several starters returning in 2014. The bad news is that the two question marks amongst the group are at crucial positions.
Let’s start with the locks.
Saints fans all know and respect the work of Jahri Evans. Since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft out of Bloomsburg College, he has fortified the New Orleans line, been Drew Brees’ most valuable protector and has made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams every year since 2009. We’re talking about one of the elite guards in the game, and he is sure to man the right guard spot for the foreseeable future.
The other guard isn’t too shabby either. Ben Grubbs signed with the Saints prior to the 2012 season, after being selected in the first round of the 2007 draft and playing well for the Baltimore Ravens for five seasons. New Orleans knew how important interior linemen were for Brees and their system, and paid big bucks for the Auburn product. Since coming over, Grubbs hasn’t disappointed as a mauler, even making the Pro Bowl last season. He will man the left guard spot, and there is no reason to think that his high level of play won’t continue.
Zach Strief is the third “sure thing” along the New Orleans line. Like Evans, Strief was selected by New Orleans late in the 2006 draft (man, was that draft ever a game changer), however he had to wait his turn to nab the starting spot. Strief backed up Jon Stinchcomb for five years, finally earning his spot as the starting right tackle in 2011. Since then, he has been a staple on a very good line, improving his play every year. While he doesn’t have the accolades that Evans and Grubbs do, Strief has done everything the Saints have asked of him, and is coming off his best season as a pro (Pro Football Focus rated him as the best right tackle in 2013). There is a reason he was voted as an offensive team captain the last couple seasons.
After those three, the water gets a little murkier for the New Orleans O-line. We’ll start by looking at new starting left tackle.
Let’s be blunt here: the play of the Saints left tackles last season wasn’t good. After Charles Brown started at the position for most of the season, he struggled mightily down the stretch, forcing Sean Payton to replace him with Terron Armstead in week 16. Most Saints fans were shocked by the decision, and their fears turned out to be justified as the third-round pick struggled mightily against the Carolina Panthers. In the following weeks, Armstead’s play improved, but you were never fully comfortable with him protecting Brees’ blind side.
Despite that, he is penciled in to be the Saints opening day starter. And I actually expect big things from him. Leading up to the 2013 draft, Armstead quickly established himself as the best athlete among the offensive tackles. He’s strong, extremely quick and has long arms. To me, that means he has the pieces to be a good player, he just needs to put it all together.
He’ll be working with the first team offense throughout training camp, and I personally have faith that the Saints coaching staff will whip him in shape before Week 1. I’m not trying to say that Armstead will be perfect—I’m sure he’ll get beat up from time to time when facing elite ends—but I’ve got faith in the tools.
Finally, that leaves us with the most talked about position battle of the Saints offensive line, the center spot.
Most of us knew that this was going to be a big question mark heading into training camp after the Saints let Brian de la Puente walk, leaving the team with essentially no one on their roster who had experience at center. Tim Lelito, who had been used as a super sub throughout the O-line, was considered the favorite to land the starting job. That is, until the worst kept secret of the Saints offseason finally came to fruition and Jonathan Goodwin signed back on with the Black and Gold.
Now it’s a two-horse race for the center spot, and I think Goodwin has to be the favorite. Not only does Goodwin have plenty of experience at center—both during the regular season and deep in the playoffs—but naming him as the starter would also allow the coaching staff to keep Lelito as a jack-of-all-trades guy who can be plugged in at several positions if someone goes down to injury. That shouldn’t be overlooked. Lelito is extremely valuable in that role.
After that, it’s mainly guys competing for back-up jobs. Matt Armstrong, a graduate of Grand Valley State like Lelito, was initially brought in to compete for the center job and is likely a favorite to land a back-up spot. Former practice squad player Marcel Jones and rookie Tavon Rooks will battle for a roster spot at tackle as well.
Ultimately, the Saints line—like it has been for the last several years—is one of the strongest units in the league, even if it isn’t the deepest. It’s in a bit of a rebuilding phase, with some young players looking for increased roles, but it should be able to keep Brees upright, and as always, that’s their main goal.