Oct. 9, 2011; Charlotte, NC, USA; The offensive line of the New Orleans Saints faces the defensive line of the Carolina Panthers while playing at Bank of America Stadium. New Orleans wins over Carolina 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
When drafting players, teams always talk about taking the best player available. However, the term “best player available” should always carry the caveat “best player available at a position of need.” Mickey Loomis has indicated he will look at the current roster in order to determine the draft needs of the Saints with respect to the left tackle position.
You know the left tackle position—the one no team can live without—which was vacated by Jermon Bushrod’s move to Chicago. However, there has been recent debate over Bushrod’s dominance as a left tackle and yet the Saints offense continued to put up great numbers. How important is the left tackle? Worth the first round pick? Or can the Saints draft later and obtain a quality player?
If the Saints wait until a later draft round, you have to ask yourself how important is the tackle position if you have a quarterback like Drew Brees? The Saints philosophy has always been to bolster the guard position—thus we have Evans and Grubbs–and place less emphasis on the tackle position. This philosophy works if the entire OLine plays together excellently as a unit and the running game is prevalent. With a running game, the OLine is not swamped while routes develop, the defense drops back in coverage and sends the house against the line of scrimmage.
As a unit, the OLine usually holds up well given Brees’ quick release. On average, Brees has a release time of under three seconds. This makes any OLine look dominant if it can give him at least four seconds of time. Most defenses would love to take the straightest line to the quaterback–up the middle; however, the Saints center and guards make this unlikely. So they send edge rushers who take longer to get around to the QB.
So back to our original question—who can protect Brees for four seconds on the edge? Do we currently have the talent in house to do so?
The Saints have been very adept at selecting OLine men. A recent example is left guard Eric Olsen (a Bronco’s 6th round draft choice) who was picked up from the Redskins practice squad at the end of the 2011 season. He has fit in admirably with the Saints and has seen some good playing time. So who do we presently have on the roster who can fill in at left tackle?
The skills of a left tackle include more pass blocking and the right tackle requires more run blocking. Left tackles need long arms and quick feet against the edge rushers. Our current tackles and ProFootball Focus rankings (subscription required) are as follows
Zach Strief – Ranked 49th out of 80 (Bushrod was ranked 44th) Better at pass blocking than run blocking
Charles Brown – Ranks better as pass blocker than run blocker
Jason Smith – Played both right and left tackle as a Jet – better at run blocking than pass blocking
Bryce Harris – An undrafted player signed off of the Falcons’ practice squad – Better as a pass blocker than run blocker
Marcel Jones – No statistics – However, he played right tackle in college.
Our best and most experienced pass blocking tackle is Zach Strief who has always played right tackle, and it does not appear Strief will move to left. This means Charles Brown is the likely starting left tackle given his greater level of familiarity with the Saints system and experience. Jason Smith would seem a better fit at right tackle given his skill set. Mickey Loomis indicated Marcel Jones is a right tackle but will cross train at both left and right. It would make sense Bryce Harris will do so as well. Although the conventional wisdom is left and right tackles are not easily interchangeable, there does appear to be a high degree of cross training among the 2nd team players
Charles Brown – 3 years experience
In 2010, the Saints drafted Charles Brown in the 2nd round. He did not see significant playing time (124 snaps) until 2012 from Week 8 through Week 11 before he was injured. His abilities as a pass blocker bode well for him continuing at the left tackle position, but the Saints have questioned his durability. He has continuously battled injuries (hamstring, back, knee and hip) since signing with the Saints.
Jason Smith – 4 years experience
In college, Smith played tight end before moving to left tackle. In the NFL, he played right tackle as a Ram before being traded to the Jets where he played 265 snaps both at right and left tackle. Smith was selected 2nd overall in 2009 draft by the Rams. He has been seen as a draft bust. Smith has also suffered with injury problems in the past but was healthy all last season. It would seem, given his run blocking skills, Smith is being sized up as a right tackle. Hopefully, Rex Ryan was able to provide the Saints with some good information on his abilities. ProFootball Focus rated him favorably in 2012.
Bryce Harris – Rookie
Harris signed as an undrafted free agent with the Falcons in 2012. Although he did not make the team, he was kept on the practice squad. He was signed to the active roster of the Saints once Marcel Jones was injured in Week 1. He played left tackle in college and was a tough, durable player. He was graded as a smart, high character player who can learn any position but not a natural knee bender whose technique and footwork needed refinement. Harris played basketball but is not a fluid player. Harris comported himself well in the games with Oakland and San Francisco until he went out with a broken leg.
Marcel Jones – Rookie
Jones was drafted in the 7th round in the 2012 draft. After a good training camp and preseason, Jones won a starting job on the 53-man roster last year before suffering a knee injury in Week 1 practice. He played right tackle in college and basketball in high school. He was an honors student and is a high character individual. Jones is the perfect prototype for the tackle position and was a dominant player in college with good run blocking ability. However, Jones was oft injured.
These players are smart, gifted athletes but some of their durability issues are causes for concern. Given the cross training and levels of experience, it does appear the Saints can cobble together a tackle rotation. This may bode well if there is a commitment to the running game, and Drew Brees is given the needed 4 seconds. However, it does seem likely the Saints will draft a left tackle in order to develop someone who is dominant and healthy for the long run. (This should have been Charles Brown’s role during the Bushrod years.) The Saints are not given to placing rookies in their first year in starting roles, so unless they run counter to form, expect them to start Brown and to continue to develop players behind him while looking for a durable and dominant player.
If there is no dominant tackle available in the 1st round, I would expect the Saints to think about trading up for Menelik Watson in the 2nd round. If not, I would expect them to look closely at Reid Fragel or Jordan Mills in the 3rd round.