Are the New Orleans Saints dangerously thin at offensive line?

After an inability to sign a veteran guard in the offseason, are the New Orleans Saints dangerously thin at offensive line?

Upon the completion of a disappointing 2015 campaign, the New Orleans Saints front office went to work to figure out the biggest needs that  must be addressed before the start of the 2016 season. Head coach Sean Payton made it clear what he believed those positions of need were. In an interview before the 2016 NFL Draft, Payton expressed a wish to find a three-technique defensive tackle that can rush the quarterback from the inside. He also made it clear that the interior offensive line needed help.

In the NFL Draft, the Saints were able to address the pass rushing defensive tackle position with the selections of Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round and David Onyemata from Canada’s University of Manitoba in the fourth round. Unfortunately for Sean Payton and the Saints, the top offensive guards in the draft went higher than they expected.

During a press conference after the first round, Payton mentioned:

We are at the (second round, 16th pick) right now so you begin to look at the cloud. You saw the lineman go toward the end, the Stanford guard (Joshua Garnett) and the Texas A&M lineman (Germain Ifedi).

While the Saints were able to address depth at the wide receiver and safety positions, it left a gaping hole along the interior of the offensive line. Payton went to work after the draft to sign quality undrafted free agents (UDFAs) in University of North Carolina guard Landon Turner (the pancake maker) and Michigan State offensive center Jack Allen. Both players were predicted to be mid-round draft selectees. The team also nabbed Ryker Mathews, Avery Young, Joseph Cheek, and Marcus Henry.

Then came organized team activities (OTAs), and it was blatantly obvious the 2016 New Orleans Saints are in panic mode with their offensive line group. The first tidbit of information made public was last year’s undrafted defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls, who made the team at that position, would be shifted to guard for the season. Payton explained in an interview with Saints media that this decision had been in the works for a while now, but it is more believable that the Saints are scrambling to find anyone that can play guard better than presumptive starters Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete.

The Kaleb Eulls experiment is definitely a work in progress and he has a long road ahead of him if he is going to make the team as a guard, with fellow guard Tim Lelito saying:

He’s very talented, very athletic gifted. But obviously, he is way behind every one else because we have been playing on the offensive line forever.

It’s not just Eulls that should worry Saints fans, as the pass blocking within the interior offensive line was not great in 2015 and it seems Lelito and Kelemete are not the answer at guard unless they improve on their pass blocking effectiveness.

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 New Orleans Saints were not terrible at the offensive line positions, but they had moments that made fans cringe every time quarterback Drew Brees dropped back to pass. In Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, right tackle Zach Strief allowed Tampa defensive end Jacquies Smith to rush past him and hit Brees, injuring Drew’s shoulder. The Saints rely on Brees to win games so his health is of paramount importance.

Andrus Peat, the Saints first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, was suppose to be the heir apparent to Zach Strief at right tackle. The problem was, he showed up to training camp overweight and out of shape. It was clear his first season as a Saint would be rough. Peat would finish the year having played in 12 games and starting eight at various positions along the offensive line. However, Peat did receive a positive grade at offensive tackle from sports analytics site Pro Football Focus. It was mostly his play at the offensive guard position that would be his downfall.

While he graded negatively overall, it’s worth pointing out that Peat actually graded positively in 197 snaps at offensive tackle – Pro Football Focus

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the Saints offensive line. Future All-Pro offensive tackle Terron Armstead locked up a lucrative contract that should keep him in the black and gold through the 2021 season.

The news out of OTAs, however, is Armstead has been M.I.A. the last couple of practices with an undisclosed excuse. With Payton’s penchant for lying about downplaying the seriousness of player injuries, it is not a good sign that little is being said about the reason behind Armstead’s absence.

The real question is not whether New Orleans needs help at the offensive line position, but where they will find it. After bypassing an upgrade during the start of the NFL’s free agency period and failing to select a top prospect in the draft, Sean Payton and the Saints offense are running low on options. Could they find an upgrade in ex-Saints All-Pro guard Jahri Evans?

Evans was released by the Saints after a relatively disappointing season and that he would not take a pay cut to stay with the team. Evans may be a 33-year old offensive guard, but he was still the best guard on last year’s club and it is safe to assume he has something left in the tank. So, what are the Saints waiting for?

Sep 30, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) during their game against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 30, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) during their game against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

After a spectacular 10 seasons, Evans would gain little benefit signing with the Saints before the start of training camp. His body has taken enough punishment over his career and his status as a four-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler has given him some bargaining power. The Saints don’t need him before the preseason, as Evans is a quick study that already understands what Drew Brees needs from his interior linemen. So, there is still time.

If the Saints want to think outside the box a little, they can take a chance on oft-injured free agent offensive guard Brandon Mosley. Mosley was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft after converting from defensive end to offensive line at Auburn University. He never really could fight the injury bug and after spending the 2015 season on injured reserve, he and the New York ‘football’ Giants parted ways. Mosley is interesting because he fits the Sean Payton mold, and he can play multiple positions along the offensive line.

Mosley was scouted to play offensive tackle after decent run as an Auburn Tiger, but he played right guard as a Giant in 2013, his only year with extensive playing time. He brings a big body that can move defenders and is great at getting to the second level in the screen passing game. It isn’t a perfect fit and by no means the ‘cure all’ for the Saints offensive line, but Mosley could add depth to a position in desperate need for some quality players.

Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the second half of a game at NRG Stadium. The Texans defeated the Saints 24-6. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

No matter what happens in the next month before training camp starts, it is obvious the New Orleans Saints are dangerously thin at all points along the offensive line. The longer the front office waits to act, the more Drew Brees’ safety becomes a legitimate concern.