The New Orleans Saints have long prioritized the talent level of their offensive line. Since 2006, several New Orleans offensive linemen have reached multiple Pro Bowls, including Jammal Brown, Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, and Jermon Bushrod, all of whom were Saints draft picks.
As these players have departed or retired over the last decade, New Orleans has successfully replaced them with another top-tier group of starting linemen. However, one of their strongest pieces, center Max Unger retired in March following a Pro Bowl season. The Saints took strong action to fill Unger’s shoes, signing free agent Nick Easton a few days later and selecting Erik McCoy 48th overall in the 2019 draft.
While New Orleans should boast a formidable starting offensive line again, injuries have been an issue in recent years. If these injuries continue into 2019, the Saints will require a strong effort from their supporting cast.
Looking at the New Orleans Saints 2019 Offensive Line
The biggest story on the offensive line is obviously the battle between Easton and McCoy for the starting center job.
Easton is technically the veteran in this competition, however, he has only started in 17 NFL games. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and became the Minnesota Vikings starting left guard for the 2017 season. While injuries limited Easton to 12 games that year, he graded out as the Vikings top pass blocker. A neck injury forced Easton to miss all of 2018.
With so much time out of action, Easton will enter training camp with less momentum than McCoy, who did not miss a game in college after becoming the starting center at Texas A&M.
It’s difficult to envision McCoy losing the starting job. Although he is a rookie, there are few concerns about his transition to the NFL level. McCoy excelled against top-level defensive line talent while playing in the SEC and had one of the best athletic profiles among offensive linemen in the 2019 draft.
Although Easton has been an exceptional pass blocker when healthy, his run blocking and instincts need improvement. Perhaps a return to his natural position at center will help Easton improve his game, but McCoy has the edge for now.
If McCoy or Easton run away with the starting center job early in training camp, the odd man out could challenge Andrus Peat at left guard. 2019 is a contract year for Peat and he’s coming off a rough season marred by various leg injuries. Although he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, Pro Football Focus gave him a 39.2 grade for his 2018 performance, which ranked 77th among all NFL guards.
When healthy, Peat is an above average guard but he hasn’t quite match the level of play demonstrated by the rest of the Saints starting linemen, who have played at an elite level the last two seasons.
Peat won’t be easy to push aside. He’s held the starting job for three years and will want to be at his best as he prepares for free agency in 2020. Expect Peat to start again in 2019, but the Saints have a lot of interior talent that can challenge him.
2018 seventh-round pick Will Clapp and undrafted free agent Cameron Tom could also make a case for the starting job. Both cracked the roster last year after impressive preseasons, but both face an uphill battle for a starting job and could be in competition for a roster spot.
2017 and 2018 Pro Bowler Larry Warford will return as the starting right guard and New Orleans traditionally keeps five interior linemen, three of which will likely be Peat, McCoy, and Easton. Aside From Clapp and Tom, free-agent signing Ryan Groy is the only other strong challenger for the fifth spot. Groy is entering his sixth NFL season and has started in 17 games at guard and center.
Overall, the Saints interior line looks good. Having strong competition at center should ensure that Unger’s departure doesn’t leave a huge void, and there are several promising back up options. New Orleans has successfully maintained a high level of talent at center and guard after losing versatile backup Senio Kelemete in free agency last year.
New Orleans boasts one of the leagues best tandems at offensive tackle. Left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk each finished 2018 with top-ten grades from Pro Football Focus and both could last another decade in the NFL. If Armstead’s health weren’t a constant concern, there wouldn’t be much to worry about here.
When healthy, Armstead is capable of shutting down premier edge rushers and dominating anyone in his path in the run game. However, the six-year veteran has yet to play a full NFL season and has missed six or more games in each of the last three years.
When Armstead is unavailable, New Orleans often slides Peat over to left tackle, where the converted guard played throughout college. While Peat plays adequately there, surely the Saints coaching staff would rather find a backup they can plug in rather than disrupt an additional position by displacing their starting left guard.
Bushrod, who struggled last year while filling in for Armstead hasn’t been re-signed, leaving Marshall Newhouse and Michael Ola. With 72 career starts under his belt, Newhouse brings much more experience than Ola, who had 19 starts in his first two seasons but has started just one game in the last three years.
Newhouse appears to have a head start after taking a lot of snaps with the first team in mini-camp while Armstead recovered from surgery. However, the player who looks more capable of subbing in at right or left tackle will likely win the backup job.
Bottom Line on the Saints 2019 Offensive Line
The key for any offensive line with a good starting quintet is health, but this is especially important when a key player such as Armstead struggles to stay healthy and is practically irreplaceable. The battle between Newhouse and Ola for the backup tackle role will be one of the most important competitions to watch in training camp. If one can earn coaches’ trust as a capable backup, Peat will no longer have to switch positions on a dime and cause further flux on the line.
As Drew Brees marches further towards the end of his career, keeping him on his feet becomes more and more critical. Armstead plays the most important role in keeping Brees healthy, and if Armstead is unavailable, the next player up has to make sure there isn’t such a significant drop in play as there has been in the past.
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