With the No. 24 pick in the 1st Round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints selected University of Michigan offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz.
The pick was a surprise to many that expected the Saints to add either a linebacker or a wide receiver to complement All-Pro WR Michael Thomas.
However, New Orleans coach Sean Payton was unhappy with the play of his interior offensive line, especially with right guard Larry Warford.
Ruiz was predominantly a center with Michigan. The original plan was to have him compete with 2019 second-round choice Erik McCoy at center, with the other slated for the starting job at right guard to replace the released Warford.
A national-wide COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancelation of offseason activities and preseason games, meaning fewer reps for rookies to earn a starting role.
McCoy, who played mostly guard in college but was the team's starting center in 2019, was kept at center to maintain continuity up front.
Ruiz would complete for the starting spot at right guard with veteran Nick Easton. His development was further slowed by an ankle injury that limited him through the latter stages of training camp.
Ruiz was inactive for the team's season opener against Tampa Bay. It would be the only game he’d miss during his rookie year.
He’d see his first action as a pro during a Week 2 loss at Las Vegas but played only six offensive snaps and five more on special teams.
After injuries to both starting guards Andrus Peat and Easton in a Week 3 loss to Green Bay, Ruiz would get his first extensive playing time.
He played 51 offensive snaps against the Packers and got his first career start the following week against Detroit with Peat sidelined.
Ruiz was back on the bench in Week 5 against the Chargers, but another injury to Easton had him back in the lineup quickly.
With Easton out, Ruiz started the next six games. The Saints went 6-0 during that period, which included two contests without injured QB Drew Brees, and averaged nearly 29 points per game.
Easton assumed the starting job once he returned, but was again shelved for the rest of the season late in the year.
Ruiz played a season-high 75 snaps in a Christmas Day rout of the Vikings. He helped the Saints to 583 total yards and a season-best 264 yards on the ground.
The 22-year-old Ruiz was never able to secure the starting job away from a healthy Nick Easton in 2020 and struggled with the position change.
Easton was released this offseason, leaving Ruiz as the unquestioned starter.
Ruiz distinguished himself well as a run blocker for a New Orleans offense that finished sixth in the league in rushing and led the NFL with 30 rushing touchdowns. He struggled with the position change as a pass blocker, especially with footwork and assignment switches.
Ruiz, 6’3” and 307-Lbs., is light on his feet and sets a consistent base. He has a compact frame and needs to beat opponents with technique over raw strength. His outstanding recognition of defenses allows him to slide effectively to double-team responsibilities.
A fluid athlete, Ruiz is adept at pulling outside on screens or edge rushes. He gets into his stance immediately at the snap and gets a rapid punch into an opponent to knock them off-balance to gain an advantage.
Ruiz is a tenacious competitor on every snap who tests an opponent's will and endurance. He may not have developed as quickly as some would have liked as a rookie, but flashed the potential of a high-caliber blocker.
Possessing the natural build of a center, Ruiz will be looked at for that spot during training camp, with the possibility of moving Erik McCoy to the right guard spot.
Regardless of whichever interior spot, Cesar Ruiz is now on the spot to play at a high level on an elite New Orleans offensive line to justify his first-round selection in 2020.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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