Any good football coach on any level will tell you that the biggest key to winning a game is to take control of the trenches up front.
One of the biggest factors to the success of the New Orleans Saints over the last four seasons is the dominance of their offensive line.
Despite a major injury in its receiving corps, along with an injury and decline in the Drew Brees' Hall of Fame skills, the Saints ranked fifth in points last season.
The balance of the Saints offense is paced by the league's most dominant offensive line. New Orleans has dictated the flow of games by ruling the trenches.
Brees was annually among the league's least sacked quarterbacks, while brute force led the way to a fifth-ranked rushing attack in 2020.
New Orleans released veteran G Nick Easton this offseason, but still has plenty of talent up front.
The starting five comprises three first-round draft picks, a second-round selection, and three perennial Pro Bowlers.
The Saints have several questions throughout their roster as they head towards the start of training camp. However, one constant is the ability of the NFL's most underrated position group to take over games.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
- Terron Armstead (LT)
- Andrus Peat (LG)
- Erik McCoy (C)
- Cesar Ruiz (RG)
- Ryan Ramczyk (RT)
- James Hurst (T/G)
- Derrick Kelly (T/G)
- Ethan Greenidge (T)
- Landon Young (T)
- Calvin Throckmorton (G/T)
- Will Clapp (G/C)
- Christian Montano (G/C)
- Kyle Murphy
Armstead and Ramczyk form the NFL’s best duo of tackles. They routinely shut down the league's top pass rushers and set the edge for a dynamic running game.
The 30-year-old Armstead is the elder statesman of the front line. Entering the last year of his contract, he’s in line to be one of the league's highest-paid tackles.
Armstead has made the last three Pro Bowls and has played in 32 of the previous 35 games, putting to rest some of the injury concerns that plagued him early in his career.
Ramczyk, 27, is considered one of the league's best offensive linemen after just four seasons. New Orleans just recently re-signed the star tackle to a five-year extension worth $96 million. Capable of playing either tackle spot, Ramczyk is an elite pass blocker.
Both tackles are terrific athletes that get downfield quickly to open up big plays for their running backs. Their athleticism is instrumental on screen passes, one of the most valuable weapons in their arsenal.
Veteran James Hurst is a former starter for the Baltimore Ravens who can play both tackle or guard spots. A valuable sixth-man, Hurst is used as an extra lineman on jumbo and goal-line packages.
Rookie OT Landon Young was brought in with a sixth-round draft pick. Young played both left and right sides in college at Kentucky but projects as a right tackle as a pro. He’ll have to fend off challenges from holdovers offensive linemen Derrick Kelly and Ethan Greenidge on the outside.
Erik McCoy, a second-round draft pick in 2019, has blossomed into one of the league's better centers. An outstanding technician with terrific mobility, McCoy played at a Pro Bowl level in 2020.
Veteran reserve Will Clapp and free-agent signee Christian Montano will compete for the backup job.
However, 2020 first-round choice Cesar Ruiz was a center in college and would likely slide into the spot if something were to happen to McCoy.
After selecting Ruiz last season, many speculated that he would take over the center spot and McCoy would move to guard, where he excelled in college.
COVID-19 restrictions limited training camp and eliminated preseason last year, forcing the Saints to keep McCoy at center for continuity. The players may share snaps at center and guard this preseason.
Ruiz joins 27-year-old Andrus Peat as former first-round picks at the inside spots. Ruiz split time with Easton last season, starting five games and appearing in 69% of the offensive snaps.
The 6’3” and 307-Lb. Ruiz has good upper body strength and nifty feet. He struggled in pass protection at times, but exhibited solid run blocking skills. He’ll be counted on for better consistency in 2020.
Despite being voted to the last three Pro Bowls, Peat often draws the ire of New Orleans fans for inconsistencies and injury issues. The 6’7” and 316-Lb. Peat is a massive inside presence who can bully defensive tackles, especially in the run game.
Originally drafted as a tackle, Peat struggles with his mobility. Those struggles can also be evident inside against athletic defensive linemen in pass protection.
Hurst has also shown capable of being a spot-starter at guard. He is a more effective option over Clapp or Throckmorton, who still provide quality depth.
One of the most underrated keys to the success of this unit has been its versatility. McCoy and Ruiz are starting quality players at either center or guard. Peat has shown the ability to be a solid short-term at tackle when Armstead has been hurt.
Hurst has logged quality starts at tackle and guard on both the left and right sides. Offensive linemen Greenidge, Kelly, and Throckmorton can play inside or outside, while Clapp and Montano can compete for any of the inside spots.
The Saints will be starting a quarterback other than Drew Brees for the season opener for the first time since 2005. The quick decision-making and rapid release of Drew Brees helped avoid several sacks, but the offensive line must again provide optimum protection for the new signal-caller.
With a new quarterback and without star receiver Michael Thomas, who will miss the start of the year after ankle surgery, the Saints will rely more on running backs, Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. The offensive line must pave the way for them, not only as runners but for an effective screen game.
Success for most NFL teams usually means attention for its ‘‘skill players’'. However, any coach will admit that success or failure depends on the players in the trenches. For the 2021 New Orleans Saints, most of their roster concerns can be easily covered up with another dominating performance by its offensive line.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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