The New Orleans Saints had one of the NFL's most dominant offensive lines entering the 2021 season. Over the previous four years, they had consistently bullied opposing defenses for one of the league's most balanced offensive attacks. They had allowed among the fewest sacks in the league and were the catalyst of a top-7 rushing attack that ranked first or second in touchdowns all four seasons.
Injuries decimated this formidable unit in 2021. Four starters missed a combined total of 35 games. Their starting five was together for a mere 22 snaps all season. Depth, which was a strength of the unit, was stretched to the breaking point. At one point late in the year, two linemen that were signed just hours before kickoff saw significant playing time.
Predictably, the Saints offense struggled because of the injuries up front, a season-ending knee injury to QB Jameis Winston, and a lack of weapons at wide receiver. New Orleans ranked 28th in total yardage and dead last in passing production. Their rushing game ranked 15th, but their 3.9 yards per carry average ranked a lowly 28th in the league.
New Orleans will have some changes up front this season. Three-time Pro Bowl LT Terron Armstead signed a lucrative free-agent deal with Miami. His departure breaks up the NFL's best tandem of tackles in Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.
The Saints moved decisively to replace Armstead, drafting Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning with the 19th overall pick. There will also be some competition for reps at the interior spots, with both projected starting guards facing crucial questions as they enter the year.
New faces on the coaching staff will also influence this unit. Doug Marrone, an offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008 for the Saints, returns to the team as its offensive line coach. A former head coach of the Bills and Jaguars, Marrone is a highly respected offensive line coach most recently at Alabama. He’ll not only mentor the team’s young linemen but also second year assistant Zach Strief.
Saints Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line
Currently on the Roster
(* = Rookie)
- Ryan Ramczyk, RT
- Cesar Ruiz, RG
- Erik McCoy, C
- Andrus Peat, LG
- Trevor Penning, LT*
- James Hurst, G/T
- Calvin Throckmorton, G
- Landon Young, T
- Forrest Lamp, G/T
- Ethan Greenidge, T
- Josh Andrews, G
- Lewis Kidd, G*
- Jerald Hawkins, T
- Khalique Washington, T*
- Sage Doxtater, T*
- Derek Schweiger, G*
Ramczyk is the star of the unit. The 28-year-old All-Pro is one of the game's finest linemen. A mauler in the running game and a wall in pass protection, Ramczyk routinely dominates the league's top edge rushers. He’s also a marvelous athlete who efficiently gets to the second level of a defense to be the lead blocker on screens and outside runs.
Coming into 2021, Ramczyk had missed just one of a possible 69 starts, but a knee injury sidelined him for seven contests last season. The often-injured Armstead missed many of those same games, leaving the offense stagnant without both their elite tackles.
Despite some speculation that he’d flip to left tackle after Armstead left, it appears that Ramczyk will open the year on his customary right side. Penning, one of the top-rated linemen in the draft, was brought in with the expectation that he’ll start at left tackle.
A mammoth at 6’7” and 332-Lbs., Penning has a nasty streak and underrated footwork. He’ll be an immediate asset as a run blocker, but needs to refine his technique in pass protection. The rookie has big shoes to fill, but has the physical attributes and aggressiveness of a perennial Pro Bowler.
If Penning struggles early on, the Saints can turn to reliable veteran James Hurst. A veteran of eight seasons, Hurst is capable of playing inside or outside and started 15 contests for New Orleans last season. He’s a better fit at guard, but has proven to be a suitable fit at both left or right tackle in his two years with the Saints.
Landon Young, a sixth-round choice from Kentucky in last year's draft, impressed coaches with his footwork and intensity during training camp. Unfortunately, he was lost for the year with a foot injury in his only start as a replacement for Ramczyk. Young could also be in the mix as a stop-gap starter if Penning comes along slowly.
Another favorite of coaches is Ethan Greenidge. Undrafted from Villanova in 2019, Greenidge missed all of last year after pectoral surgery. He showed nice potential in 2020 in brief appearances up front. Jerald Hawkins, Khalique Washington, and Sage Doxtater will wage a battle to try and supplant Greenidge or Young.
One of the NFL's up-and-coming linemen is C Erik McCoy, entering his fourth year with the team. McCoy is a Pro Bowl caliber talent who is athletic enough to lead screens and off-tackle runs and strong enough to control the point of attack. An extremely intelligent player, McCoy expertly makes the line calls to adjust to opposing defenses, an undervalued part of an offense.
Three-time Pro Bowl LG Andrus Peat was lost for the year after just six games. Often criticized for his wild inconsistencies in pass protection, Peat is still a force for the running game. He’ll need to finally stay healthy. Peat has missed 25 games over the last four seasons and at least five outings in five of his seven NFL seasons.
The Saints most disappointing player of 2021 was RG Cesar Ruiz, a first-round choice in the 2020 NFL Draft. After an erratic rookie campaign, Ruiz was the weak point of the offensive line, despite being the only starter to play every contest. The team won't give up on a high draft pick after just two years, but Ruiz could be on a short leash if he doesn't develop under Marrone's tutelage.
Calvin Throckmorton may have been the most pleasant surprise for New Orleans in 2021. An undrafted rookie from Oregon in 2020, Throckmorton was pressed into duty last year because of mounting injuries. He’d start 14 contests at guard, proving to be far more reliable than Ruiz on the other side. Throckmorton doesn't have standout athleticism, but controls the point of attack well enough to be an effective starter.
Hurst would be able to start for several teams at guard or tackle, and gives the Saints a strong fall-back option if Ruiz continues to struggle or Peat misses time. The Saints also brought back Forrest Lamp, a 2017 second-round pick of the Chargers who they added at mid-season. Lamp gives the team another experienced starter along the interior and also took snaps at center during OTA and mini-camp sessions.
Worst Case Scenario
Aside from another mountain of injuries, this position will again struggle if Penning develops slowly and Ruiz continues to play poorly. Even if just one of those things occurs, the Saints would turn to Hurst with no drop-off in effectiveness.
If neither Ruiz nor Penning play up to expectations or multiple players go down with injury, New Orleans would be pressed into using both Hurst and Throckmorton. The starting five could still be solid, but the unit would be limited athletically and have little reliable depth.
Both Ruiz and Peat face crossroads years with the Saints. Remember that Peat carries a big contract and the team may need to create cap space to re-sign McCoy, who is among several key pending free agents in 2023.
Best Case Scenario
Penning's play is a little reminiscent of Kyle Turley or Willie Roaf, two Pro Bowl tackles for New Orleans in the 1990s and early 2000s. Roaf would wind up being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If Penning could have even a fraction of that success early on, the Saints would continue to have a formidable pair of blockers on the edge.
Penning's ability to secure the left tackle spot quickly would allow the Saints to use Hurst inside if necessary. He is arguably an upgrade over Ruiz anyway, and at the very least a starting caliber sixth lineman to use in jumbo packages in short yardage situations.
Ramczyk's injury-riddled 2021 is likely an anomaly, so he should revert to his dominant form. McCoy's underrated athleticism and recognition skills will also help Peat, Hurst, Ruiz, and Throckmorton at the guard spots. Marrone's ability as a coach should help Penning and the other young linemen to develop rapidly.
The Saints look to have an exponentially better offense in 2022. Winston and All-Pro WR Michael Thomas return from injuries, RB Alvin Kamara is one of the league's most dynamic weapons, and wideouts Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry were added in the draft and free agency.
However, it starts up front. If the New Orleans line can return to their dominant form of 2017-2020, then the team’s dangerous offensive weapons will again make the Saints one of the most difficult teams in the league to defend.