Armstead, offensive line may hold key to Saints success

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Saints training camp
(Photo: Parker Waters)

When it comes to football, the focus, the primary attention is always on the so called “skill” position players. They have been and always will be the glamour players since they touch the ball and score touchdowns.

While there is no question that any team at any level must have players who can make plays throwing, receiving, running or returning kicks, it is equally true that successful teams must win up front.

Many of the top executives and coaches in NFL history always believed in building from the inside-out, constructing outstanding offensive and defensive lines first and foremost.

It is a sound philosophy.

In the modern era of football, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick, among others, have put together excellent fronts.

Naturally, they had great skill players to along with those fronts but if you asked any of them if they could have enjoyed success without the fronts, I feel certain the answer would have been a resounding “no.”

The New Orleans Saints have built a solid defensive front, led by Cameron Jordan. There is optimism that Sheldon Rankins will develop into a star, worthy of the 12th overall pick in the draft that he was in 2016. David Onyemata is developing nicely. Tyeler Davison is a solid player. Trey Hendrickson showed real promise last year. Alex Okafor and Hau’oli Kikaha are back.

Then, there is the addition of Marcus Davenport, whom the Saints made a huge investment in, expecting huge returns.

The offensive line is a very interesting study.

Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis have gone to great lengths to rebuild this unit since the Super Bowl season of 2009.

Max Unger arrived through the Jimmy Graham deal. Ryan Ramczyk came via Brandin Cooks. Larry Warford was a key free agent signee. Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat were draft investments, Peat coming in the first round.

When you examine the offensive line, this is a high volume group of huge investments.

Ramczyk and Peat were first-round draft picks. Unger was a second-round choice of Seattle. Warford and Armstead were third-round picks.

That is called building from the inside-out.

It is safe to say that the New Orleans Saints have a top 10 offensive line in the NFL, perhaps a top five line.

The latter is contingent on remaining healthy, particularly in the case of Armstead.

Pro Football Focus projects the Saints as having the sixth best offensive line in the NFL, behind only Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

In 2017, Ramczyk graded out highest a year ago according to Pro Football Focus at 84.2. Armstead was next at 78.2. Warford registered a 76.7 grade. Unger checked in at 50.0 and Peat at 46.9.

Ramczyk’s 96.6 pass blocking efficiency grade was fifth best among all offensive tackles in the league. Considering that he was just a rookie, Ramczyk’s ceiling is extremely high. He has a chance to be an elite tackle in the league and figures to have a long career in New Orleans, following in the footsteps of the likes of Willie Roaf and Stan Brock. His 84.2 rating was third best in the league, behind only Daryl Williams of Carolina (86.5) and Demar Dotson of Tampa Bay (85.0) at right tackle in 2017.

Williams suffered a torn MCL and dislocated patella at practice Saturday and will be lost to the Panthers indefinitely.

Unger was coming off of a significant injury. He could and should improve upon that grade this season. Peat, in fairness, was moved back-and-forth from right guard to left tackle. Allowing him to settle in at guard should improve his grade significantly. Warford can be expected to play at the same consistent level of a year ago.

Then, there is Armstead.

In my mind, he may be the biggest key of all to the Saints having success and moving to an elite level in the league.

In 2015, Armstead was among the very best tackles in the NFL, posting a gaudy 90.6 grade from Pro Football Focus.

Since then, he has missed 15 of 32 games, taking just 1,064 snaps over the past two seasons while dealing with numerous ailments.

Armstead has never played a full season.

In his rookie season, Armstead played in just six games but that was a coach’s decision. By his second year (2014), he started all 14 games he played in, missing two. In 2015, he started all 13 games he played in, missing three. In 2016, he missed nine games and missed six last season.

Even when he played a year ago, he never approached being at 100 percent. Armstead had to recover from a torn labrum and sustained thigh and chest injuries, among others, during the season. In 2016, he also dealt with a knee injury. Even hurt a year ago, his 78.2 rating was 13th best among 32 starting left tackles.

If Armstead can play to his 2015 form (90.6), that would make him the highest rated left tackle in the league. That would certainly provide a huge lift to the Saints, Brees, and the running game with Kamara, Mark Ingram, Trey Edmunds, Vereen, Terrance West and Jonathan Williams.

If healthy, Armstead, now 27 and entering his sixth NFL season, should be entering his prime, the zenith of his formidable ability. Armstead is long and explosive, one of the fastest tackles and better athletes in the league.

When he went down a year ago, it was a double whammy as Peat had to move to left tackle, weakening that position, while Senio Kelemete, a serviceable player, took over at right guard, though he was not as good as Peat there.

The Saints went out and addressed the tackle depth issue by bringing back veteran Jermon Bushrod, who started at the position for the Saints in his heyday, including the Super Bowl championship season. Bushrod has played right guard the past two seasons with Miami but has the ability to play left tackle, if needed. Peat could slide outside again, if needed, but the team would clearly love to keep him in one spot.

Additionally, rookie fourth-round pick Rick Leonard is imposing but is a developmental player. Michael Ola has some experience at tackle in the league. Josh LeRibeus figures to fill the Kelemete role on the inside as a reserve. Louisiana products Cameron Tom and Will Clapp are candidates at center as well.

We know how good Drew Brees remains, how good Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Ted Ginn, Jr. are and how the additions of Cameron Meredith, Ben Watson, Shane Vereen and even Tre’Quan Smith may make the offense better in 2018 than it was in 2017.

While all of those are important pieces, it all starts up front. The Saints were the top offensive line in pass blocking efficiency in the NFL a year ago. Keeping Brees clean and upright, particularly at this late stage of his career, is more important than ever. That begins with the quarterback’s blind side, at left tackle. Terron Armstead is a huge key to the Saints taking the next step forward to returning to their former glory, circa 2009.

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Ken Trahan


Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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