Saints may need to address offensive line in 2023 offseason
The NFL is designed to be entertainment for the fans, but its results drive that. Wins are expected.
The New Orleans Saints landed well shy of team goals for the 2022 season, finishing with a 7-10 mark. Injuries played a role in the final record, but the end result did not meet team standards.
The Saints offensive line was ranked 28th in the league by Pro Football Focus this season. While tackles James Hurst and Ryan Ramczyk had 74.9 or better grade for pass blocking, but no other lineman was above 62.9.
The total blame doesn’t fall solely on the offense. The defense was no pushover but did them few favors, recording the second fewest interceptions (7) and total takeaways (13) in the NFL.
With the free agency and NFL Draft right around the corner, the offensive line will require an upgrade. The position will need to be addressed in some fashion.
To figure out how the Saints many eb thinking moving forward, we can take a look back to the past to find some wisdom.
Steve Korte toiled in the NFL trenches for eight seasons (1983-’90), arriving as the team’s second round pick in 1983. The member of the Arkansas Hall of Fame was one of the strongest players in franchise history.
Carl Mauck, who coached the New Orleans offensive line during part of Korte’s tenure, played 13 NFL seasons as a center and coached 25 more as an offensive line coach.
“There was nobody in the NFL who could blow guys off the line like Korte,” Mauck said. “We drafted him to be a center. Defenses were going to 3-4 (alignment). We wanted him to handle the nose tackle and allow the guards to get to the second level.”
Korte lined up at guard, his college position, for 18-20 NFL contests. Most of his time was spent at center.
When it comes to watching NFL games, Korte is focused on offensive line play.
“There must be a physical presence,” Korte described about requirements to play on an NFL offensive line. “Footwork is the key to everything and their balance. The steps must be in control, pad level not too high. You can tell if college players were good fundamentally. Footwork is 90%. Hand placement, balance; some guys have good feet but get lazy with other skills. If they miss with their hands (engaging with an opponent), they’re done. If you are a serviceable o-lineman, you can play because of fundamentals.”
When an offensive lineman tires, he tends to play higher. His legs begin to straighten up.
Skills and talent are important at the NFL level for offensive linemen, but work habits, mental toughness and fundamentals can keep you in the game. The worst thing in that job is to lose confidence in run blocking or pass blocking. Then you’re in trouble,” Korte explained. “If you go back to fundamentals, pad level, footwork and hand strike, you can right the ship.”
Much like any other Saints fan, Korte hopes that the organization can turn things around. With the buzz lately all about which QB should the team select in the upcoming draft, perhaps the front office and staff should focus some attention on the blocking up front just as much if not more.
It would not surprise me if the Saints considered an offensive lineman during the first two days of the draft. The Saints allowed 38 sacks in ’22, ninth most in the league. Producing 334 yards per game, the Saints were the 19th overal ranked offense.
There were some inconsistencies up front, and injuries played a role in lineup changes. There was a different group of starters almost each week.
“Footwork was good, pad level too high, not getting hand placement right,” Korte said while giving his perspective on that unir. “Not stinging with the initial contact, not jolting them. There was not enough transition without turning their shoulders. Their shoulders must remain square.”
New Orleans’ 2022 first round pick, Trevor Penning, was limited to one start as a rookie due to a turf toe injury suffered on Sept. 1. He plays with a mean streak and killer instincts.
“He’s got everything that you want,” Korte said. “Great athlete, size, athleticism, toughness. He wants to dominate physically. When you play a physical game, your body takes a beating. He has to reel in some of that aggression. He has to learn not to go for the knockout punch. He has everything you look for.”
Penning, sho missed a large chunk of the season due to a preseason injury, also suffered a Lisfranc injury on his right foot against Carolina in the season finale. He will be out up to six months but that timing will have him back healthy for training camp.
Hurst filled in admirably in Penning’s absence for most of the season. The 6-7, 314-pouns undrafted free agent in 2014 has played in 135 NFL games with 80 starts. Last season, he played 973 snaps with five penalties, allowing 5.0 sacks. He can play anywhere except center.
“Intelligent,” Korte described about Hurst. “Getting the most of his ability. He knows what he can and cannot do. He is serviceable. You can plug him in anywhere and don’t miss a beat.”
Ramczyk is the anchor of the line. The former 2017 first round pick has 89 NFL starts. He joined Willie Roaf as only the second Saints offensive tackle to be named to the AP All-Pro team three times. Generally regarded among the best tackles in the NFL, he suffered four penalties and allowed 3.0 sacks in 936 snaps last season.
“He did not have a great year. There were lots of expectations,” Korte assessed. “The offense had to play catch up a lot. The defense teed off on (Ramczyk). The defense set the edge. The QB’s were holding the ball too long or lacked mobility. It was tough. (Ramczyk) doesn’t make mental errors though.”
Cesar Ruiz, the team’s first round pick in 2020, has stabilized at right guard. After 31 starts at Michigan as a center, he has missed only four games in a New Orleans uniform during his four seasons with 40 starts. Last season in 868 snaps, he incurred three penalties and gave up three sacks. Ruiz has gotten incrementally better as a pro. He slid over to center in Erik McCoy’s absence.
“He’s playing out of position,” Korte said.” He’s not an guard. When he played center, he looked better, more comfortable there. You want your best five guys. That’s why he’s at guard.”
Erik McCoy was the team’s second round pick in 2019. The steady cetner has missed only nine games in the NFL, making 57 starts in four seasons. Rated as the league’s 13th best overall center by PFF, he suffered five penalties and allowed one sack in 798 snaps. In 2021, his eight penalties were third most in the NFL at his position.
“Solid player, better than average,” commented Korte. “I’m perplexed by how the interior linement struggled with blitz pickup. You must be physical there. They were not always square. They don’t pass off defensive lineman well. Maybe cutting down on splits a little bit would help.”
Andrus Peat (6-7, 315), a first round pick in 2015 at 13th overall, is a three-time Pro Bowler. His cap hit for ’23 will be $18,371,000. He received a 50.6 grade from PFF last season.
The past two seasons, Peat has played in 17 games and missed 17 with injury. With Peat, it is not about ability but availability. Out of 130 possible games since he arrived, he has played in 95.
In 2022 in 573 snaps, Peat drew two enalties and 3.0 sacks. “There was a time when he was fundamentally sound, really good against the run,” Korte analyzed. “He needs to ratchet it up and be more assertive. He may not have the same intensity for each play.”
Will Peat be in a Saints uniform in ’23? Likely so since, according to Sportrac, New Orleans would have to swallow a nearly $17 million cap hit this year to part ways with the Stanford product.
A pair of Saints reserves, both undrafted, have provided value. Calvin Throckmorton (2020) and Lewis Kidd (2022) are useful backups.
Throckmorton with 20 starts in three seasons has been versatile on the interior. Kidd, an FCS All American at Montana State, made 13 appearances as a rookie and one start against Pittsburgh.
“(Throckmorton) is doing what he can with what he’s got. (Kidd) represented himself well. He looked like he had good coaching in college, fundamentally sound,” Kotre noted.
Steve Korte faced some of the most physical defensive linemen during his time in the NFL,including the likes of Michael Carter (49ers), Dan Hampton (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders) and Joe Klecko (Jets). The individual battles were a game within a game.
“Win or lose, you always wanted to walk across the field at the end of a game, look into (opponent’s) eyes and know if I stole his soul,” Steve said with a devilish grin.
It takes talent, toughness and attitude to excel on the offensive line at the game’s highest level. The Saints must determine if they have the right players bringing that combination of traits this offseason if they hope to return to the NFL’s postseason in 2023.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…