Saints offensive line develops rookie center McCoy, more depth behind veteran starters

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Erik McCoy (#78) and Cameron Tom (#63) are among the Saints options at center (Photo: Parker Waters).
Erik McCoy (#78) and Cameron Tom (#63) are among the Saints options at center (Photo: Parker Waters).

Saints offensive line coach Dan Roushar is a 33-year veteran in the coaching profession, having spent seven seasons with New Orleans. He originally tutored the Saints tight ends but moved over to handle the offensive line coaching duties in 2016.

Roushar’s unit has consistently been at or near the top in NFL in key measurements since then, allowing the least amount of sacks for example.

In 2018, the 20 sacks allowed by New Orleans paced the NFC and ranked second lowest in the NFL. The Saints gave up 20 sacks in the previous season as well. Roushar stresses that it is a total team achievement.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our guys,” Roushar deflected any credit. “Brendan Nugent (Saints offensive line assistant) does a great job with those guys. They all understand how the system functions. Drew (Brees) is so good about getting the ball out quickly. Our receivers are working to get themselves open. Our guys understand the protection pattern. Also the guys who played for us are good football players and they’ve done a good job.”

The responsibility of being an offensive lineman usually means life in a world of anonymity, often until something bad happens. It is the least understood position on the field by the fans. There are few statistics to indicate if the line is playing well.

In order to be an offensive lineman in the league, you often have to be prepared to learn a different position along the line in a moments notice. Versatility is vital with the limitations of a 53-man roster.

“Especially on game day,” Roushar added. “When you’re dressing seven guys you’re going to have to have a guy who can play guard and center and/or tackle. That’s an awful lot to ask of the guys. We’ve been fortunate to have those type of guys who can do that.”

With the current Saints line, second rounder Erik McCoy has drawn the lion’s share of attention from both onlookers and the coaching staff this offseason. With the retirement of veteran center Max Unger, the 2019 top draft pick for New Orleans out of Texas A&M is viewed already as a foundation block for the franchise.

“His attention to detail, how he works. He’s really passionate about learning,” Roushar detailed about McCoy. “It’s about why and how to do it better. We’ve seen growth in him, so he’s starting to put things together and yet there is still so much for him to learn.”

McCoy has experienced his first interaction with Drew Brees, since he has been inserted with the first team a good portion of the time in Organized Team Activities and minicamp.

“One of the things that you see very quickly is that Erik has developed quite a bit. This was the first time that he’s had a chance to work with Drew. That’s key. That’s a real positive. Just to hear (Drew) in the huddle and how he works. That’s growth. There will be some growing pains, but that’s things that we will learn from and grow.”

Every new arrival experiences a learning curve with a new team. It is both a physical and mental challenge, particularly for young players.

“The first thing is learning the system, that’s a big thing,” Roushar said. “Put together how we are doing it, why we are doing it and be able to do it consistently. Second, understanding the speed of the game. It’s all just a little bit quicker and they are playing against better players. To be fundamentally consistent with what we’re trying to do.”

Will Clapp and Cameron Tom return in 2019 having gained valuable experience last season. They’re joined among interior lineman battling on the depth chart by offseason veteran acquisition Nick Easton. All have caught the attention of the Saints’ brass.

“One of the things that I saw is that Will Clapp and Cameron Tom have really improved. I can see a lot of growth. In Will’s case, (in) his second season and Cam is in his third year. You’re starting to see some real positive things from them,” noted Roushar.

Easton is a proven NFL commodity at guard and center when healthy, but he must earn his snaps despite his edge in experience. “We’ve slipped him in and out, so he’s been at guard and center,” said Roushar. “I feel like we’ve got good competition there. I’m anxious to watch the battle unfold.”

Veteran starters Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk are reliable when healthy but other lesser known linemen are working to earn their keep and provide the Saints with all-important depth.

At 6-foot-10, offensive tackle Nate Wozniak holds the distinction as being the tallest player in the NFL. The converted collegiate tight end out of Minnesota has shown progress as he enters year three at his new position. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement,” Roushar said and smiled. “He’s really taken a step in the positive direction. After time, everyday, we’ve seen improvements. To see that is encouraging.”

On the other end of the experience spectrum, 10-year veteran Marshall Newhouse was added to the roster during the offseason. The 30-year old has lined up for New Orleans at left tackle thus far in his seventh NFL stop. He has played in 114 games with 72 starts and won Super Bowl XLV with the Green Bay Packers. A job is available as a backup at the key spot protecting the quarterback’s blind side.

“We want to see what he can do in two-minute situation, against pass rush. We want to look at his set angles, if we have to improve him fundamentally,” Roushar said about Newhouse. “He’s a smart player. He’s a veteran player. He’s played football at a pretty high level, so we’re anxious to see him continue to develop. So far I think he’s done pretty well.”

The NFL has given thought to eliminating two games from the four-game preseason schedule. While that is seen as a good idea by may, it would deprive players looking to sharpen their skills and earn roster spots the opportunity to show their wares under the lights in live game action. Coaches like Roushar value the live reps from preseason games.

“It may make it more difficult to assess the players and shape the roster. You’d be forced to look at these guys more in practice,” Roushar stated.” Two games would be hard to get a read on the young guys. That would be a challenge, but after a period of time, you have a pretty good idea who your players are. ‘How are we developing the chemistry?’ ‘Do they have an understanding of the variances that go with it?’ If you go from guard to center or center to guard during a game, those are the things that would be more of a challenge. You wouldn’t get as much work at it.”

Work is exactly what the Saints players have done throughout OTA’s and minicamp but now the time to rest and undergo conditioning before training camp has arrived. It’s the calm before the storm, with the ultimate goal to be in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on February 2, 2020 for the Super Bowl.

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Rene Nadeau

Rene Nadeau


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…

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