Saints offensive line has big hole to fill

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Erik McCoy
(Photo: Parker Waters)

(Third in a series)

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have the makings of a very good offensive line on both the left and right sides.

And in between they have a big question mark.

The retirement of long-time center Max Unger after last season left a big hole in the middle of the line. But the Saints are confident they can fill the hole adequately, though it’s unclear who will snap the ball to Drew Brees to start the season opener against Houston in September.

New Orleans signed former Viking Nick Easton as a veteran free agent in the immediate aftermath of Unger’s retirement, which wasn’t widely anticipated but which didn’t catch the Saints’ brass off guard either.

Then New Orleans traded up in the second round of the draft to select center Erik McCoy of Texas A&M with the hope that he could step in and start right away but also with the understanding that he might not be ready to start immediately.

“He’s exceptionally smart,” head coach Sean Payton said of McCoy. “He’s someone that I think learns well. He’s a strong player.”

McCoy still has a long way to go, but he has yet to take his first NFL practice rep in pads. That will come in training camp, and the preseason games will give the best gauge of what he might be able to contribute as a rookie.

“Just like with any new center, just the pace at which we operate (is tough),” Brees said. “Each week (in the off-season program) we started adding stuff and I think in the beginning you try to just be very basic and very elementary and then as soon as you get going you try to make it a bit more complicated just to (challenge him) and we threw him in the fire. I think that’s the only way you really get better.

“Training camp we’re going to get 50 times as many reps as we got (in mini-camp). So, that’ll be really good for both of us.”

The arrival of the two newcomers has overshadowed three-year veteran and Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom, but he’s likely to take the most first-team snaps when training camp begins.

“I feel like we’ve got three guys that certainly have the opportunity to (start) and that’s what OTA’s and minicamp and training camp is for,” Brees said. “It is to develop those guys and see how that is going to work.”

The only question marks on either side of the center have to do with health. Left tackle Terron Armstead and left guard Andrus Peat have missed significant time due to injuries in recent seasons but have formed a formidable tandem when both have been healthy.

Right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber player in just two seasons, have been pretty formidable themselves in addition to being more durable.

Offensive line: Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Cameron Tom, Larry Warford, Ryan Ramczyk, Erik McCoy, Nick Easton, Will Clapp, Ethan Greenidge, Ryan Groy, Marcus Henry, Ulrick John, Derrick Kelly II, Marshall Newhouse, Michael Ola, Nate Wozniak

Departures: Max Unger, Jermon Bushrod, Josh LeRibeus, Derek Newton

Returning: Armstead, Peat, Tom, Warford, Ramczyk, Clapp, Ola, Wozniak

Arrivals: McCoy, Easton, Henry, Groy, John, Kelly, Greenidge, Newhouse

Projected starters: Armstead, Peat, Tom, Warford, Ramczyk

Training camp storyline: In addition to the battle for the starting center position, the backup positions are up for grabs. At least two and perhaps all three of the center candidates could make the roster. Tom and Easton have versatility and the Saints think highly enough of McCoy to keep him around even if he isn’t ready to start. Second-year guard Will Clapp of LSU also provides insurance on the interior but someone has to emerge as the primary backup at tackle. Ola has limited experience with the team.

Quotable: Brees on the offensive line: “I love our O-line as a unit. People have seen over the last two years just how they work together and how at times that it mixes and matches with guys playing different positions – sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes for a longer period of time. They’re well-coached obviously. We all love our scheme and we feel like that allows us to do certain things and be very flexible.”

This is the latest installment of Crescent City Sports’ comprehensive Saints training camp preview. Here is the schedule for the unit-by-unit overviews:

June 13: Backfield (Quarterbacks and running backs)

June 20: Receivers (Wide receivers and tight ends)

June 27: Offensive line

July 4: Defensive line

July 11: Linebackers

July 18: Secondary (cornerbacks and safeties)

July 25: Special teams (kicker, punter, long snappers)

The Saints are scheduled to report to their Metairie headquarters on Thursday, July 25 and begin training-camp practice the next day.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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