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Saints Offseason Brief: The Offensive Line

How will the Saints maintain the performance of one of the team’s best units in 2017?

The Saints’ offensive line was one of the best in the league last year, a performance unfortunately not reflected in any offseason accolades (guard Larry Warford made the Pro Bowl, but only as an alternate selection). The additions of Warford and Ryan Ramczyk elevated what had been a solid unit into an excellent one. The biggest concerns for the team in 2018 will be maintaining continuity and performance with the unit, and perhaps looking down the road for long-term solutions to replace aging players or impending free agents.

(Contract information is mostly taken from spotrac.com, with extra info supplemented by ourlads.com and overthecap.com when needed. Ages are as of the first day of the 2018 regular season, September 6.)

TACKLES

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Terron Armstead 27 $7,500,000 $13,500,000 2021
Ryan Ramczyk 24 $1,616,646 $2,020,808 2020 (TO for 2021)
Zach Strief 34 $6,100,000 $3,875,000 2018
Bryce Harris 29 $0* N/A Free Agent

As I mentioned in an earlier column, Ryan Ramczyk landing in New Orleans with the Saints’ #32 selection instead of their originally intended pick, Reuben Foster, ended up being a major blessing in disguise for the Saints. Even though he was originally supposed to have a “redshirt year” behind Terron Armstead and Zach Strief, Ramczyk immediately came in and played both tackle positions like a veteran, starting the season at left tackle while Armstead recovered from injury, moving to right tackle when Strief was lost for the season, and playing 100% of the snaps on offense, making him only one of two players to do so (Max Unger is the other). Ramczyk finished the season ranked as the #6 right tackle performance of the year on Bleacher Report’s NFL1000. He’s firmly entrenched as a long-term starter. (TO stands for team option, which all teams have on their first-round picks; the Saints will almost certainly pick up Ramczyk’s fifth-year option when the time comes, if they haven’t negotiated an extension before then.)

Terron Armstead is one of the most talented left tackles in the league, but his injury struggles have kept him from maximizing his full potential. He’s never played 16 games in a season and missed 15 games total in the last two seasons. The line has solutions for when he’s injured (Ramczyk or Andrus Peat), but still, $13.5 million is a large cap hit for someone who can’t stay on the field. Personally, I think Armstead is fantastic, and high quality left tackles in their prime don’t grow on trees. Still, the best ability is availability, and if Armstead continues to struggle through injuries, the Saints may try to get him to take a pay cut– he has similarly large cap hits for the remainder of his contract– or they can save $7.6 million in cap room next season by releasing him outright.

Zach Strief grew into a reliable mainstay at right tackle during his time in New Orleans, but Ramczyk firmly seized the job after Strief was lost for the season. Strief turns 35 a few weeks after the start of the 2018 season, and his age may affect how he recovers from injury. He’s in the last year of his contract, and his cap hit actually goes down in 2018, so if he recovers well enough that he can still capably fill in at swing tackle, it makes more sense to keep him, play him at right tackle if and when Armstead inevitably gets injured and Ramczyk moves to the left side, and then let him retire after the 2018 season (when they can also make a more definite decision about Armstead).

Bryce Harris was the emergency swing tackle signed off and on as the team suffered through offensive line injuries. (His actual full-season salary was $770,000, but my research suggests his salary didn’t count against the cap, probably because of the “top 51” rule.) He will probably again only be signed if the team is in an emergency on the line due to injuries.

GUARDS

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Larry Warford 27 $3,800,000 $9,000,000 2020
Andrus Peat 24 $3,107,317 $3,625,204 2018 (TO for 2019)
Senio Kelemete 28 $1,750,000 N/A Free Agent
Cameron Tom 23 $273,529 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
Landon Turner 25 $122,400 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
John Fullington 27 $27,353 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
Nate Theaker 24 $0* $480,000 2018 (ERFA)

New Signings for 2018

Player Age 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Andrew Tiller 29 $790,000 2018

Warford was the Saints’ biggest free-agent signing of 2017, and in return for a player who had fallen out of favor in Detroit after a strong start to his career, the Saints got a Pro Bowl performance that filled in what was potentially the biggest question mark on the line after the team released eleven-year starter Jahri Evans. There’s no reason to think anything will change there; his cap number increases significantly due to his contract’s structure, but he’s not going anywhere.

Andrus Peat is a more interesting question. Drafted #13 overall in 2015, with the hopes his length and kick-step would make him a quality tackle, Peat instead showed difficulty playing on the right side and had to move inside to left guard, with Armstead entrenched at left tackle. He’s been a solid starter at the position, but he also broke his fibula in the Wild Card game against Carolina, which sets up some difficult questions for the future. The Saints will have to decide whether to exercise Peat’s fifth-year option, and Peat’s recovery from injury will play a significant factor in that decision, as will the fact that the NFL considers all offensive linemen for the average salary in that option, not just guards (who are less expensive than tackles, on the whole). If the Saints decline their option, finding a starter for 2019 and beyond takes on paramount importance.

Senio Kelemete could potentially be that option; the versatile swing lineman filled in at both guard positions and right tackle during the season, most commonly moving to left guard when Peat had to move to left tackle. He’s a free agent now, however, and while it would be a great benefit for the Saints to have him back in the same role, another team may want to pay him starter money, and that’s going to be tough to match.

The rest of the players listed are developmental and practice-squad players. Cameron Tom spent a fair amount of time on the active roster this season, though as far as I can tell he never played a snap. Landon Turner was a guard prospect I found intriguing in 2016 and was surprised he went undrafted, but he still hasn’t cracked the active roster.

Andrew Tiller was originally drafted by the Saints in 2012 and has bounced around the fringes of the league. They signed him to a futures contract in January.

CENTERS

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Max Unger 32 $8,000,000 $8,700,000 2019
Josh LeRibeus 29 $775,000 N/A Free Agent
Jack Allen 25 $363,000 N/A Free Agent (ERFA)
Gabe Ikard 27 $14,400 $630,000 2018 (RFA)

Max Unger continued his typically strong play in 2017; his age may become a concern soon, but he’s signed for two more years. He should still be a sturdy starter through the life of his deal, and I wouldn’t make any panic moves there unless he seriously falls off a cliff.

Josh LeRibeus filled in as a sixth offensive lineman on a number of plays; it’s not clear if the Saints intend to bring him back or not. Jack Allen is another guy I liked coming out of college, who went undrafted because he’s “undersized.” He was injured in the preseason and the Saints waived/injured him, reverting to IR when no one claimed him. (Hence why he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent rather than under contract again.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints bring him back, and I even think there’s a chance he could be an option at center if Unger falls off or just when his contract runs out. Gabe Ikard was a late addition to the practice squad last season.

Again, there’s not much to discuss with the offensive line. Senio Kelemete and Josh LeRibeus are free agents, but if the Saints can’t bring them back, other options are out there on the free-agent market for depth, such as the Giants’ Justin Pugh. The starters are all locked in for at least two more years if the team picks up Peat’s fifth-year option, so analyzing what they might do this offseason is pretty dull. “Nothing much” is the most likely scenario.

Next week: The defensive line.

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