METAIRIE — Protecting Drew Brees’ $47.8 million blind side might be the most important job in Louisiana this fall. At least in the sports world, it’s certainly in contention.
But barring a late move, the Saints apparently have chosen to address the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears in free agency with these options:
1. A former second-round draft pick going into his fourth year with more games spent injured or inactive (27) than on the field (21).
2. A former No. 2 overall pick getting a final chance to escape the epic fail category.
3. A rookie third-round pick with off-the-chart measurables but whose primary college competition was in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
4. A solid eight-year veteran and team leader who would just as soon stay where he is.
5. A seventh-round pick from a year ago who spent 2012 on injured reserve.
“There’s certainly a chance there for somebody to step up,” said guard Ben Grubbs, who hosted most of his fellow offensive linemen plus several other teammates at his Ben Grubbs #66 Foundation charity softball game last week at Zephyr Field. “But everyone who’s a pro welcomes the competition. It’s your turn to get out there and prove what you can do.”
That’s certainly what options No. 1 (Charles Brown) and No. 3 (Terron Armstead) say they intend to do.
“I feel like my time has come, and I’m trying to get ready for it,” Brown said. “I can’t worry about what the team has done in the draft or signing anybody else. The only thing I can do is make sure I’m healthy and ready when the season comes around.”
Brown, who made two starts at right tackle last season before being knocked out by a knee injury, apparently will get the first shot since coach Sean Payton has said he doesn’t see Armstead starting as a rookie.
But Armstead, who played at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and recently signed a four-year contract for a reported $2.86 million, respectfully disagreed.
“I told the coaches on the night they drafted me that I intend to come in and compete for starting spot,” he said. “I love the game of football, and I love being on the field.”
Option No. 2 (Jason Smith) could tell Brown and Armstead about missed opportunities.
Considered a sure thing coming out of Baylor in 2009, Smith did make 21 starts in three seasons with the St. Louis Rams when not dealing with concussions. But he was considered a poor pass protector and was released in early 2012. He spent last season with the New York Jets, with whom he appeared in 16 games — but only as a tackle-eligible lineman and third tight end. He’s no cinch to make the 53-man roster, much less contend for a starting spot.
That leaves No. 4 (Zach Strief) and No. 5 (Marcel Jones). Strief has been the starting right tackle for the past two seasons, and Jones, a seventh-round pick out of Nebraska in 2012, spent last season on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in the final preseason game.
“It’s something you have to be prepared for,” Strief said of the possibility of switching sides. “But I really don’t know if I ideally fit into that spot. If it came to me, I would not turn it down.”
Jones said he wasn’t sure how much he would have played last season had he been healthy, but since the team had to turn to since-released free agent William Robinson when Strief and backup Brice Harris were injured, he felt the opportunity would have been there.
“I missed being out on the field, but I learned all I could in meetings and film work,” he said. “My knee’s a lot stronger now, and I’m definitely in good shape.”
Despite Strief’s willingness to switch, Jones’ anxiousness to get on the field and Smith’s realization that this is probably his last shot, the starting spot should come down to Brown or Armstead. Brown said he has been frustrated by his inability to stay healthy, especially since he never missed a game in high school or at Southern California.
“It seems like everything has happened at once,” he said. “But I’ve really worked hard in my rehab, and I’m feeling healthy. All I can do is try to stay that way.”
Armstead went through the team’s rookie minicamp last weekend and said he felt it was a chance to show the coaching staff how quickly he can adapt.
“There’s tremendous attention to detail,” he said. “Every step, every move you make is so precise. But I thought it went well for me.”
Armstead added that he isn’t worried about the jump in competition.
“It was an adjustment from high school to college for me,” he said. “You just have to do it as quickly as possible. Right now, I’m really concentrating on learning my playbook.”
Armstead played at 320 pounds last season but said he is 10 pounds lighter now. He shot up the draft charts when he ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, the fastest ever for a tackle. He also has an impressive 34½-inch vertical leap.
“I work out all the time,” he said. “I’m not worried about staying in shape.”
Brown said he isn’t concerned about beating Armstead in a foot race but clearly knows the rookie will get a lot of attention.
“People talked about my speed when I got here,” he said. “It all comes down to who can do the best job of protecting Drew back there.”
Besides guarding Brees — whose $47.8 million in salary and endorsements ranked third among American athletes and tops among NFLers in 2012, according to Sports Illustrated — whoever is at left tackle also will be expected to help revitalize an erratic run game that ranked 25th in the NFL last year. The team also has a new offensive line coach in Bret Ingalls, who was in charge of the running backs for the past four years.
That, Strief said, makes for an interesting situation, especially at left tackle.
“Charles has always had the potential to be a player in this league, but he’s been unfortunate with injuries,” he said. “I haven’t seen too much of the rookie, but the coaches swear by his athleticism, and we’re going to do everything we can to pull him along with us.
“I don’t know who’s going to emerge, but someone will, and it’s going to be exciting to see it happen.”