Middle of Saints offensive line key to success

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — When the Chicago Bears began rebuilding their offensive line last season, they took a hard look around the league and decided to follow the blueprint laid out by the New Orleans Saints.

While many teams around the NFL look to build from the outside in — spending heavily at tackle while going cheaper at the interior positions — the Saints appeared to place a higher premium on interior linemen than other teams.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was one of the men behind Chicago’s change in philosophy.

Before joining the Bears in 2013, he watched the Saints line operate for five seasons, including three as offensive line coach, while serving as an assistant coach in New Orleans.

“We feel protection starts from the inside out,” Kromer told the Chicago Tribune after the Bears selected guard Kyle Long in the first round of the 2013 draft. “With the Saints, we really felt we needed to keep the interior part of the offensive line at the line of scrimmage in protection, so we put a big emphasis on our guard position to do that. We feel the same way here.”

There is no question that the Saints’ offensive line is strongest in the middle.

Right guard Jahri Evans has been a first-team All-Pro four times, and left guard Ben Grubbs has been to two Pro Bowls.

Together they form one of the best guard tandems in the NFL.

But the plan in New Orleans was never to build the line from the inside out. The Saints acquired Evans in a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, along with defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. It was not known at the time that Evans would develop into one of the best guards in the NFL.

Grubbs came to New Orleans in 2012 on a five-year, $36 million deal after spending the previous five seasons with the Baltimore Ravens to take the place of Carl Nicks, a 2011 first-team All-Pro who was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.

In all, the Saints have $20.1 million of their cap committed to Evans and Grubbs. Starting tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead count $2.7 million against the cap. A conscious effort has been made to allocate money in this manner, but it wasn’t mapped out like this years ago when New Orleans began assembling the pieces of its line.

“That is the way it turned out,” General Manager Mickey Loomis said, “because we have two of the best guards in football.”

Even if this model came together through happenstance, it works for the Saints. And the signing of Grubbs further illustrates the team’s commitment to keeping the middle of the line strong.

At 6 feet, Drew Brees is shorter than most quarterbacks, and having men in his face could create issues in the passing game that his taller counterpoints do not face. A breakdown of his numbers further illustrates this point.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brees completed 49 percent of his passes when facing pressure from left guard, 50 percent from center, and 52 percent from right guard last season. When pressure came from tackles, he completed 59 percent (left) and 53 percent (right) of his passes.

Brees completed 72 percent of his passes when provided a clean pocket.

“He’d better have the guards protect him in the pocket, and that’s what they do,” ESPN’s John Clayton said during a recent visit to Saints’ camp. “It’s like ‘OK, what do I do to get the most out of Brees? Do I protect him from the outside or from the inside to keep people away form his feet?’ So that’s why they will pay more for a guard than they do for a tackle, because Drew is so good at moving up in the pocket, you look to protect his feet first.”

The allocation of how money spent across the offensive line will not likely change in the near future. But that does not mean a vast disparity in talent between the inside of the line and the outside exists.

Last offseason the Saints re-signed right tackle Zach Strief to a back-loaded five-year, $20 million contract. The payouts increase in future seasons, but the deal could look like a bargain in a few years since Strief was one of the better right tackles in the NFL last season.

The same could soon be true at left tackle, where Terron Armstead, a once raw 2013 third-round pick, is starting to show signs of polish.

“I feel like, in my humble opinion, he has the best feet out of any tackle,” linebacker Junior Galette said. “He had the fastest 40-yard dash (time) at the (2013 NFL Scouting) combine. Going into my fifth year in the league, he has the best feet by far.”

So yes, it just so happens the Saints have two of the best guards in the NFL, but it has not come at the detriment of the tackles.

New Orleans doesn’t want to settle for being strong in the middle. The goal for Loomis is to remain strong across all five spots — even if there is a little more invested in protecting Brees’ feet.