A shortage of an essential NFL commodity has left team after team in shambles this season, frustrated that the supply is no longer coming close to meeting the demand.
Finding a good offensive lineman feels harder than ever.
Finding the necessary five to get an offense going has become an elusive target, one that has become so hard to hit that the quality of offensive line play has fallen across the league. It's a trend acknowledged by everyone from current general managers to national media outlets.
National publications like The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Sports on Earth and The Ringer have written about the NFL's offensive line crisis this season. Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian told Sirius XM Radio in September that the NFL's current offensive line play was the worst he could remember.
"There's just a dearth at the position," said Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider in February at the NFL scouting combine. "There has been for a number of years now."
Two reasons are commonly cited for the drop-off in available talent. College football's spread offenses, built on simplicity and two-point stances, leave offensive linemen ill-prepared for NFL schemes, and the CBA's rules limiting contact in practices leave coaches without enough time to develop young linemen. The latter reason is cited by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, among others.
With so few capable offensive linemen available, the inevitable attrition that comes with a 16-game NFL season leaves many teams scrambling to reach the same level of play without the players who set the standard in the first place.
"Impossible," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said, then paused for a beat before continuing. "Next to impossible."
Koetter's opponent Sunday has been the exception to the rule.
Injuries have hit the New Orleans Saints hard on the offensive line this season.
Veteran center Max Unger missed most of training camp after undergoing Lisfranc surgery on his foot. Left tackle Terron Armstead, the team's highest-paid offensive linemen, missed the first four games while recovering from a torn labrum suffered during June's mandatory minicamp.
Veteran right tackle Zach Strief has played just 83 snaps because of knee injuries suffered in the season opener and in his first game back against Miami. Right guard Larry Warford, the Saints' big-ticket free-agent signing on offense, suffered an abdominal strain against Green Bay that kept him out of last Sunday's win over the Bears and will keep him out of Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
New Orleans has started four offensive line combinations in the season's first seven weeks.
Still, the Saints offensive line has been one of the NFL's best. New Orleans has allowed a league-low seven sacks, just one per game, and paved the way for a rushing attack that ranks 12th in the NFL at 4.2 yards per carry.
"We’re fortunate that we have guys that have been in a system like this and know what they’re doing and are able to step up and play, and not have a fall-off in production," said Unger, who returned in time to start the season opener.
Fortune might have something to do with the Saints' ability to mix and match.
Design probably deserves most of the credit. New Orleans has invested heavily in the offensive line the past three seasons, and the Saints are reaping the rewards.
"We feel like that position group can permeate your whole team," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Fortunately, the depth that we’ve received, certainly from the draft and the younger guys that weren’t drafted, has allowed us some flexibility with some injuries."
Different ways to build
New Orleans built the offensive line that powered the Saints to the Super Bowl in 2009 by mining the final day of the draft for gems. Jahri Evans and Jermon Bushrod were fourth-rounders from small schools; Carl Nicks dropped all the way to the fifth.
But the lack of offensive line depth available in recent drafts — only two offensive linemen were selected in the first round of April's draft, the fewest since 1965 — has made that approach more difficult, although the Green Bay Packers' starting offensive line was built mostly in the same manner.
Building a great offensive line now often requires a pricier initial investment. Dallas, widely considered one of the NFL's best, used three first-round draft picks in four years to build its line. Oakland spent big money in free agency to protect quarterback Derek Carr with established stars.
New Orleans has built its offensive line using a combination of the draft and free agency. Both required the Saints to pay a heavy price to land talent.
“We’ve spent," running back Mark Ingram said. "We’ve had two first-round picks in (Andrus) Peat and (Ryan) Ramczyk, we’ve had a big free-agent signing in Max, we’ve had a big free-agent signing in Larry. Terron (and) Strief end up getting hurt, but we’ve just got a talented group of guys."
Both Peat, drafted No. 13 out of Stanford in 2015, and Ramczyk, taken out of Wisconsin with the No. 32 pick this year the Saints acquired from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks trade, came from college programs that still run pro-style offenses. That mitigates the learning curve most rookies face.
But the Saints also still work hard at developing talent on the offensive line.
Armstead, a third-round pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2013, was a freak athlete, a player with raw tools who developed into one of the NFL's best left tackles when healthy. A few offensive tackles with similar athleticism, like Lions tackle Greg Robinson, the Rams' No. 2 pick in 2014, have never learned the technique to go with their freakish physical gifts.
New Orleans also has developed depth from players who were unwanted elsewhere. Arizona cut Senio Kelemete at the end of his second training camp; he spent a season on the Saints' practice squad and then became one of the league's most versatile backups, a sixth offensive lineman who is capable of playing any position on the line.
Kelemete isn't the only one. Undrafted free agent Tim Lelito failed to take the starting job at left guard during his time in New Orleans, but he had value as a spot starter on the interior. New Orleans is currently carrying one undrafted free agent, center Cameron Tom, on the active roster to keep other teams from claiming him, and the Saints have two former undrafted linemen, guard Landon Turner and John Fullington — another player with positional versatility — on the practice squad.
"There are certain traits you look for in a developmental offensive lineman," Payton said. "Do they love the weight room? Are they smart? Are they smart enough to see the vision, two, three years down the road?"
Foresight and flexibility
New Orleans also had the foresight to draft offensive linemen when no one else saw a need on the Saints' roster.
The selections of both Peat and Ramczyk were met with confusion from fans and NFL analysts alike, mainly because New Orleans already had Armstead and Strief on the roster and the Saints clearly needed help on defense.
Initially, the vision for both players was that they would develop and eventually take over for Strief at right tackle, but circumstances dictated that they fill other gaps. Peat, who had trouble transitioning to the right side, eventually found a home at left guard, a position of need.
Ramczyk, on the other hand, ended up being a godsend when the Saints lost Armstead during the summer and Strief at the start of the season.
"There’s a handful of things that have gone right in that regard," Payton said. "The selection of Ramczyk, I think, was significant because of the flexibility he gave us at tackle."
Many rookies struggle to make the transition to the NFL right away, but Ramczyk has played all 467 offensive snaps so far, shifting back and forth from left to right like a seasoned veteran.
Ramczyk, whose uncommon adjustment came even though he sat out summer workouts as he recovered from January hip surgery, is quick to point out there's a lot he can improve.
"I’ve heard that it’s tough to play offensive lineman as a rookie, but I didn’t really take anything to heart, I guess," Ramczyk said. "It was kind of like when I transferred to Wisconsin: I was just going to go see what I can do, give it my all and do my best, and I think I’ve played fairly well so far."
Flexibility has been the key to the Saints handling so many injuries so far this season.
In addition to Ramczyk, Peat is still capable of playing tackle, and he started two games on the left side while Armstead and Strief were both out of action.
Then there's Kelemete, who has already played left guard, right guard and right tackle.
"The amount of talent we have in the building, it’s amazing," Armstead said. "You take a guy like Senio, who can start on any team in this league. We have the luxury of having him come in and play; he really is a starter."
Versatility is built into the Saints' line. Even Unger, a center in the NFL, played left tackle in college at Oregon, and when injuries force New Orleans to shuffle the lineup, the group senses it can keep clicking.
"As a group, we’re really unselfish," Kelemete said. "To have guys be able to just swing out to left tackle, right tackle, go from guard to tackle, or just come in a game at a crucial time and be able to seal it, that just shows the camaraderie that we’ve built."
Keeping a line like the Saints have assembled together in the age of free agency is no easy task; the lack of talented available offensive linemen elsewhere drives the price up for any blocker close to the end of his contract.
New Orleans has a chance to keep its current starters together for at least the next two seasons if the Saints pick up the fifth-year option on Peat's rookie contract.
Kelemete will be a free agent in the offseason and could earn a starter's chance on the open market, especially if he catches somebody's eye while filling in for Warford, who is battling an abdominal strain. Strief is on injured reserve and has been open about potentially nearing the end of his career.
But the bottom line is that the Saints have a chance to build some continuity at a position where most other teams are simply trying to stay afloat. Even when a player goes down, the next man up is often somebody who's been a part of the New Orleans line for years.
"You want to play next to a guy and get real comfortable," Armstead said. "Me and Peat, we’ve been playing together three weeks (in the same positions) now, and I feel like we’re getting more and more comfort with each other, and that’s a luxury every team doesn’t have. We have been blessed to have it."
Blessed in some ways.
But also by design.