When the Tennessee Titans made Kalan Reed the Mr. Irrelevant of this year’s NFL draft two weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints still had one position group of need left on the board after a workmanlike offseason of additions through the draft and free agency.
New Orleans still needed an interior lineman — preferably a guard — after parting ways with longtime anchor Jahri Evans in February.
And every agent in the NFL knew it. With the phone lines hopping in the hours after the draft, New Orleans brought in six offensive linemen among its 19 initial undrafted free agents, including a trio of players whom most analysts projected to be drafted: North Carolina guard Landon Turner, Michigan State center Jack Allen and Auburn guard/tackle Avery Young.
“Hypothetically, if you draft a player at a certain position, let’s say you draft an offensive lineman, it is much harder when the draft ends in those phone conversations to convince the player and the agent,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “In our case where there is a need for an interior offensive lineman — the way the draft unfolded we did not draft one ... we had a plan in place, the draft ends and the attention really went to a group of offensive linemen.”
New Orleans has options at guard on the roster already. Tim Lelito started 13 games at guard in 2015, Senio Kelemete started four at right guard and 2015 top pick Andrus Peat made four starts on the interior last season. If the Saints need to, New Orleans could open up a three-way competition at the spot.
But the Saints could also use a guard to allow their returning trio to fit the roles best suited for them. Peat, a natural tackle, is expected to battle veteran Zach Strief for the starting job on the right side, and Kelemete’s versatility — he can play all five positions on the line — makes him the ideal swing player. With that in mind, the Saints are still on the lookout for an extra competitor at one of the guard spots flanking center Max Unger.
New Orleans hasn’t ruled out adding a veteran guard in the later stages of free agency, potentially after June 1.
“Obviously, we’re paying attention to the offensive linemen,” Payton said. “The focus is on this group.”
Turner, a 6-foot-4, 330-pounder with a reputation as a power player who needs to work on his pass protection, is probably the best-known of the group. Many draft analysts thought Turner would be picked as high as the fourth round.
“I went into the draft thinking anything can happen,” Turner said. “You have to. It’s a crazy league. Did I want to get drafted? Of course. Everyone wants to. But I had contingency plans with my agent in case I didn’t get drafted. That was kind of my whole attitude and thought process through the draft.”
When the draft ended, Turner had offers from only a couple of teams, and he chose the Saints because of the opportunity on the line.
“I knew what they needed, and I fit the bill for that,” Turner said. “I wanted to jump on it while I could.”
Turner worked exclusively at guard during the Saints’ rookie minicamp, but a lot of the other offensive linemen New Orleans signed have versatility to play multiple positions, a hallmark of the Saints’ developmental linemen over the past couple of seasons. Lelito, who went undrafted, played center and guard for the Saints before settling into the starting lineup, and Kelemete proved he can play any spot on the line last year, prompting New Orleans to re-sign him to a two-year contract.
Allen, a 6-1, 294-pounder whom most draft experts projected at center, opened his career at Michigan State as a guard, handled center duties and even filled in at left tackle as a senior.
“They’re lining us up all over. ... I like center,” Allen said. “You’ve got to know everything, you’ve got to make all the calls and I’m a fan of doing that kind of stuff.”
Young played tackle and guard at Auburn, moving back and forth as needed due to injury and availability. Boise State’s Marcus Henry played guard and center in his career for the Broncos, and Ryker Mathews lined up at tackle and guard at BYU. Even Joseph Cheek, who played right guard for Texas A&M, has the frame to kick out and fill in at tackle if need be.
All six have a shot at making the team. A year ago, New Orleans came out of the draft with a lack of numbers on the defensive line, and three undrafted free agents — Bobby Richardson, Kaleb Eulls and Tavaris Barnes, who is now in Seattle — made the 53-man roster and stayed there the entire season.
With the Saints, it doesn’t always matter much how a player was acquired. What matters is how a player performs on the practice field.
“Regardless of being drafted or undrafted, I’ve always been the scrappy, chip-on-my-shoulder kind of guy,” Allen said. “It’s nothing new to me.”