Sometimes facts are born from assumptions that are repeated and repeated until they become common knowledge.
Sometimes those assumptions are correct. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re a little bit of both.
When discussing how the New Orleans Saints build their offensive line, it’s a little bit of both.
If you’ve followed the Saints at all over the past decade, you’ve probably been lead to believe that the team builds its offensive line from the inside out, starting with the guards and centers and working toward the tackles.
This, of course, would run counter to how most teams build their line. On almost every team in every city, the tackles are the top priority, then the guards and centers. People believe the Saints work counter to that because of quarterback Drew Brees’ height and the way he likes to climb the pocket.
The general idea is that, because of Brees’ height, he needs a cleaner pocket to be able to see the field. He also needs room to navigate because of the way he moves around the pocket. The level of priority is born from the fact that Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs all used to collect sizable checks during their time in New Orleans while the tackles were usually cheaper.
The second point might be more of a coincidence than anything. It was the result of drafting and developing players who hit in the fourth and fifth rounds (Nicks and Evans), then the result of opportunity (Grubbs). The first point has more merit.
“I think it kind of happened,” coach Sean Payton said when asked whether he set out to build the line from the inside out in previous seasons. “We drafted Carl in the fifth round; he had position flexibility — tackle or guard. From that time to where we are at today, obviously, the throwing/passing element of the game is very important, and defenses are getting real good at try to disrupt that spot.”
That isn’t to say the interior offensive line isn’t important. It is. The Saints are entering their second consecutive season with some uncertainty in that area. Finding answers is one of the biggest keys to the season. But to say the interior was more or less important than another spot on the line is probably misguided.
If it were true, that would mean New Orleans would draft a lesser guard over a better tackle because that position would be more important here. Instead, the Saints have drafted tackles in the first round, even when it wasn’t an immediate need, and have never under Payton selected a guard higher than the third round.
The fact is that all five spots matter, probably to very similar degrees. Having tackles who can stop the best edge rushers is paramount to success, just like keeping the Aaron Donalds of the world from blowing up the middle of the line is important.
It’s also true that some teams might value the middle of the line a little more than other teams do. Brees likely does need more clearance than, say, a 6-foot-5 quarterback to see down the field clearly. And he does need space to operate in the pocket.
“The interior’s important for all of them,” Payton said. “Now, does it vary (how teams value it)? Maybe. The inside portion of your protection is critical. There are some quarterbacks that do not need as much space and others that do.
“Obviously early on here, we had Jahri and Carl who were real solid players. I’m sure we’ll have that handled by the time we get to the start of the season. If the defense can occupy that spot 21/2, 3 yards behind the center, then you’re going to be in trouble, regardless of the height of the quarterback.”
The Saints’ current state of the guard position is cause for concern. Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito have had good moments through the years, but it’s hard not to notice how New Orleans cycled through the spot opposite Evans last season and never settled on a permanent option.
Now, with Evans gone, those guys will compete with a bunch of undrafted players for the right to start. Two solid options need to step up and lock things down. There is more uncertainty here than any other position on the roster.
But there’s also a popular narrative that Brees needs two elite guards to enjoy success. That isn’t true. Grubbs and Evans were sent away the past two offseasons because the Saints felt they were at the end of their rope, yet the passing offense did not suffer much.
Brees took more hits than one might like playing behind interior linemen who were less than elite, but he was still able to get the ball down the field and put up his typical numbers.
With Grubbs and Evans starting in 2014, Brees passed for 4,952 yards on 69.2 percent passing in 16 games. Last season, with Evans and a rotating cast at guard, he passed for 4,870 yards on 68.3 percent passing in 15 games.
The Saints need good players at those guard spots, just like they need good players at every spot, but the level of need has been overstated by some.
There can’t be revolving doors at guard, just like there can’t be major leaks at tackle. The goal, as it has always been, will be to build the best possible line all the way across.