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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes with the help of blockers offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71), center Max Unger (60), running back Mark Ingram (22) and offensive tackle Andrus Peat (75) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

It was somewhat of a surprise that it took until the last minute for a member of the Saints’ offensive line to get an invite to the Pro Bowl.

The exploits of the running backs and Drew Brees’ prowess were the result of their ability and acumen, but credit also goes to the offensive line. Take a look at any one of the highlight plays of Alvin Kamara catching a screen pass and making guys miss. Somewhere in the clip, you’ll see Andrus Peat or Terron Armstead or Max Unger getting into the second level and helping clear the way.

So, it took longer than it should have, but the league righted a wrong when it extended a late invitation to guard Larry Warford to join the rest of the league’s elite in Orlando for the Pro Bowl. It was long overdue.

But it was also perhaps the result of the league viewing the whole being stronger than the parts.

That’s not to say there aren’t extremely talented players on the line. Terron Armstead, who played most of the season on one leg due to a hip injury, had moments when he looked elite when everything was working for him. Warford proved worth the big contract he signed this offseason. Center Max Unger has been a Pro Bowler before. Rookie Ryan Ramczyk was as important as any player in this draft class. And Andrus Peat has become a solid starter.

But those players don’t receive the same hype as other guys around the league. Pro Football Focus, which shapes the conversations fans have about players as much as anyone, wasn’t as bullish on the individuals on the line as the players in the locker room and locals who analyze the team. The outlet graded Armstead and Warford as average players. Unger and Peat scored below average. Only Ramczyk received a positive grade.

The take here is that New Orleans has five guys on the line it can lean on and that the group was one of the strengths of the team. The sixth guy on the line, Senio Kelemete, looked like a bonafide starter and might end up being paid like one this offseason.

And while the opinions here on the individuals might differ some from Pro Football Focus, the outlet does agree about the overall strength. Their metrics graded the Saints as the best pass-blocking line in the league.

Hyped up or not, the group is for the foreseeable future.

Outlook

Things are looking good here for the Saints.

All five starters are under contract for next season. The only real question is if Zach Strief will return for another season. He said after the season that he was contemplating retirement and hadn’t yet determined his future.

Bringing him back would give New Orleans a swing tackle – whether it be Ramczyk or Strief as the top reserve – which would help in the event of an injury. If Strief doesn’t come back, this could be an area the team looks to address.

The line should continue to be a strength for the Saints.

Burning issue

New Orleans will likely have trouble retaining Kelemete.

A borderline starter last season due to injuries, the versatile offensive lineman is a free agent and will likely get the opportunity to start for another team. The Saints would like to keep him but probably won’t overextend for a backup.

That will take away some of the depth the team enjoyed and leaned upon, last season. New Orleans will need to find another high-level player to serve in that role if Kelemete walks.

Leading the way

Further proof the offensive line played a role in the success of the running game: Among players with 70 or more carries behind zone blocking schemes, Alvin Kamara led the league by averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

The figure was a full yard higher than anyone else in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Draft priority

New Orleans could justify selecting either a tackle or a guard. As we saw last season with the addition of Ramczyk, the perception of need might not end up being where the actual needs exist.


Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​