When the Saints offensive linemen began working under coach Bret Ingalls for the first time during the 2013 offseason, things just felt awkward, right tackle Zach Strief said.
The line was trying stuff it hadn’t done under former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who had left for a job with the Chicago Bears, Strief explained. Noncontact drills at voluntary organized team activities and at a three-day minicamp early last summer gave them essentially no indication as to how the line was growing.
By the time the ensuing regular season hit its midway juncture, the answer to that question was obvious: painfully. Quarterback Drew Brees had been sacked 20 times through eight games, which was much more than usual; and the Saints had rushed a paltry 79.8 yards per outing.
But as they accumulated hours in practice and coach Sean Payton called more running plays each game, the ground attack developed teeth and averaged 112.8 rushing yards over the final 10 outings, including two playoff contests. The sacks on Brees somewhat slowed as a result — he was still taken down 20 times, yet that was spaced over 10 games.
Tuesday marked the start of the second minicamp in which the Saints offensive line was under Ingalls’ supervision. And Strief, some of his fellow lineman and their position coach were all too content to share their opinion that the place where they are beginning 2014 is much more preferable to where they were a year ago.
“There’s (technique-related) things we can work on now with the knowledge that we have and the experience we have and the system that you can work on without contact,” Strief said. “And that’s starting at a better area than we started last year, ... and hopefully we can elevate it to a higher place.”
Had Strief expressed anything other than confidence in improvement for the upcoming season, he might have become the first NFL player to ever do so at minicamp. However, there’s strong evidence his words are much more than standard-issue platitudes.
A prime example: nine-year veteran right guard Jahri Evans dealt with injuries in his back, hamstring and groin all in the first half of last season, he said Tuesday. That caused him to miss multiple practices and sit out the first game of his career (a hurt ankle would sideline him for another in Week 12).
Evans refused to blame the offensive line’s slow start in 2013 solely on his health. But, he conceded, “it didn’t help.”
The good news is Evans seemed in solid physical shape Tuesday. He had fully participated in drills with the first string that day and in OTAs open to the media on May 29 and June 5.
“He’s healthy,” Ingalls said of Evans, a four-time first-team All-Pro. “He looks good.”
Yet the possibility of having a healthier Evans isn’t the lone reason for optimism as the offensive line’s second year with Ingalls unfolds. There’s also the fact that the Saints managed to supply the unit with as much continuity as they could.
Three of the five offensive lineman starting at the end of the 2013 campaign — Evans, left guard Ben Grubbs and left tackle Terron Armstead — were already all under contract through 2016. But two — Strief and center Brian de la Puente — hit free agency this spring.
Strief signed a deal that keeps him under contract through 2018. Meanwhile, de la Puente, the starter at center since 2011, departed to Chicago on a one-year deal.
The Saints weren’t alarmed when de la Puente moved on. Interior lineman Tim Lelito, who as a rookie filled in for Evans in two wins, practiced at center all last year.
But an NFL offensive line can never have too much continuity, as Strief said Tuesday. So, to provide preseason competition for Lelito, in free agency the Saints nabbed Jonathan Goodwin, who was with New Orleans from 2006-10 and was a Pro Bowler the year New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV.
Goodwin spent the past three seasons starting at center in San Francisco, whose intricate running game finished ranked eighth, fourth and third from 2011-13. He has not played under Ingalls’ direct supervision but doesn’t expect a difficult adjustment, he said.
The general concepts and terminology are similar to his previous Saints stint; and he’s sure he can catch up quickly, especially because he no longer has to trouble himself with a scheme in San Francisco that featured a complicated read-option package for quarterback Colin Kaepernick which New Orleans won’t be running with Brees around.
Therefore, if all goes to plan, the Saints at center start either a player in his second year with Ingalls or one heading into his sixth with Payton, who arrived in New Orleans in 2006.
“Yes,” Ingalls said, “I like the (outlook).”