The New Orleans Saints have a problem to solve.
Figuring out how to replace Mark Ingram, who is suspended the first four weeks of the season, isn't much of a puzzle. The main ingredients of the solution are fairly obvious. More Alvin Kamara, possibly more passing attempts, and some other running backs getting a few more touches.
But perhaps a big piece of the solution has been overlooked.
New Orleans fielded one of the better offensive lines in the NFL last season. Ingram and Kamara changed the identity of the offense by being among the best players at their position, but the line led the way for those guys. And here’s the thing: The Saints fielded their starting offensive line (counting both Ryan Ramczyk and Zach Strief at right tackle) on around 350 snaps last season.
Now imagine a season in which the line group stays healthy for more than a few weeks at a time. More specifically, imagine a world in which a healthy Terron Armstead lines up at left tackle for most of the season.
“He’s the best tackle in football when he’s healthy,” Ingram said. “When he’s healthy, and he’s out there, and he can bring his 'A' game to the table, his presence is felt.”
When you start digging into the numbers, it becomes clear where his presence was most impactful.
The screen was a vital part of the Saints' offense last season. They threw just 49 screens in 2016, but their number shot up to 85 last year — 60 of those going to Kamara and Ingram. It was a successful play for Drew Brees. He connected on 77 attempts for 618 yards (7.3 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns, according to Sports Info Solutions.
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But Armstead, who probably was never fully healthy last season, helped turn the play into something deadly. With him on the field, New Orleans attempted 53 screens and gained 8.7 yards per attempt. Without him, the team averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, according to Sports Info Solutions. Whether this means something or not, it’s also interesting to note that each screen with Armstead on the field started 4½ yards behind the line of scrimmage as opposed to 4 yards without him.
The reasons for success are all over the film. There’s the 13-yard screen against the Panthers in the playoffs where Armstead is leading the way and another one against the Falcons. Pick any game where he was on the field, and you can spot Armstead making a play in the screen game. And the crazy thing is, even though he was getting down the field, you can see Armstead limping after most of the plays are whistled dead.
Now imagine what that might look if Armstead is healthy. Don't forget — this is a guy who once ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash. If he can get back to that, the possibilities are endless.
"When he's healthy, he's one of the better left tackles in the game, in my opinion,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said. “When you can put a guy in that position and count on him doing his work on a consistent level, that helps immensely. And really, he's a pretty good run blocker. He gets an awful lot of credit for what he does in his sets and stuff like that, but he can do a lot of good things in the run game. Hopefully, he'll continue to grow and improve, because I think the ceiling's high."
Interestingly, New Orleans didn’t change its approach much when Armstead was out of action last year (284 running snaps with him; 206 without). The success rate changed, though not as drastically as in the screen game. The Saints ran 22 times to the left outside and had 50 off-tackle runs to the left side with Armstead at left tackle for an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Those numbers came in at 22 and 36, respectively, with him sidelined, for an average of 4.7 yards per carry, according to Sports Info Solutions.
It seems reasonable to expect Kamara to take on a more prominent role next year, though the directions the team runs will likely remain the same. He averaged about seven carries per game last season, while Ingram averaged 14. With Ingram out, Kamara might pick up something like five more attempts per game. That means Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, Boston Scott or possibly a veteran newcomer will take on the rest.
There could be a dip without Ingram on the field, but the veteran back expects the line to pave the way for whoever is out there.
“Our offensive line is a strong point. It’s the strength of our team,” Ingram said. “The guys are going to do their thing. They’re paving the for the RBs and for Drew to pass for a lot of yards. They’re the heart of our offense. They’re going to make the thing go like they always do.”
The question is, will Armstead be healthy? After spending the past few years meeting with different doctors and trainers, he believes he pieced together a plan that will work for him. He’s not quite where he wants to be, but “by training camp, I should be good. Two thumbs up,” Armstead says.
The Saints believe the same thing. Roushar said that this is the best Armstead has looked during minicamp in a few years. But the coaching staff is trying to work with him to shake off some habits Armstead formed while compensating for his injuries.
“One thing we've really tried to harp on, and we haven't seen it as consistently as we want, the use of his hands and using his left side to be stronger,” Roushar said. “He's such a fluid athlete, but he's relied on his feet through injury the last couple of years, more so than working with putting all those components together.
“So, like (Wednesday), he came off after our two-minute, and he said, out of every set, he felt like every one was really good except one. He's aware of it, and he's working on it, and we've just got to continue to show it to him on film when it's good and acknowledge when it's not."
Once all those things come together, paired with health, Armstead has a chance to make everyone drop the “when healthy” qualifier when they talk about his standing in the game.
If he can make that happen, getting through the first four weeks without Ingram will be a whole lot easier.