When the Saints open training camp in late July, all the concerns about the offensive line will focus on the lack of a proven center.
That speaks volumes about the performance of left tackle Terron Armstead (6-foot-5, 305 pounds), a 2013 third-round draft pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff who enters his second year with only four starts at one of the most pivotal positions on any team. He protects quarterback Drew Brees’ blindside, but his rapid improvement after a late-season promotion was readily apparent.
Armstead chased his competition out of New Orleans. The Saints did not try to re-sign Charles Brown, who started the first 14 games before getting benched in Week 15 during a rough day against All-Pro pass rusher Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams.
Brown went to the New York Giants as a free agent. Aside from Armstead and starting right tackle Zach Strief, the only tackle on the roster with appreciable experience is third-year undrafted free agent Bryce Harris, who started once in place of an injured Strief a year ago and is more comfortable on the right side than the left side.
“I see the coaches have some confidence in me,” Armstead said Tuesday before taking part in fellow Saints offensive lineman Ben Grubbs’ charity softball game at Zephyr Field to benefit local Boys and Girls. “It’s huge to know that I’m their guy, but I still have a lot to prove and a lot to work on, which I’ve been doing this offseason.”
The Saints trust Armstead even though he had a rocky first start at Carolina. He was responsible for at least two of a season-high six sacks on Brees as well as committing two false-start penalties in a 17-13 loss that kept the Saints from winning the NFC South. Immediately, questions arose about his readiness for elite competition.
In his next three games, though, New Orleans allowed only four sacks and averaged 129.7 rushing yards.
“The first game was bumpy for him, but I knew what Armstead had,” said Grubbs, who starts next to him at left guard. “Just seeing him at practice when he first got to the Saints, I was like, ‘That guy is going to be a great player.’ When he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it. In the last three games he played lights out.”
Although the sample size was small, Strief said Armstead’s learning curve was large. Each experience benefitting him tremendously, including the frustration of getting dominated by Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy.
Strief lumped in Armstead with potential first-team center Tim Lelito, an undrafted free agent in 2013 who started twice at guard for an injured Jahri Evans.
“Last year was good for both of them,” Strief said. “Both of those guys came in and felt humbled a little bit. Both of them in their first starts had rough draws. They were able to get some experience but also both recognize how much work there is to do. If you go in and get a good draw and you play someone who’s not very good or hurt and you think all of a sudden I’m going to be an All-Pro next year because I played so well that one game. Both of those guys have come into this offseason with a real good drive knowing that there’s a lot of work to do.”
Unlike Lelito, Armstead does not have to prove he should start. The job is his. Now it’s just a matter of building on his brief success by getting better at his technique, learning from every repetition in practice and making sure he keeps Brees clean.
The difference between this summer and last summer is tremendous.
“Last year at this time, I was really just trying to find myself,” he said. “I wanted to start Week 1, but it was a learning process. This game is the best of the best. There are going to be some plays where you get beat. You have to have a snap-it-clear mentality, forget that play and get on to the next play.”
If it’s a running play, all the better. It was no coincidence the Saints ground game improved dramatically when he became a starter.
“We just got in a rhythm,” he said. “Run-blocking is one of my strengths. I love to run-block.”