Maybe it’s the cynic in me but every time training camp starts I immediately worry about the starters that won’t make it through and healthy coming into week 1 of the regular season. Kenyon Coleman, Will Smith, Victor Butler and Joseph Morgan were a few that had things end for them in 2013 before they ever got started and unfortunately the team had big plans for each of those players coming in. This topic was worthy of a blog post in my estimation because I feel like I’ve been getting asked this question a lot lately. It usually goes something like “which position (or player) can the Saints least afford to lose?”. A question like this always needs to come with what I call the “Drew Brees disclaimer”. It’s assumed the team cannot afford to lose him and no Brees clearly means no playoffs under almost any scenario. I think we can all agree on that. So besides him, who is most valuable?
This question has more than a value layer, though. I think this question could be phrased just as easily as “where do the Saints have the least amount of depth” and it would add up to essentially mean the same thing. You see the value of a player is significant, but if he’s got a guy behind him that can step in and produce at the same level then the impact of the loss is not felt. Look what replacing Coleman with Akiem Hicks or Smith with Junior Galette did. Those were net positives, and if anything the injuries may even be viewed as blessings in disguise. Conversely, a player of lesser ability might have a backup behind him that’s a complete liability. For example, I look at the games Jahri Evans missed last year and how Tim Lelito filled in as his replacement. That would make the starter’s injury a bigger impact on the team as a whole. The Evans injury isn’t a great example because we view him as one of the team’s best players. David Hawthorne’s injuries in 2012 might be a better example. He’s not the team’s best player, but the drop off at linebacker that year was big.
I think Jimmy Graham clearly belongs in this discussion. Nothing against Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill, who I think are capable players that could hold things down in their own right if Graham wasn’t out for an extended time, but I think the drop off in potential, mismatches and production would be felt. Beyond Graham, though, I keep going back to the “offensive line” as a group. So for me it’s not really one position on the line more so than the group as a whole that really can’t afford to sustain injuries.
Last year the line grossly underproduced. The last few games suggested the unit was trending upward, but even if you feel good about the starters depth remains a major concern. Terron Armstead is still a bit of an unknown, and you could argue that the other starters in Zach Strief, Ben Grubbs, Jahri Evans and Jonathan Goodwin are all past their prime. That’s not to throw any of those guys under the bus, they are all still productive players that when healthy have shown they will produce. Behind them, though, you’ve got Tim Lelito who was eaten alive against the Cardinals and just ok against the Falcons. You have Bryce Harris who has looked good in preseason games and very mediocre in regular season games. The good old days of having guys like Goodwin, Strief and Jamar Nesbit as your backups are gone.
An injury to Armstead would be devastating in my opinion. Does Strief move to left tackle? Does Harris play there as the replacement? Do the Saints give Tavon Rooks a shot at that point? It simply just can’t happen. But I hesitate to list that as more serious than a Jahri Evans injury because we saw what Evans being absent for two weeks did to the Saints’ offense last year. The reality is until proven otherwise, I’m by far most uneasy about the depth along the offensive line. Harris and Lelito are the primary backups at this point, and behind them no one has really emerged yet.
In my mind if the Saints are going to get a lot of good fortunate at a position injury wise, I’ll take the guys up front. Do you agree?