In many ways this is the most controversial unit on the team. While PFF (they of dubious merit in many instances) had the Saints ranked as the third best offensive line last year, the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. There is a reason they had that ranking though, and it lies in the difference between ‘players and units’. The offensive line more than any other group has to become a single cohesive unit. The Saints never really did due to a myriad of reasons. Be it injury, age, a bit of both, or simply talent the Saints offensive line was a liability for most of the season. It wasn’t that they were consistently bad, just that they were as a whole rarely ever actually good. Groups like PFF have a very hard job in trying to statistically quantify something that can’t be broken down into simple numbers. Part of this process is to grade each individual player and do so on a play by play basis. The issue that really crippled the Saints line this year was that with the exception of two players there was never anyone who was consistently positive (or even neutral)…they all took turns sucking. The Saints line as a unit gets a C-, and not only because of Armstead and Unger, however the individual grades will be a little more lenient.
Let’s take a look:
Zach Strief: B-
I can just about guarantee that several Saints fans are going to disagree with this grade, and quite passionately at that. I get it, he almost killed Drew on a number of occasions, got made a fool of throughout the season, and was so bad against HOU that JJ Watt flat out said “you guys need a new tackle”. All of that is 100% true, however it is also true that with the EXCEPTION of those awful plays (and one bad game) Strief was mostly a positive and one of the team’s better run blockers. In my opinion Zach’s time as a starter is DONE, but I would absolutely keep him as the back up tackle because he is still generally an effective player. Strief isn’t flashy, he never really has been, and there are the occasional plays where you wonder why he has a job. However, if I am grading his season as a whole he wasn’t the Saints worst offensive lineman, not even close.
Jahri Evans: D+
Why such a harsh grade you ask? Simply put Jahri had the unfortunate combination of many bad plays, and far fewer good ones. Evans wasn’t a disaster all the time, but was a true liability in the run game. He also suffered from mental lapses and poor technique (by his standard) all throughout the year. The bottom line is that for a player making what he makes and with his reputation for Jahri Evans to be barely above mediocre means a bad grade. I will fully admit I’m not an expert on the line, and if there are any of those among you feel free to correct me, but Evans was flat out awful in the run game this year. And unfortunately he gave up a lot of pressure as well which further brings down his grade. The degree of his mistakes might be lower than Zach’s, however the frequency was also MUCH higher. I’m not sure what the Saints are going to do with Evans this year, but in my opinion its pay cut….or cut (and that makes me sad).
Senio Kelemete: C
Senio was at times the worst linemen the Saints rolled out all season, and was also at times one of the better ones. A very up and down year for him to say the least, although mostly down, however his play in the final game of the year against the Falcons single-handedly brought his grade up to average. I do not like him as the team’s starter at any position, not one bit, however I love the idea of him being the back up. Why? Because Kelemete proved that he can play EVERY position on the offensive line effectively and that has tremendous value for a backup. I honestly believe he has the physical tools to be a pretty good player, but clearly whatever mental edge it takes to dominate in the trenches…he doesn’t have it.
Kelemete should be retained for the purposes of backing up the line, but if the Saints ever find themselves in the position where he’s slated to be the starter we can all start writing Drew’s eulogy right then. Kelemete really is an average player, and while that is poor for a starter its very good for a backup. He gets a C in my book because he has value, but its very limited.
Tim Lelito: B
Lelito had a very up and down season, but his incredibly strong finish to the year is what made me decide to give him a positive grade. That combined with the fact he still has room to grow and my belief that the bulk of his issues stem from the mental side of the game rather than the physical I’m higher on him than some. I think if Lelito is the ONLY weak link on the offensive line the Saints are more than capable of compensating, especially considering who he plays between. However, with Jahri being a weak link as well and also deteriorating physically I believe that Lelito’s struggles were magnified. It is less that I expect him to be an above average starter for the team and more that I think he CAN be an average one. Lelito still has value in that he has displayed reasonable competence and should be able to stay at a very low rate. If however he is able to consistently be the player he was the last few games of the season…then he may be an asset for the future afterall only time will tell.
Andrus Peat: A-
This is the part where performance relative to expectations has a huge impact on grade. Andrus Peat was in no way an A player on any absolute grading metric. However, he was also a rookie who played in some very adverse circumstances, and his grade reflects that. Peat gave the Saints some very good snaps at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle. That is 3 positions. Clearly he was the best at left tackle and the worst at guard, with one being his most comfortable position and the other being totally new to him. Still Peat showed flashes of the tremendous physical gifts that got him drafted 13th overall and at times looked like a nearly dominant player. For a rookie having to play multiple positions without the stability around him to promote success that is impressive. Hindsight is often generous, but looking back Andrus Peat was definitely a great draft pick for the Saints in my opinion.
Terron Armstead: A+
What grade do you give a player who went through almost an entire season on one leg and was still top 5 in the entire league at his position? An A+ and your day is done. Terron Armstead was nothing short of phenomenal last year. Not only did he display tremendous toughness by gutting out an obviously debilitiating injury, but he also showed what makes him such a special player and cornerstone for the team’s future. Armstead is known for his jaw dropping athleticism at his size, but what is truly special about him is his respect for the game and how he prepares himself. It doesn’t matter what kind of ‘freak’ athlete you are, when you’re hurt…you’re hurt.
Why then was Armstead able to be so resilient and maintain his dominance in the face of such adversity? Because he has refined his technique to the point where it can save him when his body fails. Armstead has the kind of talent that many players just coast on, but he isn’t satsified with ‘pretty good’, he’s only interested in great and that is what he has become. I don’t feel at gun shy in saying that after Drew Brees Terron Armstead is the Saints best player, and it isn’t close. A tremendous person, leader, athlete, and professional. The Saints need to extend him, and they need to do it now. Armstead is a HUGE part of this team’s future, and he has earned every thing he will get.