Brian Allee-Walsh

Saints tackling a 'changing of the guards'

By BRIAN ALLEE-WALSH

Columnist

CHRIS TILLEY/ASSOCIATED PRESS 
 New Orleans Saints Andrus Peat,(75) could see much more playing time at guard in his sophomore season in the NFL.
CHRIS TILLEY/ASSOCIATED PRESS New Orleans Saints Andrus Peat,(75) could see much more playing time at guard in his sophomore season in the NFL. AP

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints, who have been historically bad on defense the past few seasons, are tackling another potential problem area these days.

This one involves the changing of the guards on offense.

The process actually started four years ago when Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks vamoosed to Tampa Bay in March 2012. A day later Saints officials filled the void by signing free agent Ben Grubbs to a blockbuster 5-year, $36 million deal.

Then, in March 2015, the Saints dealt Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick.

And now four-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans is long gone after declining to restructure his contract for a second consecutive year.

So who will flank Saints center Max Unger this season? More importantly, who will help Unger provide interior pass protection for aging franchise quarterback Drew Brees?

The two likely starters at guard will come from a trio of unproven candidates -- Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito.

Keep in mind, Peat, the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft, played tackle at Stanford, though he also projected as a guard in the NFL. So, it seemed logical that he would step in at right tackle when veteran Zach Strief became expendable.

Apparently that time hasn't come yet.

Strief is preparing for his 11th season in New Orleans and Peat appears to be making the move to guard in his second season.

At season's end, I thought Strief would be gone and replaced by Peat, with GM Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton spending a mid-round draft pick on a guard in the draft.

I thought wrong.

Evans' unexpected departure may have altered their plans. But, Peat didn't exactly wow anyone in '15 as an injury replacement, perhaps ensuring a need to keep Strief on board.

So why all the fuss about the guards? Because in the Saints offense, guards perhaps are more vital to the overall success than tackles. Payton places great value on his interior linemen, especially in the passing game where it's essential to keep a clean pocket so the 6-foot Brees has clear passing lanes.

Don't take my word.

"The end rushers are not as big a concern to Drew as those who get immediate penetration right up the middle," well-respected NFL scout/analyst Russ Lande said. "It's always harder for a quarterback to move backwards and reset his feet when (interior rushers) get pushed into them. So the Saints need to be stout at center and guard. The interior linemen have to be quick out of their stance, aggressive with their hands and strong at the point of attack.

"In that offense you want those guards and center to be setting up quickly in terms of dealing with the games and stunts. They have to be able to get their hands on guys quickly so that they can stop that initial charge. You can't have a clean pocket unless you can stop that initial charge. It doesn't matter if Drew takes a three-, five-, or seven-step drop, he has to be able to see over the line.

"When Drew's in a deep drop," Lande continued, "he's athletic enough and has such a good feel for the pocket that he can step up and handle the wide rushes. It's a cakewalk for someone like Drew for sliding forward one step. But if the initial charge can get him off his point and make him move around, that's where he runs into trouble in terms of throwing."

The Saints will have to guard against that from happening this season.

Work begins in earnest with nine days of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) beginning next Tuesday and veterans minicamp (June 14-15-16).

Brian Allee-Walsh, a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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