I wrap up my offseason look at the Saints' offensive units by taking a look at the offensive line. Offensive linemen are often the most anonymous, but most important, players on the team. A team can have a lot of potential firepower wasted if it doesn't have a good wall of blockers.
A Look Back at 2008
The Saints entered 2008 returning four of their five starters from 2007. Center Jeff Faine left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers via free agency. Jonathan Goodwin, who had started two games in Faine's place, stepped in as the full-time starter.Goodwin struggled in coordinating the snap with Drew Brees early in the season, but seemed to get a handle of the situation as the season progressed.
In April, the Saints drafted Carl Nicks in the fourth round. Nicks played a much larger role for the Saints than originally anticipated. Starting left guard Jamar Nesbit was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Nicks took his place in week four and has started every game since.
Left tackle Jamaal Brown is the Saints' most decorated lineman. Brown made his second Pro Bowl in four NFL seasons.
New Orleans' lineman have received a lot of credit over the past three years for protecting Drew Brees. While they do deserve some of the credit, many of their weaknesses are masked by the quickness in which Drew Brees gets rid of the ball.
The Saints' linemen, particularly the tackles, struggled against the league's better pass rushers. Carolina's Julius Peppers and Atlanta's John Abraham were among some pass rushers to give the Saints offense fits.
The Saints' line has received mixed reviews as run blockers. While Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush each managed less than four yards-per-carry, Pierre Thomas did plow for nearly five years a pop.
I would characterize the Saints' offensive line more as a finesse line than a power line. While Jahri Evans, whom many coaches have regarded as the team's best lineman, can be considered a real road-grader, no one else on the team has earned that status yet.
The Saints blew a nine-point lead against the Washington Redskins. Had they been able to convert a third and short, they could have closed out the game and prevented the Redskins from scoring the winning points.
This was a big part of the story for the Saints in 2008.
The Saints were 3-6 in games decided by seven points or less. Often times the Saints could not continue a crucial fourth quarter drive by converting a third and short.
Teams that have power offensive lines can run the ball successfully when they have to and when the opposing defense knows they're going to run.
Much of the Saints' success running the ball came on draw plays, or when the Saints ran the ball just to keep the pass rush honest.
A Look Forward to 2009
As many Saints fans know by now, the Saints have a dire cap situation. They are $4.6 million over the cap.
Jon Stinchcomb and Evans are free agents. The Saints will have the first chance to re-sign Evans because he is a restricted free agent.
I expect the Saints to ask Nesbit to restructure his contract or face his release. Nesbit is scheduled to make nearly $2 million and will be relegated to a reserve role for New Orleans in 2009.
Zach Strief, the Saints' top backup offensive lineman, is also a free agent and should be re-signed. He played in all 16 games for the Saints and started one game in place of Jamaal Brown. If Stinchcomb is not re-signed, he could slide into the starting right tackle spot.
Normally, I like when the Saints spend a mid-round pick on a lineman to build depth and develop a future starter. The Saints are going to have to seek help in free agency because of their dearth of draft picks and glaring needs on defense.
I am a firm believer that you must have a solid offensive line in order to expect to make the playoffs. A team usually needs seven or eight quality offensive linemen just to make it through the season.
While it is too far away to really know now, I think the Saints will open camp with Brown, Nicks, Goodwin, Evans, and Strief as the starters with Jermon Bushrod and Nesbit as the top reserves.