METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints starting offensive line could be one of the strengths of the team this season.
It was one of the most effective in the NFL the last two seasons, maintaining a high level of play even when injuries necessitated some juggling within the unit.
“I love our O-line as a unit,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “People have seen over the last two years just how they work together and how at times that it mixes and matches with guys playing different positions – sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes for a longer period of time.
“They’re well-coached obviously. We all love our scheme and we feel like that allows us to do certain things and be very flexible.”
The Saints return four starters from last season — left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
But the line depth for this season remains a work in progress as the team approaches the mid-point of preseason preparations even as competition for the lone vacant starting position has yielded a front-runner.
One of the biggest off-season losses for the team came in the form of long-time center Max Unger retiring. Second-round draft choice Erik McCoy of Texas A&M has taken a lead over Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom and veteran free agent signee Nick Easton in the competition to assume Unger’s position.
McCoy was the only starting lineman to play more than one series in the preseason opener, a 34-25 loss to Minnesota last Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He played 28 snaps.
Head coach Sean Payton said he was “encouraged” by McCoy’s “pretty good” performance against the Vikings.
“I thought he functioned well,” Payton added. “There’s a handful of things technique wise that (the coaches) will work on. He’s a strong player and you saw that on his college tape and you’re beginning to see it now on this tape.”
Easton started at left guard against the Vikings as Peat was given the night off and played 15 snaps, but unless something unexpected happens, it appears likely that Armstead, Peat, McCoy, Warford and Ramczyk will start the season opener against Houston on Sept. 9 in the Superdome.
“There’s veterans both to the right and left (of center), guys that have played a lot,” Payton said. “The center is an important position. Max was a real good leader (and) a good communicator, and I think Erik can be the same.”
But the backup positions are still unclaimed, especially at tackle. Ulrick John was injured in the game and later placed on injured reserve.
“We had a couple guys get nicked up,” Payton said. “Purposely, we sat Andrus. We were quick with a few other guys to get out. So when that happens, there is a little bit more stress on the guys playing behind him.”
Payton said it’s “a little harder to find” linemen at this time of year.
The Saints signed free agent Chris Clark on Monday. He’s a New Orleans native and 10-year veteran, who has played with Tampa Bay, Denver, Houston and Carolina.
“He’s a guy that can come in right away without as much of a transition maybe as some others,” Payton said.
The interior backup positions seem closer to being settled. If McCoy holds on to the starting center position, that leaves Tom, Easton and second-year guard Will Clapp from LSU as viable candidates to back up on the inside.
Others competing for roster spots are tackles Michael Ola and Derrick Kelly, centers Marcus Henry and Ryan Groy, and guards Marshall Newhouse and Patrick Onameh.
The line will be tested over the next four days.
The Saints arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday for joint practices with the Chargers on Thursday and Friday in advance of a preseason game between the two teams Sunday.
The Chargers have one of the best defensive-end tandems in the NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, which provides a marquee match-up with one of the best tackle tandems in Armstead and Ramczyk.
It’s the third time in recent summers that New Orleans and Los Angeles have practiced together in advance of a preseason game. Payton and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn are friends, having worked together as assistants in Dallas.
“I feel like our last two times we’ve been with them have been real productive,” Payton said. “Both teams are really wanting to get better. They understand that. It’s a good climate change this time of the year when you have that opportunity to get out of the humidity for four or five days.”