The Saints’ formula for drafting offensive linemen sounds like Jimmy Dean’s recipe for making sausage, but without the sizzle. The team has not made offensive line a high-round priority, and even when the team has put an emphasis on the position in the draft and selected a lineman in the higher rounds, the results have been far short of expectations. The only saving grace has been the team’s ability to discover gems in the lower rounds or even in free agency. But that is called “luck,” and luck is not a good draft strategy. I am not yet counting Andrus Peat as a bust in only his second year, but any player drafted 13th in the first round had better contribute quickly and efficiently, which Peat has not.
Coincidentally, the only other offensive lineman the Saints drafted in the first two rounds in the Payton era started out much the same way. T Charles Brown of USC, taken in the 2010 second round, spent most of his rookie year on the inactive list and started only eight games the next two years before starting 14 games in his fourth year. The team’s success in drafting offensive linemen – including two current starters – has come when they’ve taken players either from small schools and/or in the lower rounds.
Terron Armstead was a good get in the third round of 2013 out of Arkansas Pine Bluff, while Zack Strief was a seventh-round find from Northwestern in 2006. In the meantime, the team discovered Carl Nicks (5th round, 2008, Nebraska), Jermon Bushrod (4th round, 2007, Towson) and Jahri Evans (4th round, 2006, Bloomsburg). When 31 other teams pass up players like that multiple times, it’s your good fortune. Luck.
Last season, I wrote a column about how Jerry Jones, shortly after he bought the Cowboys in 1989, called Saints owner Tom Benson and asked if he and his management team could come to New Orleans and spend a day with GM Jim Finks to get some advice on how to set up an organization the right way. One piece of advice that clearly got the attention of the Cowboys’ brass was when Finks spoke about the drafting philosophy that he had refined during his years in Minnesota, Chicago and now New Orleans. That philosophy was simple, but not easy: “Build your team from the inside out.” Draft linemen on both sides of the ball and then build around them.
Jones took that philosophy and made it his own over the next quarter century. Three members of their current line have been to the Pro Bowl, and each one came in the first round of the draft. In 2011, the Cowboys’ top pick was OT Tyron Smith from USC. In 2013, it was C Travis Frederick from Wisconsin and in 2014 it was G Zack Martin from Notre Dame. Those three join an impressive list of eight other offensive line Pro Bowlers the Cowboys have drafted since Jones heard Finks’ advice about building from the inside out.
As I said in that column, which tried to analyze what happened to the Saints in 2014: “Critics can throw rocks at Rob Ryan’s defense, but my answer is the team has not done a good enough job in building the offensive line.” Critics can point to reasons why, such as Drew Brees’ megacontract limiting the ability to strengthen other positions. But that’s an excuse, not a reason. You need The Man behind center, and the Saints have had The Man. It’s just that these days The Man might get killed because of the boys in front of him.
Jim W. Miller is former Exec. VP of New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and was a high NFL official
Visit his blog at JimWMillersports.com