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Versatility of Saints O-Line Could Be This Season’s Saving Grace

The capability to play multiple positions for an offensive lineman in today's NFL has become an important commodity for all of the League's 32 teams; and in the 2017 season, it just may become the "saving grace" for the New Orleans Saints.

It's also the reason why teams in this modern era of Pro Football tend to target one or more versatile offensive linemen in NFL Free Agency and the Draft every year.

Players that have the versatility to compete at four or even ALL 5 positions (such as Saints back-up lineman Senio Kelemete), have more value than those players who have mastered just one position --- especially when it comes to the depth of the line. 

And thus far through the first 4 games of the season, no one team has that ever become more evident for than New Orleans.

The Saints have been hit harder by injuries to key players this season -- and especially along their O-Line -- more than any other NFL team.

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Starting left tackle Terron Armstead tore a labrum in his shoulder in Mini-Camp back in June, and had to have surgery right afterwards to repair it.

He just recently returned to practice for the first time since the injury, and is expected to see his first action of the season next week when the Saints face the Detroit Lions at home after the Bye.

Starting right tackle Zach Strief, who suffered a knee injury in the opener at Minnesota, re-injured the knee last Sunday against the Dolphins in London, and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. 

Strief might be able to return to the Saints in December, depending on how quickly the knee can heal.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

And center Max Unger -- though he hasn't missed any game in the regular season -- had been out for most of the off-season and Training Camp. Unger underwent surgery on his left foot back in May as he continued to deal with a Lisfranc injury, which he had originally suffered in Week #13 last season against the Lions. 

The Saints have been forced to compensate for all of these injuries by shuffling players around to different spots, and somehow despite it all, still have managed to win for the past 2 weeks with a different starting line-up than the one that was expected to be playing when the season first began.

"I think you definitely want as much continuity up front as you can," Saints quarterback Drew Brees told reporters last week prior to the win over the Dolphins in London.

"I think the idea that Andrus Peat can play left guard, he can play left tackle. Ryan Ramczyk can play left tackle, he can play right tackle. You've got a lot of versatility."

"Senio (Kelemete) has played both guard positions, center and left and right tackle. He's played every position on the offensive line. When you have that type of versatility its good. Then again you do like to get your rotation and get it set."

Perhaps no one player has been more valuable to the Saints along their O-Line so far this season than the rookie Ramczyk.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Ramczyk took over for Zach Strief at right tackle after Strief re-injured that bad knee of his early in the 4th quarter; and he "flipped" over to Strief's spot from the left tackle spot, where he had gotten the start in place of veteran left tackle Terron Armstead.

Though he did actually get beat by Dolphins defensive end Camerom Wake which in turn actually led to the inadvertent hit that hurt Strief, Ramczyk's performance last Sunday was still VERY impressive; in that he has been able to not only play two different starting tackle positions seamlessly in the same season as a rookie -- but against the Dolphins was able to even do so in the same game.

Rookie offensive tackles in the NFL usually struggle quite a bit, but Ramczyk has looked nothing short of great in his first 4 games; and his play thus far is making the Saints trade of former WR Brandin Cooks this past off-season (which gave the Saints the Patriots' #32 overall pick in the Draft which they used to take Ramczyk) look better than ever.

"Being able to play both sides, right and left as a rookie, that just speaks volumes of the kind of player he is and what he’s going to pan out to be," starting right guard Larry Warford said to New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson on Tuesday.

"I really respect him for it."

Ramczyk appears to be a player that could eventually become an All-Pro for many years into the future , if he can manage to avoid any major injuries along the way.

Peat, the team's 1st Round pick in the 2015 Draft, has been equally valuable. Peat has had to play at multiple positions each of his first 3 years since coming into the NFL as an All-American at Stanford University.

As a rookie in 2015, he played left tackle and left guard. Then last season, the Saints had him work primarily at right guard in training camp before moving him to left guard, but he actually started more games at left tackle in 2016 when Armstead was in and out of the lineup.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

So far this season, he's shuffled back and forth between left guard and left tackle; and started at left guard last week in the win over the Dolphins but slid over to the left tackle spot, when Ramczyk had to take over right tackle in the place of the injured Strief.

And not to be left out: perhaps one of the most valuable back-ups in the entire NFL in the 6th year veteran Kelemete.

As noted at the beginning of the article: Kelemete is one of only a very small number of NFL O-Linemen capable of playing ALL FIVE positions: left tackle, left guard, right tackle, right guard, and if it comes right down to it if necessary: he can also play the center position.

While he has never played center in a regular-season contest, Kelemete told / The New Orleans Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein back during the Pre-Season while Unger was still out, that he has grown comfortable at the position since joining the Saints in 2014. 

"I would say it's a lot more comfortable than I was two years ago," he said. "I didn't even know what to do or how to snap the ball, so I think two years ago just getting some reps at that has really helped my confidence getting reps right now at center." 

Katzenstein noted that with Kelemete, the Saints have an essential interchangeable "chess piece" on the offensive line, where he has appeared in 41 games with 14 starts in a Saints uniform. 

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

"Ideally, he's playing center or guard," Saints head coach Sean Payton said of Kelemete to Katzenstein and other reporters back during Training Camp. "And he's also played tackle for us in a pinch before, so he'll receive some work there." 

Katzenstein adds that the Saints enjoyed Kelemete's versatility in 2016, when he started six games at left guard and two games at left tackle. He filled in at left guard in the win over the Dolphins, once Peat had to slide over to left tackle as Ramczyk moved over to fill in for Strief.

Kelemete's versatility, along with that of Peat and the rookie Ramczyk, are the prime examples of why it's so critical to have players along the offensive line in today's NFL that can fill in at a moment's notice, when unexpected injuries occur.

Most NFL offensive coaches and especially those who coach the linemen will tell you that every young player now is taught in this current era of Pro Football that once you come into the League, if you’re not a starter at any one particular spot; then it's beneficial for the longevity for an O-Lineman's career to try and learn to play all of them.

Every NFL team nowadays want their offensive linemen to be versatile, and to possess that quality from the start. They don't want a player to "master" any one position before learning another; in the hope that they will have that flexibility to line-up at multiple spots if need be, from the very beginning.

And for the Saints, having the players that they do with the capability to readily fill in and even being able to take over as a starter at multiple positions, could eventually become their "saving grace" once the 2017 regular season finally comes to an end.

And right now with 4 games having been played so far --- it already has.....


Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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