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Making The Saints Even Better in 2018, Part 5: Adding Depth to the O-Line

With only this upcoming Sunday's Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles the only remaining game left to be played to determine the NFL's champion for the 2017 season, the 2018 NFL off-season is now in "full swing" for 30 other NFL teams — including your New Orleans Saints.

Just in case you may have missed it so far: the Saints News Network for the past week and a half has began a series of articles covering the positions on the Saints team roster that could use an upgrade in the 2018 off-season, in the hope that the team can remain a viable Super Bowl contender going forward just as they were in the 2017 season; when they finished with an 11-5 record, won their division, and were a mere 10 seconds away from playing for a Conference Championship.

Now so far, we've covered the tight end position (click HERE to read), linebacker (click HERE), defensive end / edge pass rusher (click HERE), and wide receiver (click HERE).

This morning, we conclude our series with the final installment: the depth on the Saints offensive line.

To borrow a line from the classic `1980's song by legendary rock band Aerosmith, New Orleans was "living on the edge" in 2017 on their O-Line, thanks mostly to what seemed like having some type of injury nearly every single week of the regular season among their starting 5 linemen.

And now they dive head first into the off-season process with 12-year veteran right tackle Zach Strief’s future still up in the air, as well as the impending free-agent status of versatile tackle / guard Senio Kelemete; whom the team would no doubt like to retain because of his age (27) and his critical contribution (he started 8 games in the 2017 season and 9 games the year before in 2016) to the team's overall success.

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Kelemete isn't going to deprive himself of a chance to start somewhere else in the NFL however; and it's more than likely that the Saints will have to directly contend with a handful of other potential Free Agency suitors to attempt to keep him in NOLA for the next few seasons, when the signing period officially begins at midnight on March 14th.

With that in mind, this morning we're taking an early look at some of the possible options for the Saints at the offensive guard position in 2018; that likely will be available via either 2018 NFL Free Agency or the 2018 NFL Draft.

PLEASE keep in mind: the Saints don't have a 2nd Round Pick (which they used to trade up and take superstar rookie Alvin Kamara in last year's Draft), but as of this moment do have TWO 5th Round and 6th Round picks to go with their 3rd, 4th, and 7th Round picks: so the chance that they'll draft an O-Lineman is VERY likely.

And these next few players listed are among the best available.

Starting first with......

 

2018 NFL FREE AGENCY

ANDREW NORWELL, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The 26-year old Norwell has quickly blossomed into a star for division rival Carolina, after he signed with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2014. The Saints have been aggressive recently (just last year) in their pursuit of Panthers players in Free Agency (A.J. Klein, Ted Ginn, Jr.), and Norwell shouldn't be any exception.

Norwell was named 1st-Team All-Pro in 2017; and the 6-foot-6, 325-pound left guard and didn’t allow a sack or a hit on the quarterback in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. Norwell hasn't missed a game in over 2 seasons and was also Pro Football Focus’ top-graded pass blocking guard in 2017; as well as additionally finishing among the Top 10 run-blocking guards.

When you also take into consideration that Norwell is also a former Ohio State Buckeye (the Saints currently have  former Ohio State players on their roster), you'd have to imagine that Norwell should be considered one of the top targets in this year's 2018 Free Agency class for New Orleans.

The biggest hurdle in getting Norwell to NOLA however, will be the money. Last offseason, Kevin Zeitler and T.J. Lang were considered the top 2017 Free Agent interior offensive linemen; with Cleveland signing Zeitler to a 5-year, $60 million contract, while Detroit locked up Lang on a 3-year, $28.5 million deal — which means that Norwell’s agent will use those numbers as a "reference point" in any potential contract negotiations.

 

JUSTIN PUGH, NEW YORK GIANTS

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

USA TODAY GiantsWire writer Dan Benton says that New York Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh didn’t have himself a particularly good season in 2017, dealing with a variety of injuries and a constant reshuffling along the offensive line.

Pugh eventually ended up landing on season-ending injured reserve (IR) because of a back injury, as the Giants finished as the NFC's worst team with a (3-13) record. Quite obviously, it wasn't exactly the year that he had hoped for heading into free agency while looking to land a nice pay day with a brand new contract.

Benton notes however that despite all of that, Pro Football Focus still considered Pugh one of the league’s best players available in this year's 2018 Free Agent class, and had him ranked among their Top 15.

12. JUSTIN PUGH, OFFENSIVE GUARD

2017 Grade: 52.4

2017 Team: New York Giants

Since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2013, Pugh has emerged as one of the better guards in the NFL, but unfortunately, injuries have plagued him in all but one of his professional seasons. With an entire offseason to recover from the back injury that cost him the last six games of the 2017 campaign, Pugh enters free agency as a high-end, starting caliber guard, who graded above 80.0 in both 2015 and 2016, and has allowed just 39 pressures over the last three seasons on the interior, the fourth-best mark among guards with at least 750 pass-blocking snaps since 2015.

Benton adds that Pugh has said he’d like to return to the Giants, but yet at the same time he hasn’t been shy about the fact that he’s seeking a rather substantial contract. As far as the Saints are concerned, Pugh would seem to merit some serious consideration just so long as he's not seeking to completely "break the bank" with an over-priced deal.

 

2018 NFL DRAFT

WILL HERNANDEZ, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-EL PASO

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

For the sake of reality (the Saints won't target a guard with their top pick), we’ll leave out University of Notre Dame All-American guard Quenton Nelson, who is the most talented and polished offensive lineman in the 2018 NFL Draft class regardless of position; and very likely will end up as one the players chosen within the Top 15-20 picks.

Which means that we'll begin first with the young man who may or may not be available when the Saints pick again in Round 3, when they have the #81 overall selection: UTEP guard Will Hernandez. At 6'2" and 340 pounds, Hernandez wowed NFL scouts during the Senior Bowl practices last week and now is considered a "fringe" 1st-Round pick as a result. 

He still likely projects as a Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) pick, but if he continues his impressive showing next month at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis (February 27th-March 5th), that all could change. Hernandez helped his stock as much as anyone at the Senior Bowl, and at 340 pounds will be one of the heaviest players in this class.

Detroit News NFL Draft Analyst Justin Rogers says that while Hernandez isn’t a master technician, he thrives in a "phone booth" (an O-Lineman with below-average feet that performs best in short areas) and if he gets his hands into the chest of a defender, then more often than not: it’s all over with.

Rogers adds that Hernandez’s playing style has drawn comparisons to Bills guard Richie Incognito and in addition to his obvious physical gifts, he’s coming in more motivated and "hungrier" than most players — since the Miners were (0-12) last season. Hernandez obviously would make a great addition to the Saints' O-Line, but unless the Saints trade back into Round 2 to grab him, it's extremely unlikely that he'll still be there in Round 3.

 

ISAIAH WYNN, GEORGIA

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Perhaps no one individual player at last week's Senior Bowl helped themselves more that Wynn, who according to NFL draft expert Mike Mayock was among the most impressive players at the annual college all-star event's week worth of practices and game last Saturday.

“I thought Wynn, the Georgia tackle who played guard this week, was the most intriguing guy here,” Mayock wrote. “He had a dominant week of practice. He’s helped himself a great deal.” Wynn also received praise from the Senior Bowl coaches, scouts and other assorted media while in Mobile and was named offensive lineman of the week.

Wynn actually played tackle at Georgia, though he projects as a guard upon his entry into the NFL. But his versatility to do both and do them well, is what likely will attract a ton of potential suitors in the upcoming Draft process during the Scouting Combine next month and again at Georgia's Pro Day in the middle of March.

Canal Street Chronicles NFL Draft expert and film analyst Walter "Deuce" Windham (in the detailed video right above) ranks Wynn as his #2 overall guard prospect in this year's class (behind Hernandez), and says that Wynn exhibits good hand placement, has great footwork, and is a superb "finisher" who excels at trench warfare.

As of this moment, Wynn is a borderline Round 1 / early Day 2 pick, and the Saints would have to either take him at #27 (unlikely) or trade back into Round 2 (not totally impossible) to bring him to New Orleans.

 

BRADEN SMITH, AUBURN

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Fan Sided's With the First Pick NFL Draft Analyst Jon Dove says that Smith is an athletically built offensive guard prospect who projects as a Day-1 starter in his future career at the pro level. Smith has been highly successful throughout his college career facing top-level competition and could’ve realistically been an early round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft last year, but decided to wait until the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft instead.

Doves also notes that Smith is a technically sound prospect who utilizes proper footwork, angles and leverage. Smith routinely fires off the ball, rolls his hips and gains inside hands. This gives him the ability to control the action and latch to the defender.

Dove also adds that Smith is an above average pass protector for his position; and he's able to "keep his head on a swivel" and hands out in front. Additionally, Smith's outstanding balance helps him anchor after contact and keep pressure out of the quarterback’s face.

The one slight concern for Smith headed forward into the Draft process of the next few weeks and months will be his height. Smith is actually too tall to play the guard position in the NFL, but Dove makes the observation that Smith's commitment to maintaining leverage and athleticism make this sort of an issue a moot point.

Like any player coming out of college, there will be an adjustment period coming into the professional ranks for Smith; but Dove believes that Smith’s combination of pure, physically-raw talent and technically sound approach are what makes him so effective. Smith may or not be there when the Saints pick at #81 overall in Round 3, but if he does fall, Saints brass could have an interesting decision on their hands.

 

BILLY PRICE, OHIO STATE

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Before we jump into Price's career accomplishments in college, please take note that the Saints currently have former 5 Ohio State players on their current roster; so at no time should you be surprised if Price gets a VERY extensive look from the Saints brass in the next few upcoming weeks and months of the Draft process.

SB Nation Draft Analyst Jonathan Henson says that if you're an NFL team that's looking for a bonafide starter on your team from Day 1 (where have we heard that before?), then look no further than the 6-foot-4, 320 pound Price. Henson feels that Price is the most versatile lineman in this year's 2018 O-Line Draft Class, as Ohio State used Price as a center, and both guard positions.

Henson adds that Price is probably the most proficient at pass-protection; but additionally he isn't afraid of bull-rushers, is able to "stand up" defenders, displays great footwork and does an excellent job in pulls and stunts. A 4-year starter for the Buckeyes, Price was very consistent with his play during his time in Columbus.

Henson does caution however that Price is far from perfect; and warns that he’s not great in any one specific spot. Price also needs to improve at run blocking and at times gets pushed off his spot in running situation and is turned around by a defender's spin moves. Nevertheless, Price still looks like a Day 2 pick — and if there were ever a name for Saints fans to remember at this particular roster position (because of the obvious Saints / Ohio State "connection"), then Price would be the one.

 

FRANK RAGNOW, ARKANSAS

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Ragnow was invited to play in last week's Senior Bowl, but is still in the process of recovering from season-ending ankle surgery and only took part in the interview process. He suffered the injury back in November against Auburn but was able to play through the pain in his final game as a Razorback.

Recruited out of the state of Minnesota, Ragnow was named to the All-SEC Freshman team in his first season as a backup center but didn’t become a permanent starter at right guard until his sophomore year. In Ragnow’s final two seasons, he played a majority of his snaps at center, becoming one of the best in the nation.

He graded out higher than any other offensive lineman in the nation this season according to Pro Football Focus. Through 2,603 career snaps, Ragnow never allowed a single sack and was a consensus All-American and was placed on numerous postseason teams. HawgSports.com staff writer Tyler Davis says that the 6-foot-4, 307 pound Ragnow battled incredible adversity, including the loss of his father, in his time at Arkansas. However, Davis says that Ragnow's passion, perseverance and work ethic still made him a fan-favorite among the program's supporters.

Despite his prior injury, he will still likely be Arkansas’ highest-drafted prospect. CBS Sports’ latest prospect board places Ragnow as the 32nd best player and the best center in the 2018 NFL Draft; though because of the injury most pundits project him to be selected between the 2nd and 5th rounds. But do keep in mind: Ragnow is still a BATTLE-TESTED SEC O-Lineman who has the versatility to line up at guard— and some lucky NFL team (the Saints, perhaps?) will get themselves a "steal" if Ragnow is still on the Draft Board at the end of Day 2 or on Day 3.

 

JAMES DANIELS, IOWA

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Once again we turn to Fan Sided's With the First Pick NFL Draft Analyst Jon Dove, who says that University of Iowa guard James Daniels is a technically sound interior offensive line prospect who projects as a "Day 1 starter". Daniels features both the physical attributes and natural feel for the game to be highly successful at the next level.

Dove notes that Daniels has a good build with thick, "bubble-like" long arms. His arm length allows him to easily gain inside hands and control the action. He also has the upper body strength and heavy hands needed to latch to the defender. Dove also makes the observation that Daniels plays with excellent balance and a wide base; which in turn helps him anchor after contact and maintain leverage.

Dove also adds that Daniels is also a physical presence in the trenches and is an aggressive pass blocker who takes the fight to the defender. Daniels does a great job regaining position and balance after that initial contact, and Dove believes that the team that drafts Daniels should be able to count on him anchoring the middle of their offensive line for years to come at the center position and some occasional game-action at the guard spot.

At this point, Daniels appears to be a borderline Day 2 pick, although with the Saints currently having two 5th and 6th Round picks, Daniels will be a name for Saints fans to keep in the back of their minds should he slip down into the mid to later rounds.......

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; 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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