Saints line: Reasons for hope, concern

METAIRIE, La. -- The optimist and pessimist could have a pretty good debate over the state of the New Orleans Saints’ offensive line.

True, it was a shakier-than-usual season for the Saints up front in 2013, with some early-season struggles in the middle of the line and some late-season struggles at left tackle.

However, the Saints’ line was playing its best at the end of the year, especially in the playoffs, offering some glimpses of hope for 2014.

Not only are the Saints counting on second-year left tackle Terron Armstead and center Tim Lelito to make big leaps in their sophomore seasons, but they’re also encouraged that longtime veterans like right tackle Zach Strief and Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs showed steady improvement as the season went along.

“I think it got better, and I think there’s still plenty to work on,” Strief said last week, in advance of the start of OTAs today. “I think more than anything, we really got comfortable with what we were good at. The running plays that we were good at, we really just found 10 ways to run the same play, and that was real effective for us. And I think we’ll take some of that into next year knowing what this group in particular is good at.

“Not the group of (former Saints Jermon) Bushrod and Carl Nicks. Not the groups that we used to have that were good at certain things. Now there’s a new group, and we’re good at some other types of things. And I think we’re kind of figuring that out.”

New Orleans’ management clearly leans toward that optimistic approach, since the Saints didn’t feel pressured into upgrading anywhere on the offensive line this year. No free agent signings, no draft picks until Round 6. They even let starting center Brian de la Puente get away in free agency without putting up a fight.

There’s still a good chance the Saints will bring back former starter Jonathan Goodwin to compete for that center job. But for now, they’re showing faith in Lelito.

And they’re certainly showing faith in Armstead, who is essentially written in ink as the starting left tackle at this point. The third-round pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff showed enough over the final four games of last season (including the playoffs) to help cement his status.

“I see the coaches have some confidence in me, which is huge to know that I’m their guy. But I still have a lot to prove, a lot to work on, which I’ve been doing all this offseason,” Armstead said last week.

So far, that’s been mostly limited to conditioning, studying film and studying the playbook. But Armstead said the linemen have worked together on some timing and footwork during simulated snaps.

When asked if he’s feeling more nerves because the expectations of him are higher this year, Armstead said, “I don’t think so, because I have complete confidence in myself. So I just keep working on my game, and I’ll be ready.”

As Strief pointed out, both Armstead and Lelito were “humbled” during their first starts last season (Lelito against Arizona early in the year and Armstead at Carolina in week 16). But both players showed a lot by bouncing back. And Strief said he thinks those experiences will only enhance their drive.

“The first game was bumpy for (Armstead), but I knew what he had,” said Grubbs, who will be planted between two relative newcomers this year at the left guard spot. “Just seeing him at practice when he first got to the Saints, I was like, ‘That guy is going to be a great player.’ When he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it. In the last three games he played lights out.”