Championship caliber teams possess multiple qualities that often help distance themselves from the rest of the competition. Whether it be elite Quarterback play, punishing defense, game-breaking athletes at the skill positions or experience to name a few, one quality that most contenders seem to have in common is depth. Not just numerical depth, but depth in terms of talent.
The New Orleans Saints have bolstered their depth on the heels of a successful free agent haul and a formidable draft class. Though there is still room to improve, the team likes the make-up of its current roster, with an eye on another playoff push with the hope of dethroning the conference and league champion Seattle Seahawks.
That said, if there is one position group that could use a further shot-in-the-arm of depth, it is the Saints' offensive line. The team boasts a pair of talented Pro Bowl Guards in Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, with Zach Strief, one of the league's more underrated linemen set to return at Right Tackle. From there, it gets murky.
Terron Armstead, a third-round draft choice of the Saints in 2013, is earmarked to slot in as Drew Brees's blindside protector at Left Tackle. Armstead took over for the departed Charles Brown in week 16 last season, following the stunning week 15 loss in St. Louis. Armstead had his ups and downs, from getting picked apart by Panthers' sackmaster Greg Hardy in his first career start, to holding his own in road playoff matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles and those Seahawks. Armstead looks set to enter training camp as the team's lone recognized Left Tackle. It would appear that his backups, as is, would be Marcel Jones and Manase Foketi. The Saints hope that Terron Armstead will man the LT spot for years to come. But who will back him up?
Jones, a 2012 7th round pick of the Saints, has a checkered injury history, spending his rookie year on injured reserve and last season on the team's practice squad. Foketi, who spent parts of last season in the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills organizations, will also be competing for a roster spot and possible backup option to Armstead. Both players have no game experience, meaning the Saints will be heavily reliant upon Armstead's play and health in 2014. An incredible athlete for a man of his stature, Armstead will look to improve his all-around game moving forward. The Saints can capitalize off hs athleticism as a pass protector and downfield blocker in the screen game. The team will likely have its eye on the waiver wire throughout the summer and into final cuts, keeping an eye out for a potential depth option to play behind Armstead, should Jones and Foketi prove to be no more than camp bodies.
Another youngster set for a meaningful role in 2014 is Tim Lelito. Lelito, who the team is high on as a potential option for the vacant spot at Center, is an interesting case. One of several undrafted players to forge his way onto the Saints' roster in recent years, the former Grand Valley State product figures to get the first look to replace Brian de la Puente, who signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. The team did not select a Center at the 2014 NFL Draft, but in an intriguing twist, did bring in Lelito's former college teammate Matt Armstrong as part of its undrafted free agent class to add some competition throughout the offseason.
Lelito, who played Guard in college, should open camp as the first team Center. The Saints like his versatility, and it stands to reason that they could also look to him as a future option at Guard, given the high salaries being paid to Evans and Grubbs. There is a chance that a player like Grubbs could emerge as a cap-casualty next offseason, as the Saints will once again be under tight cap constraints. If that were to happen, Lelito could emerge as a replacement option at that spot.
Former starter and Super Bowl winning Center Jonathan Goodwin has visited the team following the end of his contract in San Francisco, and could be brought in on the cheap to provide cover and further competition for Lelito and Armstrong in camp. Goodwin helped the Saints win the Lombardi Trophy before signing with the 49ers, where he went on to appear in another Super Bowl. He would be a reliable stop-gap option while players like Lelito and Armstrong are further groomed as future options.
Armstrong hopes to emulate his former Grand Valley State teammate Lelito's success in making the team. Unlike Lelito, Armstrong is a natural Center, and spent his whole career at GVSU at that position, though he did get valuable reps at every other position along the line. Like Lelito, that versatility likely jumped out at New Orleans. When asked about the prospect of competing with his former college teammate, Armstrong said ""I wouldn't say compete because he's already on the team. He's already in the rotation. I'm just trying to make the roster and do the best I can." Having made an impression at last weekend's rookie minicamp, Armstrong has set the stage to give himself a fighting chance of making the roster and adding that necessary competition for the Center gig.
One more young player to watch is 2014 6th rounder Tavon Rooks. The team's final selection of the draft, Rooks spent his two seasons at Kansas State playing Right Tackle in a run-heavy offense. Following his stints in the JUCO ranks and the "Little Apple," Rooks projects as a possible long-term backup option for Strief at Right Tackle. He will need to add some bulk to his frame while also improving as a pass protector, but it was not surprising to see the Saints use one of their draft choices on an offensive lineman. Rooks joins the likes of Bryce Harris and Thomas Welch in competition for Strief's top backup. Outside of the in-flux Center spot, the team could use some depth at both Tackle spots, and Rooks will have every opportunity to earn his place on the team, even if that means spending a year with the practice squad in order to get there.
In today's NFL, depth is not just an illusion, but a necessity. The teams at the top of the league have depth in bunches across the board. While the Saints can front up to their contemporaries in most cases, it is clear that they could stand to bolster their depth in the trenches along their offensive line. Having dabbled in some zone-blocking concepts early last season, the team returned to more of a power-run structure, which fit their personnel up front much better. As the Saints look to emphasize their run game in 2014, keeping a rotation of capable bodies up front will be a key piece to the team's desired success. Those bodies may not yet be on the team's roster, but players like Lelito, Armstrong and Rooks give them options.
Numerical depth for now. Time will tell if it is more than that.