Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Saints Nation: What to do at Offensive Tackle?

Good offensive tackles in the NFL are at a premium in the league because they are so hard to find. The Saints, however, have four very solid ones. Starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb is fresh off his first Pro Bowl birth, left tackle Jammal Brown has been to Pro Bowls before, and both Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod have proven to be very capable backups that would likely be ready to play in a full time starting role if given a chance. Going into last year we knew Strief, Brown and Stinchcomb were capable players, though to Stinchcomb's credit he turned in one of his better yearly performances in 2010. Bushrod, however, was the big surprise. Up to this point in the offseason last year, Bushrod had been nothing more than a promising player that underperformed and didn't live up to his potential. Then came an injury to Jammal Brown that would shelve him for the season, and Bushrod (not Strief) was surprisingly thrown into the fire as a starter at left tackle. Considering Bushrod was immediately placed into the most important position on the line for the most high powered offense in the league, he handled himself admirably. Ultimately, he ended up being the starting left tackle for a Super Bowl champion. Pretty impressive when you consider that most viewed him as a glaring hole on the offense and a serious liability as the season would progress. I want to mention, also, that while Zach Strief only saw limited action as the starting left tackle last season behind Bushrod, the Saints thought enough of him that they were constantly finding ways to get him on the field as an extra blocker.

So the big questions become: Can the Saints afford to keep all four of these players, and if not, which one do they let go?

As of now the Saints have Stinchcomb locked up longterm, and Bushrod, Strief and Brown have all been tendered to restricted free agent contracts that make it unlikely other teams will attempt to sign them away. Right now, if healthy, Jammal Brown still represents the team's best option at left tackle. It remains to be seen based on his injury history, though, if the Saints are willing to risk investing in Brown long term. It also remains to be seen if he's fully recovered enough from his serious hip surgery in 2009 to play at the level he's accustomed to. Brown is a premiere tackle when on his game, no doubt, but he's gone through patches of injury and poor play before. Bushrod did prove that he could fill in admirably for Brown last year, but his performances were up and down, and the Saints devised many blocking schemes targeted at helping Bushrod. Whether it was line shifts, double teams, chips from a back, or play action plays run away from the left side, the Saints often focused on relieving Bushrod of as much pressure as possible. While the offense still managed to have tons of success that way, it would be nice to put less pressure on the other players on the line and allow coach Payton to be more versatile in his play calling. Bushrod should only get better, but will he ever be good enough to give the Saints reason to invest in him long term? As far as Strief, it seems as though he's best suited for a spot at right tackle, and right now there's no way he's bumping Stinchcomb from the starting rotation.

Ultimately the Saints, while it was difficult, found ways to get three tackles involved in the gameplan last year. I don't think it's realistic that they'll be able to do that with four healthy tackles, and with the current value that Jammal Brown and Jermon Bushrod carry, I think they are the most likely to get shipped. Strief is too valuable as a backup and role player to the team, and he's not valuable enough on the open market, so I don't see him leaving. I think Bushrod, based on his performance last year, may actually be overvalued on the current open market. Brown is a little bit of an enigma, because while he's probably valued highly based on his accolades, he carries a high price tag and a big injury risk. I can't imagine the Saints will keep all four players, but I'm not certain of which player they would part with. It is possible that the Saints will keep the four tackles for one more year in an effort to get more answers as to who should be in their long term plans. Either way it's a good problem to have for the team. Too many good tackles is the opposite of what most NFL teams deal with, which is not enough.