The Saints and their upcoming personnel changes

The Saints lost to the Rams 27-16 in St. Louis on Sunday, in a game in which starting tackle Charles Brown was repeatedly abused by All-Galaxy defensive end Robert Quinn, and where kicker Garrett Hartley had a 39-yard field goal blocked because he hit it low and shanked a 29-yarder late in the game to abort the Saints’ comeback attempt.

When I first drafted this post, I titled it “Do the Saints need to make personnel changes?” and intended to address what they might do about Brown and Hartley, but then head coach Sean Payton announced that said changes were coming, and subsequently benched Brown for rookie Terron Armstead and waived Hartley, signing veteran Shayne Graham the next day.

So instead, I’ll look at why these changes happened and what we might expect from the new guys.

Charles Brown was the Saints’ 2010 second-round pick from USC, the year after they won the Super Bowl. At the time, the Saints had just gotten a pretty good year at left tackle out of 2007 fourth-rounder Jermon Bushrod, replacing injured Pro Bowl tackle Jammal Brown (who was then traded to the Redskins after Bushrod proved a capable replacement). Veteran Jon Stinchcomb manned the right tackle slot, but he was going to be 31 to start the 2010 season and wasn’t expected to last much longer.

The idea was that Brown, a high pick from a major program, would spend a year learning and filling in when necessary before the team would move on from Stinchcomb and start Brown at right tackle, with the hopes that his athleticism would eventually enable him to switch sides with Bushrod and give the team a more athletic left tackle.

A funny thing happened in 2011, though: After the team released Stinchcomb (he retired almost immediately afterward), 2006 seventh-round pick Zach Strief, who’d hung around the team as a swing tackle and sixth offensive lineman in goal-line sets, beat out Brown for the right tackle job. Then he did it again in 2012.

This should have been worrisome. If a second-round pick can’t win a starting job in his third year in the league, it may be a sign he doesn’t have what it takes.

Nevertheless, the team opted not to pay Bushrod a big contract, reasoning, quite sensibly, that he would be overpaid due to his Pro Bowl appearance, and that they’d found a small-school talent like him and coached him up once, so they could do it again. The team went into 2013 with Brown projected as the starting left tackle and Strief as the right tackle, and drafted Terron Armstead out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff with their third-round pick. Now, Brown has proven inadequate to the task, and Armstead is getting his shot a little sooner than expected. (Sure, few people could successfully block Robert Quinn, but the Saints are about to play Carolina, and Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are both strong pass rushers.)

I like what I saw of Armstead as a prospect. He was by some measure the most athletic offensive lineman at the combine; his 4.71 official 40 time was the fastest at the combine– only Lane Johnson was close– and he ran an unofficial 4.65, the fastest recorded 40 time by an offensive lineman in combine history. His 31 bench reps put him in the top ten for that category; only Vinston Painter also benched more than 30 times and ran a 40 time in under 5 seconds.

Small school prospects definitely come with a worry that they will be inadequate against tougher competition, but Armstead’s pre-college pedigree gives me some hope in this regard. Unlike many small-school prospects, who had to take an alternate route through college because of late development or their off-field situation, Armstead was recruited by major colleges coming out of high school. However, he was also a champion track and field athlete, winning the shot put event at Illinois’ Class 2A state meet, and he wanted to continue to throw shot put in college. Arkansas-Pine Bluff gave him the opportunity to do both, when the major colleges wouldn’t.

Armstead has been inactive most of the year, so I have no idea how he’ll perform in a game situation. I like his pedigree and athleticism, though, and even with Aaron Kromer gone, I think the team can mold him into a capable starter. I do believe he has the athleticism and quickness required to play tackle in the NFL; the question is how long it will take him to learn the position. I’m optimistic, but then, as a fan, I don’t have much choice.

The Garrett Hartley move was much simpler and easier to understand. Above all else, a kicker needs to be consistent. Hartley was wildly inconsistent over the course of his Saints career. Even while he made some clutch kicks for the Saints, like the game-winner in the NFC Championship against Minnesota, he also had his share of baffling misses and choke jobs, such as botching a 29-yard kick in overtime in this loss to the Falcons in 2010, a loss that ultimately kept the Saints from winning the division, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, that season ended with a Wild Card loss at 7-9 NFC West champion Seattle.

What people forget now is, that even though Hartley was making all those clutch kicks in the Super Bowl run, that year he was the backup kicker. The Saints signed him in 2008, but he hadn’t been able to win the job from John Carney, only filling in in late 2009 after Carney was injured. Hartley hadn’t even been able to stay healthy consistently once he got the job for good, missing the entire 2011 season. He didn’t even handle kickoffs; that’s been punter Thomas Morstead’s duty since he was drafted in 2009. Really, at this point the bigger question might be how Hartley held onto the job for so long.

Payton decided enough was enough. Shayne Graham had a fine season for the Houston Texans last year, and if his leg passed muster in workouts, he should capably fill in the role. The Saints need someone who can be consistently accurate more than someone with a booming leg, given that they have Morstead on kickoff duty and their offense is good enough to warrant going for it over kicking field goals in that deep, no-man’s-land range.

Anyway, I’m optimistic about the changes. I believe in Armstead’s athleticism, I believe in Graham’s consistency, and I believe in the Saints coaches. Perhaps that’s a little foolish of me: after all, the coaches did think Brown could be good enough to begin with, but then it’s also possible Armstead wasn’t ready until now. The most important game of the Saints’ season is Sunday, and the new guys had better be ready to step up.

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