National Football League
Saints' success could hinge on top pick Taliese Fuaga, new-look offensive line
National Football League

Saints' success could hinge on top pick Taliese Fuaga, new-look offensive line

Published Jun. 17, 2024 4:44 p.m. ET

Offensive line will be a pivotal position for the Saints in 2024, and as New Orleans tries to match or exceed last year's 9-8 record, the line will likely have three new starters, notable in an offseason with modest overall change to the roster.

All five starters could be 26 or younger, a much less experienced group playing for new position coaches and a new offensive coordinator in Klint Kubiak. 

But quarterback Derek Carr likes what he's seen from the group this spring.

"I think they've had a wonderful camp and OTAs and offseason. I really do," Carr said last week during the team's mandatory minicamp. "But I think the coolest thing I've seen [is] that unit coming together. They are a walking herd down the hallway wherever they go. That unity, that bond, that cohesiveness, that togetherness, I thought they were close last year, but this is another level. ... Everyone's bought in. It's just different. You can just feel a different stampede coming down the hall."


Two veteran starters from last year are gone, as guard James Hurst retired and guard Andrus Peat signed with the Raiders in free agency. A bigger loss could be tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who continues to be limited by a knee injury that could be career-ending. As such, the Saints have a new look built around two former first-round picks in center Erik McCoy, 26, and guard Cesar Ruiz, 25. McCoy was rated as the NFL's No. 5 center by Pro Football Focus last season and is the line's undisputed leader, but he'll oversee a largely unproven line this fall.

The headliner is left tackle Taliese Fuaga, the team's first-round pick from Oregon State, and his arrival will allow the Saints to shift 2022 first-rounder Trevor Penning, who has struggled in two seasons, to right tackle. Left guard is more up for grabs, but the favorite after minicamp is second-year pro Nick Saldiveri, a fourth-round pick out of Old Dominion who played only 18 snaps last season in what was essentially a redshirt year.

"I obviously came here to play football," Saldiveri said last week. "That's what I want to do. That's what I love to do. That's what I want to do for the rest of my career, so I'm very fortunate to be in this position, and I'm going to continue to work."

Penning started five games last year but was ranked 65th out of 81 tackles by PFF, but the switch to the right side looked smooth this spring, though it will mean more if he handles himself well when the pads come on in training camp next month.

"I think Trevor Penning has done everything we've asked him since we got here," Kubiak said last week. "Really tough mentality. I like the person. I like the way he works. I like how important the game is to him. He's no different from anybody else: We're going to coach him hard and expect a lot out of him. We'll see what happens when we put the pads on."

The Saints, limited in their offseason spending by salary-cap restrictions, added two veteran linemen with solid starting experience for new depth. Lucas Patrick, 30, started 15 games for the Bears last year, while Oli Udoh, 27, started 16 games for the Vikings in 2021 when Kubiak was the coordinator there, but has just two starts in the past two years. They signed for a combined $3.35 million.

New Orleans overhauled its offensive staff, with Kubiak taking over for longtime coordinator Pete Carmichael. He brought in two veteran offensive line coaches: John Benton is in his 20th year as an NFL assistant, and Rick Dennison is in his 28th, though neither coached last season. There's ample room for improvement considering the Saints ranked 31st in rushing yards per carry last season, and while they had one of the league's lowest pressure rates, that was also a function of Carr getting rid of the ball quickly.

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Even after the draft, USA Today had the Saints 31st in its ranking of the league's 32 offensive lines, and Pro Football Network ranked them 27th. They'll get challenged early, with games against the Cowboys and Chiefs, both ranking in the top 10 in sacks last year, then facing the Browns (sixth) and Packers (ninth) later in the season.

There's no telling how quickly a new line in a new scheme can click on the field. Last year, the Saints gave up at least three sacks in each of their first four games amid injuries, then gave up three or more just twice in their final 13 games. This will be a younger, less-experienced line, but it could wind up a better unit if the early returns on chemistry are a sign of things to come in New Orleans.

"As a quarterback, those are your best friends," Carr said. "So whenever you see that group growing together, and as they're growing tighter together, then they start doing some things on the field, you're like, 'Oh, wow.' That's just a positive sign. 

"I think they took to heart a lot of stuff from last year. They've got a lot of toughness and mental makeup about them. I've just been really impressed with just watching. The on-the-field stuff has been awesome, but off the field, that's been the coolest part to me."

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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