Both Saints head coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis confirmed this week that the critical offensive left tackle position is vacant following the departure of four-year starter Jermon Bushrod to Chicago. Former second round pick Charles Brown has hardly been handed the position.
The realities of the NFL's salary cap have left the Saints without an answer at left tackle.
The second most important position on an offense, behind only quarterback, the Saints have a "blank" depth chart at left tackle, according to Payton this week at the NFL Owner's meetings. Payton specifically cited Brown's "availability," that is, his health status, highlighted by his season-ending knee injury last November and season-ending hip flexor injury in 2011.
Loomis said on WWL radio that "We will find a guy who is currently on our roster or somebody we bring in who will step up and play well at that position," but also said that the Saints will add competition at left tackle with Charles Brown.
The Saints were supposed to have groomed 2010 second round pick Charles Brown to take over at left tackle. That may not have happened, as Brown has yet to contribute significantly because of health reasons. Brown missed his big opportunity last year when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while tenuously holding onto the starting right tackle job in the absence of injured starter Zach Strief.
Brown is entering his contract season and has every incentive to have the season of his life at left tackle, and the Saints would be thrilled to see him do so. But the team can't have any faith he'd stay healthy as the full time starter. Strief is expected to return at right tackle, but neither offensive tackle position should be considered "solved" for the Saints this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Saints have scant salary cap available to make such an investment.
Neither late draft pick from last year, Marcel Jones or Andrew Tiller, are considered left tackles, though Jones may be given a shot at the position in practice this offseason. Bryce Harris was a mid-season street free agent pickup last year that played at right tackle with Strief and Brown injured. That rounds out the offensive tackles currently on the roster.
April's 2013 NFL Draft isn't settling down to be helpful for the Saints - there are two elite offensive tackle prospects who will be gone likely in the first four picks, and one more in Oklahoma's Lane Johnson that probably won't make it past the Chargers at 11. The Saints at 15 would have to reach for an offensive tackle with no value picks to be had, trade down, or hope they can land a serviceable competitor in the third round.
On the free agent market, Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots) and Andre Smith (Bengals) are the top tackles available, but have been career right tackles.
The top tier of left tackles in free agency are all signed. The best remaining free agent left tackles certainly aren't without question marks, including former Viking and Raven Bryant McKinnie, 34, a veteran of 12 seasons who did not start last season, and former Steelers starter Max Starks, 31, a middling performer who may be close to re-signing with Pittsburgh.
Free agent Guy Whimper started for the Jaguars in 2011 but was cut by the team in February after not retaining his starting job in 2012. Unremarkable journeymen Wayne Hunter, 31, and Jonathan Scott, 30, have started games for numerous teams. Though aging, Giants starter Sean Locklear, 32, Bears starter Frank Omiyale, 30, are also on the market.
Veteran free agent offensive tackles with Louisiana roots include former Cardinals starter D'Anthony Batiste, 32, a Lafayette, Louisiana native, and Baton Rouge native and former Bears first round pick Chris Williams, 27, though the latter has suffered from multiple injuries.
Free agent tackles Winston Justice, 29, a starter for the Colts; Eric Winston, 29, a starter for the Texans and Chiefs; Barry Richardson, 26, a starter for the Chiefs; and Ryan Harris, 28, a starter for the Texans all have played only at right tackle in their careers.
One-time Saint reserve OT Jordan Black, who went to camp with the Saints in 2011, is a free agent, but must serve a one-game suspension to begin the 2013 season for violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Black has played left and right tackle for a number of NFL teams.
From the reclamation bin, former Saint first round pick, two-time Pro Bowler and starting left tackle Jammal Brown is also a free agent, but did not play in 2012 because of a hip injury that predates his 2010 trade from the Saints to the Redskins. Former Rams first round pick left tackle Jason Smith hasn't played significantly since 2011 but remains a free agent in need of a one-year contract "chance".