A cornerstone reflects a great building: It should be solid and flexible, yet unmovable. Creating a good cornerstone reflects a confidence in the future; it means that the builder is looking forward, not to the past, in the hope and expectation of something greater for years to come.The left tackle position serves the same purpose for a football team. After the quarterback, the left tackle is the cornerstone that is first established when building a good franchise.
Yet great left tackles are difficult to find. The truly great ones arrive perhaps once in a generation for a team. For the New Orleans Saints, Hall of Famer Willie Roaf roamed the line of scrimmage for nine years with a rare combination of intelligence, quiet leadership, dependability, toughness and skill that fans appreciate to this day. But it was when he went to the dynamic offense in Kansas City under the guidance of legendary head coach Dick Vermeil that he truly showed what he could do if placed in the proper situation. For four years, he was unleashed as an offensive weapon in his own right — sweeping, shifting and flying downfield on the way to propelling his backfield charges, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, to elite status amongst NFL running backs.
In 2014, the Saints may have found just such a lethal combination on the ground as heralded left tackle Terron Armstead steps to the forefront to become the Saints’ new cornerstone. Under the direction of head coach Sean Payton, another legendary offensive mind, Armstead will be asked to fully employ the remarkable athleticism that has become increasingly apparent since the Saints drafted him last year out of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. In conjunction with the young, thundering combination of Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram — and the determined vet Pierre Thomas — Armstead has a chance to make history and establish himself as a key, trusted member in the close cadre of Saints’ stars.
Armstead appears more than ready, as he has shown all the skills of a great left tackle, including terrific footwork, superb balance and hand placement. He has rapidly developed these skills ever since he was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup in the midst of last season. Sean Payton had jumped at the chance to grab Armstead in the third round of the 2013 draft (perhaps a good many spots higher than most other teams had expected).
Armstead had not played in a major conference, but his ability appeared throughout in his game tape and especially at the NFL combine, where he really put on an eye-popping show. Most remarkably, the 6-foot-5-inch,305-pound Armstead ran a 4.65 time in the 40-yard dash — the best amongst offensive linemen and the best since records started being kept in 2006. To put that in perspective, that was also the sixth best time run by any tight end at the combine. Armstead also had the best performance in his position group (all offensive linemen) in the vertical jump, and he was fourth best in broad jump. That perhaps should not have been too surprising, given the fact that Armstead had also been an eight-time SWAC conference champion in track and field at Pine Bluff.
It was not long after this performance that it became apparent that Armstead would be a legitimate left tackle in the NFL, and his stock quickly raised. Thus, Payton’s move to bring him into the fold so early proved both aggressive and prescient. The special speed and versatility meant that Armstead was fast enough to be a tight end. His 34-inch arm span, and the fact that he had played through his final collegiate season with a horribly painful sprained joint in one of his shoulders, meant that he had the size and mental toughness to be a fierce defensive lineman if he had so chosen. But as a left tackle, the combination of these factors meant that he was ultimately destined to have the fortitude to hold down what is perhaps the most important job on the team — protecting Drew Brees’ blind side.
Along with fellow mauler Ben Grubbs at left tackle, the Saints have the potential to greatly upgrade their running game. Armstead’s toughness should help on inside runs, and his lateral agility, exceptional mobility and arm span should help the team return to effectively running the sweep (a play that has been fairly lacking the last couple years). However, Armstead’s most dangerous asset may be in his ability to use his great speed to assist in bubble screens (a Saints’ staple since Payton’s arrival in 2006). In this respect, Armstead could almost himself be transformed into a skill position player. The Saints have four running backs — all of whom may be called upon to execute the bubble, flare or check-down as a matter of course throughout the season — but the idea of Armstead running faster than almost any defensive lineman in the league (and many a linebacker) to get downfield to block for promising superstar Brandin Cooks (who will surely be executing moves not seen since Wes Chandler), should really be an exciting prospect.
If Armstead plays well enough to earn Pro Bowl honors, which is not a far-fetched idea at all, the Saints will likely have one of the top five offensive lines in the league. All things considered, if this offensive cornerstone is as solid as it looks, the Saints are building a bright future for years to come.