Larry Warford knew exactly what sized vacancy he was stepping into when he signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent last year.
As a right guard, he was taking over the position previously manned by Jahri Evans, one of the best players in franchise history, the second-most decorated offensive lineman in franchise history and a cornerstone for the Coach Sean Payton-era offense that has been one of the most productive in NFL history.
In one season, Warford didn’t make people forget Evans. But he certainly made strides to force them to remember him, by earning a Pro Bowl position and helping to anchor one of New Orleans’ most balanced offensive outputs in years.
The Saints posted 2,070 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on 444 carries in 2017, a combination that hadn’t been approached since the Saints of ‘11 ran for 2,127 yards and 16 scores on 431 carries.
“He played well last year,” Coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a great teammate, he’s got great respect in the locker room and in the offensive line room. He comes to work every day. He was a great addition for us.
“He’s strong, he’s powerful, he helped us a bunch in our run game and in pass protection. We felt like when we watched his tape from Detroit, those were the traits we saw and I would say all of that, and more, is what we got. And I still think he’s improving.”
Warford believes he’s improving, too, partly because he has a level of familiarity now that didn’t exist at this same time last year.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” he said. “Just the versatility of all the guys that we have in the room makes it real easy for me to step in. The coaching is top-notch, they make it really easy for the guys – anybody – to just come in to this offense and pick it up extremely fast.
“The chemistry that we have now, we mesh together so much better compared to the beginning of last year. We’ve really figured each other out. We have a good thing going right now.”
Really good, if first-year results are any indication.
In Warford’s first four NFL seasons, with Detroit, the Lions twice had a winning record and advanced to the playoffs, and lost their wild card game each time. In his first season in New Orleans, he helped win the NFC South Division and the wild card game.
“I think we had the right pieces, the right people, the right coaches,” Warford said. “And after our 0-2 start I think we really just took a look in the mirror and got the thing going. I was very happy to be a part of that, for sure.”
That, he hopes, is just the beginning – the winning, more so than the honors.
“All that stuff, I’m not really too focused on,” Warford said. “I just want to do my part for my team. So I’m not looking at Pro Bowls, I’m not looking at personal accolades. I’m looking to make my team better. I got recognized for what I did and it was all just because I was trying to help out my team. So that’s just kind of an afterthought.”
Saints’ offensive line nerds Zach Strief and Larry Warford quickly building chemistry
Updated Aug 1, 2017; Posted Aug 1, 2017
Gallery: The New Orleans Saints mark their 5th day of training camp
By Josh Katzenstein, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Being a nerd in 2017 doesn’t carry the same negative connotation it once did.
People can be obsessed with comic books, sports, TV shows, movie series, rare collectibles or any number of things and feel comfortable doing so, especially because the Internet makes it easy to find like-minded people.
New Orleans Saints offensive linemen Zach Strief and Larry Warford are their own class of nerds. They’re obsessed with the intricacies of playing offensive line, and they don’t care who knows.
“We do nerd out in meetings all the time,” Strief said. “We get like real excited about a step. Like, you see that zone step? That’s good. He’s like, ‘That’s really nice.’
“It’s really weird. It’s a weird relationship, but we’re both really into it.”
Warford, who spent four years with the Detroit Lions, signed with the Saints in March to take over at right guard for Jahri Evans, and that means Warford will line up right next to Strief.
Evans and Strief played together for 11 seasons, including six as side-by-side starters, so the Saints hardly had to worry about cohesion on the right side of the line. But, so far, Strief and Warford have found it easy to adjust to playing with each other, and Strief thinks they’re ahead of schedule in the process.
Warford quickly discovered that Strief was a fellow offensive line nerd. After the realization, Warford gave the 33-year-old Strief the nickname “Yoda,” a nod to the veteran’s ability to impart wisdom on his teammates.
“I think he was talking to Landon (Turner) about something, about engaging his hips and how he should go about doing it,” Warford said. “And it was exactly how I’d been taught, and from there I was like, I’m going to go stand by this guy for a little bit.”
Knowing how Warford and Strief approach the position, it’s hardly a surprise they clicked quickly. Warford has been doing position-specific training with former Saints center LeCharles Bentley — who runs O-Line Performance in Arizona — since before he entered the NFL in 2013. Strief also does offensive line-focused training before training camp and invites his teammates.
“I think a lot of Larry’s excitement about playing offensive line comes from Lecharles and the way that he coaches and the details that he gets into,” Strief said.
So, the two players talk about some weird stuff as it relates to their position like body mechanics and which muscles are engaged with certain steps.
“It is kind of nerdy but I enjoy it,” Warford said.
Even after 11 years in the NFL with countless teammates, Strief said this nerd experience with Warford is unique.
“He’s probably an extreme case of it,” Strief said. “Max (Unger) is pretty good, but Max isn’t quite as nerdy about it. He’s very knowledgeable but less nerdy. … I think we’re very into the intricacies, and I think there’s a lot of guys that have beliefs on techniques and how to do things.
“We were legitimately excited (on Friday) because we took better first steps on a naked (bootleg). Legitimately like high-fived each other.”
Warford has to adjust to the Saints offense, but he has some experience with it having played in a similar scheme with the Lions under Joe Lombardi, the Saints’ quarterbacks coach who spent two years as offensive coordinator in Detroit.
Meanwhile, Strief has to adapt to Warford’s game quickly because he’s a different player than Evans.
“Larry is so explosive I feel like I’m behind him half the time,” Strief said. “So that’s pushed me a lot to get going, get out of the stance and get moving because he’s gone quicker than Jah was.”
Strief and Warford still have some time to learn to play with each other, and when Unger returns from his foot injury, Warford will have to build chemistry with him, too.
So far, Warford said his transition has gone “as smooth as I could’ve hoped.” Considering he and Strief are already comfortable being nerdy, that relationship should only improve with time.
“Just his vast understanding about our position from the ground up, in and out, it’s on another level and I love talking to him about it,” Warford said.