The New Orleans Saints drafted two offensive linemen in April, selecting a pair of prospects from major programs to develop behind the sterling line they have already assembled.
New Orleans used a fourth-round pick on Florida State’s Rick Leonard to address the edge, then used its final pick of the draft to select an interior player with local ties, former Brother Martin and LSU star Will Clapp.
Three weeks into their first NFL season, Clapp is ahead of Leonard as both rookies compete with a deep group of veterans for a backup role on the 53-man roster.
“We knew he was a smart football player, but he’s even smarter with field-application problems,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said of Clapp. “He’ll solve problems that are out there that sometimes, that’s like a second or third-year player.”
Clapp’s football smarts have given him a grueling schedule in training camp.
Unlike Leonard, who has played only right tackle so far, Clapp has gotten work at three positions: both guard spots and center.
“He brings a work ethic to practice every day,” Roushar said. “He gets probably more snaps than anybody else out there when you start looking at roles and numbers, and he never misses a beat. He just keeps coming.”
Clapp’s stamina and consistency have made a key impression.
For the first time in years, the Saints no longer have Senio Kelemete to be the first offensive lineman off the bench in any situation — and although few linemen in the NFL possess Kelemete’s versatility, the team is looking for players who can mimic Kelemete’s best trait: an ability to play well immediately at more than one position.
“The versatility is important,” head coach Sean Payton said. “Those guys are competing to be lineman six, lineman seven, make the roster. If you can do more than one thing, it helps.”
Clapp, who played guard at LSU before moving into the middle in his final season, initially thought during the draft process that he’d be a better fit at center in the NFL.
Although he can play the position, Clapp actually projects as a better player at guard in the Saints’ system. When he’s at guard, he can take a little more of an angle to get to his block on the wide zone plays New Orleans favors, whereas he’s still learning to get those angles at center, where the nose tackle is often lined up over his face mask and there’s less space to operate.
“His set patterns, he’s better at guard, just because of how he gets his feet there,” Roushar said. “He can get a little long and a little forward.”
Whatever position Clapp is playing, though, he has impressed the Saints so far.
Leonard is clearly still raw.
Mentally, the rookie from Florida State has felt comfortable. Playing in Jimbo Fisher’s scheme was good preparation for Payton’s playbook.
“It’s a lot,” Leonard said. “I was fortunate enough to play in a pro-style system that had lots of similar plays, but it’s definitely more extensive here. A lot more calls, a lot more checks.”
For Leonard, the struggles have been more fundamental.
A talented athlete who began his career at Florida State as a defensive end, Leonard only played the tackle position for two years in Tallahassee. It has been clear in camp that he’s still learning the position.
While he’s been taking tips from former tackle-turned-broadcaster Zach Strief, Leonard has struggled to consistently apply the lessons he’s learned.
“I’m talking about just fundamental movement, learning to play with his knees bent, his pad level in a better leverage position, and that’s been real inconsistent,” Roushar said. “We’ve seen flashes where we’ve gotten excited, but more often than not, it’s not where he wants it to be, and it’s not the consistency we need him to have to play at a high level.”
Leonard is also learning what it takes to be a part of the Saints’ offensive line culture.
“His work ethic is improving, yet that again is still too inconsistent for our standard in that room,” Roushar said. “Yesterday, we soaked him with a ton of reps. We oversoaked him, just trying to see, mentally, how he’d respond, and felt like he was hanging in there pretty good, and just at the end, we wanted to see him fight through it better than he did.”
Being a fourth-round pick might mean Leonard has a little more time to develop than Clapp, and there’s a chance that he can still help this offensive line while he develops if he can play the role of sixth offensive lineman in the Saints’ jumbo packages.
Both rookies still have a lot of work to do during the preseason, and there’s a lot of time and opportunity left for improvement.
For the moment, though, the two players the Saints drafted to develop on the offensive line are off to different starts.