METAIRIE, La. -- Coach Sean Payton joked on draft night that he didn’t tell first-round pick Cesar Ruiz whether he would play center or guard for the New Orleans Saints so Ruiz could “actually tell the truth” when the media tried to pin him down.
Nearly two months later, it remains a mystery. And frankly, the Saints themselves might not really know until a few weeks into training camp because of the coronavirus precautions that have kept players off the practice field.
It sounds as if they plan to at least audition Ruiz at center -- where he started the past two years at Michigan -- which would also mean moving last year’s starting center, Erik McCoy, to right guard.
But since the center position involves so many intricacies with timing, rhythm, cadence and signal-calling, the Saints can’t commit to that plan until they see it in action.
"Those things will be determined as we come to camp and attack this thing," said offensive line coach Dan Roushar, who said he has been especially impressed with Ruiz’s “recall” throughout the daily virtual meetings coaches have held with their young offensive linemen over the past three weeks.
The Saints are better suited than most teams to handle this unconventional offseason, since they’ve had the same head coach and quarterback for nearly 15 years and have almost every starter and coach returning from a team that just went 13-3 for the second straight season.
But it remains to be seen whether they can count on their top draft choices to make an immediate impact.
Baun will be focusing on new positions as a strongside and middle linebacker in the Saints’ base 4-3 alignment after he primarily served as an edge rusher at Wisconsin. Trautman will be making a big leap in competition from Dayton to the NFL.
So far, though, Saints coaches have been raving about the makeup of those rookies while embracing the challenge of coaching them from afar.
“I had this discussion with the defensive staff,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I said, ‘This is the challenge for us. How are we gonna be better teachers this year?’ And I do feel like the best staffs rise up in these types of situations.”
Here’s a look at the Saints’ early visions for their top three picks:
Payton stressed during the draft that the Saints focused even more than usual on players they expected to pick things up quickly without the benefit of minicamps or OTAs.
“This is one of those players,” Payton said of Ruiz, while making it clear the Saints expect him to start in Year 1. “He made all the calls on [Michigan's] offensive line. He’s really, really sharp.
“You could pull out any game tape -- Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, go back a year ago. [We liked] the consistency and the makeup.”
Roushar said so far, Ruiz has matched those expectations.
“There’s a level of maturity,” Roushar said. “Each day he’s there early [in the virtual meeting]. He has great questions. He does a phenomenal job of wanting to know, 'Why?'"
Ruiz’s makeup should help him regardless of whether he plays center or guard, where he started five games as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-4, 316-pounder said he loves "being in charge of the show" at center, but he is willing and able to play either spot. The Saints created a vacancy at right guard when they decided to release three-time Pro Bowl lineman Larry Warford after the draft.
One interesting element Roushar talked about with any center’s development is getting used to the cadence of different quarterbacks. Roushar said even Brees likes to make subtle changes to his cadence from week to week sometimes.
“There’s no substitute for working with Drew, starting with the huddle to hear him call the play and all the information he provides as quickly as he does it,” Roushar said.
Roushar said it took a few games for McCoy to fully get “in sync” with Brees last year as a rookie starter himself -- even though the second-round pick from Texas A&M wound up having a standout season.
Roushar also expressed confidence that McCoy could make a transition to guard if needed, though he said guard comes with its own challenges, like being isolated more often in pass protection.
New Saints linebackers coach Michael Hodges was effusive in his praise for Baun’s intelligence and eagerness during virtual meetings. Hodges said he recently told general manager Mickey Loomis, “I just know we got the right guy.”
“There's a lot on his plate as a rookie, but I do know that he has approached it in a way that's given me the confidence that he's gonna be able to handle it,” Hodges said.
Baun (6-foot-3, 225) primarily rushed the passer as an outside linebacker at Wisconsin, finishing with 12.5 sacks last year. But the Saints believe he can play off the ball as well.
They liked what they saw when he dropped back into zone coverage in college. But don’t worry -- they also intend to use his pass-rush ability.
“Every player I've talked to this offseason has been told, ‘These are the two positions I want you to learn,’” Hodges said. “We're teaching him Sam and Mike right now. And then when we get to third down, that pass-rush value, man, we're gonna try to leverage the hell out of it."
Hodges referenced Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn’s recent comments that the team values the idea of “positionless” players to give them versatility.
“We love the flexibility of the player. That was one of the things that was the most intriguing to us about him,” said Allen, who stressed that the Saints’ vision for Baun won’t change because of a shortened offseason -- maybe just “how quickly we get to that vision.”
Tight ends coach Dan Campbell sounded like a broken record when he also raved about Trautman’s mental makeup, saying he can’t wait “to get to camp and see what this guy can handle.”
What the Saints really like about Trautman is that he can, they believe, be an asset as both a pass-catcher and blocker. Although the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder was a first-team FCS All-American with 70 catches for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, Payton said he was one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft.
“It’s becoming real hard to find a guy that can do both,” said Campbell, who said the “George Kittle explosion” has been a great trend for the NFL since the San Francisco 49ers’ star is making it cool to do both again.
Campbell cautioned that it will take time for Trautman to develop because “with the exception of Drew Brees, nobody has to know more about this offense than our tight ends do” when it comes to running routes, being part of pass protections and blocking in the run game.
But the Saints think Trautman can eventually help them run even more 12 personnel with him joining “matchup nightmare” Jared Cook in some packages and “unsung hero” Josh Hill in others, according to Campbell.
“I’d like to think before it’s all said and done, he’s a hybrid of those two players,” Campbell said. “He’s able to do the dirty work that Josh Hill does, but yet he’s got receiving ability kind of like Cook.
“If you’ve got a guy like that, it opens your packages up and what you’re able to do offensively.”