STONE COLD STUNNER: Saints Like Pick of Cesar Ruiz Despite Angry Fan Reaction

Photo Credit: University of Michigan Wolverines Football on

A “method to the madness”. If you’re familiar with that famous expression, then you’ll be able to appreciate exactly why the New Orleans Saints made what many fans throughout the Who Dat Nation believe was a questionable — if not downright horrible — pick in the opening round of the 2020 NFL Draft last night.

That method was very evident when the Black and Gold selected outstanding and top-rated interior O-Lineman from the University of Michigan, center / guard Cesar Ruiz. But by doing so, the team not only picked a player at a position most Saints fans feel wasn’t a top priority, but also passed on an opportunity to get a player at a position of bigger need; particularly at linebacker. Nevertheless, head coach Sean Payton defended the selection afterwards, despite the fans’ overwhelming angry reaction on Social Media.

So now the question is: did the Saints really make a mistake by picking Ruiz?

That all depends upon one’s point of view of course, although a careful examination of the facts would suggest that they made a solid choice.

Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase from the world of WWE professional wrestling, last night’s selection of Ruiz for many Who Dat fans was the equivalent of being on the receiving end of a “stone-cold stunner”.

By taking the 6-foot-2, 307-pound Ruiz, New Orleans has now taken an offensive lineman in back-to-back NFL Drafts, specifically one capable of playing both at the center and guard positions. Just last year at this very same point in time, they traded up with the Miami Dolphins to select Texas A&M University center / guard Erik McCoy in Round 2

In 3 seasons with the storied Wolverines football program under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 20-year old Ruiz eventually went on to start a total of 31 games at Michigan, 26 of them at center. Ruiz ultimately earned 2nd-team All-Big 10 honors as a junior, before declaring for the draft as an underclassman.

How his role on the Saints offensive line will evolve over the course of time is yet to be determined, although it seems likely initially that he will probably line up at guard. But the long-term plan might be to move the physically larger McCoy over to right guard and let Ruiz take over the center position.

That said, the biggest factor in Ruiz’s selection (and earning Payton’s admiration) is that it now gives the Black and Gold not only just one but now 4 different players on the current team roster (Ruiz. McCoy, veteran Nick Easton and 2nd year back-up Will Clapp), who all are capable of playing both positions.

As it’s been noted time and time again in recent years, the Saints place a high-priority on versatility and players that can line up at multiple spots, and the selection of Ruiz will allow the team to make the center and guard spots interchangeable.

However for right now the team will bring him along slowly, although the goal is to eventually get him on the field as much as possible so that over the course of time, he can not only take over the center spot, but also more than likely start at right guard temporarily if need be; depending on what ultimately happens down the line with 8-year veteran Larry Warford.

Since the end of last season following the Saints’ exit from the Playoffs in their overtime loss in the Wild Card game to the Minnesota Vikings, Warford appears to have fallen out of favor with team management in the past several months after struggling to stay in shape physically throughout the season last year; and he will be playing in what will be the final year of his current contract during the upcoming 2020 Season.

Additionally, starting left guard Andrus Peat, who services were somewhat surprisingly retained when the team signed him to huge brand new contract in Free Agency last month (5 years, $57.5 million), has endured heavy criticism for his propensity to get beaten in pass protection as well as an unfortunate knack of being somewhat injury-prone (9 games missed in the past 2 seasons).

Despite the fact that he has performed well in certain games, the 2-time Pro Bowl lineman Peat — who also is the primary backup for starting left tackle Terron Armstead — is still possibly a prime candidate to be released or traded in one of the upcoming seasons ahead.

Those deficiencies at the guard spot in particular, were clearly a factor in their decision to proverbially “pull the trigger” on the selection of Ruiz.

Following the conclusion of last night’s event, Payton revealed to the local NOLA media that covers the team, his thoughts on the selection of Ruiz and what prompted them to make the move once they were on the clock with the #24 overall pick.

“One of the areas we wanted to improve in this draft was interior offensive lineman. Those are hard players to find later in the draft. We had a real high grade on Cesar. He was a guy that I’d say we had a lot of information on,” Payton said. “Every once in a while you see makeup in a player when he’s playing, and he was one of those guys.”

“We didn’t draft him to be a back-up. We just drafted him, told him he was coming to play offensive line and then we’ll let it sort out,” Payton added.

The Saints management team of Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, and Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland, had the chance to see Ruiz in person just prior to the current health crisis / COVID-19 caronavirus pandemic; during the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis back in late February, and reportedly were “blown away” by Ruiz’s overall performance in individual O-Lineman workouts and drills.

But yet for those Saints fans who still might not be convinced that the team made the right decision, their concerns appeared to have been at least somewhat laid to rest; following the analysis of several prominent reporters from ESPN that were covering the draft after the pick of Ruiz.

“You have a guy who can run block. Versatility is the key here. He can fill a hole at center or guard. Cesar Ruiz is clearly the best center in the draft, but at guard, you could argue he was one of the top guys at that spot”, said long-time ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr. “I think it’s a nice fit for this team in their interior offensive line during the end of a great career for Drew Brees getting a guy like Cesar Ruiz.”

Kiper’s thoughts on Ruiz were similarly echoed by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who was helping ESPN cover the event.

“I thought he was the top interior offensive line of this draft regardless of center or guard. He’s very firm. Drew Brees has always required that up front. I just find it fascinating because last year the Saints went and got a center in Erik McCoy who played very well last year, and now you bring in a guy with the versatility to play a couple of spots there. The New Orleans Saints will continue to reinvest in the center of that offensive line, and it’ll serve them well.”

Not to be left out, ESPN insider Louis Riddick also shared a similar sentiment with Kiper and Jeremiah.

“This just fortifies the interior of their offensive line, and Cesar Ruiz has the ability to play two positions. He can move over and slide over and play guard, and Erik McCoy can stay at center. It just fortifies this team inside, and it’s a great fundamental way to build your roster. Really, they just took the best player available for them, and you’ve got to give them credit for the pick here.”

WWL New Orleans TV and Radio host and long-time local NFL Draft expert Mike Detillier later noted over the air following the pick, how team management’s concerns over protecting Drew Brees, ultimately played a part in their decision in the end to take Ruiz.

“I know the Michigan coaches really spoke about how well he could pass protect. They thought he could get a little bit more physical not only just as a run blocker, but as a pass protector as well. This tells me you were worried about protecting that step-up ability of Drew. To step up in a pocket and make that throw.”

While the pick continued to resonate negatively among many Saints fans in the “heat of the moment” last night, perhaps their perspective will change in due time once the upcoming season arrives — especially if the young man who won over the hearts of many because of his heart-felt and emotional response to being taken — earns a starting role as a rookie.

Back when he was an 8-year old boy, Ruiz’s father, Cesar Ruiz Sr., was sadly killed in 2007 in what local law authorities said was a roadside accident while he was helping someone change their flat tire. Ruiz has dedicated his playing career in honor of his Dad’s memory, and the young Camden, New Jersey native now has his sights set on becoming the best player at his position as a professional.

“I dedicate my whole journey to him,” Ruiz said to the media in an interview back during the NFL Combine.

“He would probably be somewhere smiling at me the same way I’m smiling at him just telling me how proud he is of me. I know my mom is proud of me. So I’m proud of myself. I know my father would be extremely proud of me.”

“Because if you look at the film, if you look at how I dominate people, if you look at my character, how smart I am, I have everything for a first-rounder,” Ruiz said. “I’m very confident in myself that I am a first-rounder.”

Ruiz’s confidence was rewarded last night, when he became the newest player that will wear the Black and Gold for the Saints franchise. And since he’s only just 20 years old, the possibility of him becoming an “anchor” on the New Orleans O-Line for the rest of this new decade and well into the one after that (the 2030’s) is a very real one.

However, for now he’ll have to carefully navigate his way through the wide variety of hurt feelings that many Saints fans are still feeling over his selection, as the sun rises this morning.

It certainly was a “stone-cold stunner” for a large portion of Who Dat fans, that were hoping for a much ‘sexier’ pick. But in the end, they might just end up coming to the realization that the Saints actually got the ‘right guy’, all along….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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