When the name Cesar Ruiz was read off the New Orleans Saints’ card on the first night of the 2020 NFL draft, the reaction was equal parts “who,” “what,’ and “why?”
It wasn’t an unfair response, particularly due to the letter “C” that was flashed up on the screen next to his name. Ruiz was a first-round caliber prospect, and the top interior offensive lineman in the class. The issue? He played center the majority of his career at Michigan, and the Saints already had Erik McCoy holding down the position and coming off an impressive rookie season.
Had the Saints really just spent a premium draft selection on a backup? Sean Payton quelled those concerns the following morning with a definitive, of course not. One of Ruiz or McCoy would work at guard. The team knew that either could, it was just a question of who it would be.
Ruiz eventually landed at left guard next to McCoy, and the debate raged throughout an up-and-down rookie season whether it was a swing and a miss by the often spot-on Saints draft machine. Would the team really ever see dividends from a young player learning a new position? Wouldn’t a veteran signing have made more sense, with the pick used to add depth linebacker, cornerback or wide receiver?
As so often is the case, the Saints’ strategy proved fruitful after just 5 plays of the 2021 season. McCoy went down with a calf injury, and before he had even finished hobbling off the field, Ruiz and Jameis Winston were dummying a snap off to the side, preparing for a shuffle that felt, shall we say, natural?
With McCoy in the middle and Calvin Throckmorton taking over at center, an area that could’ve been a concern remained a strength. New Orleans ran for 171 yards, possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes than Green Bay and didn't allow a sack.
Realistically the offense didn’t change at all despite the shuffle, Alvin Kamara said. But the running back did hastily suggest to his teammate that he get a few practice snaps in.
Ruiz looked back to Kamara and said, “I know how to snap it.” And of course he did. That was all part of the plan established with offensive line coach Brendan Nugent earlier in the week, Ruiz said, should injury strike.
"It was easier than I thought it was going to be," Ruiz said this week. "There wasn't really time for me to think about it. It was just, 'hey, next play, go in there at center.' And I had to do what I had to do."
Ruiz wasn't concerned about the sudden position change, he'd built up muscle memory over years working at the position. But unlike his rookie training camp when he split snaps between the interior line spots, he had spent the entire offseason before Year 2 working at guard. Teammates routinely lauded his growth from a trying rookie season, often terming it as the game "slowing down" as he gained a better understanding of his role.
The Saints offense bogged down and settled for a field goal on that drive, but that turned out to be a rare occurrence on the way to a stunning 38-3 victory.
"Especially in a game like that and a situation like that, the last thing you want to do is come into a situation and think too much. ... I just gotta do my job," Ruiz said.
With the roster crunch the Saints faced over the offseason, Ruiz's flexibility also offered some clear relief. The team departed with veteran Nick Easton, who could also play both guard and center and had served a valuable backup role for multiple years. Former LSU standout Will Clapp would've likely served the backup center role, but he's starting the year on injured reserve and isn't eligible to return until Week 4.
"I think we have the best offensive line in the NFL. All of those guys are always ready. ... Those guys come in and take pride in being able to adjust and go with things on the fly," Kamara said. "They’re the foundation of our offense. Without them, we don’t really have anything.”
The 22-year-old wouldn't set a plan for his immediate future at either line spot beyond doing whatever he's asked. In the short term that will send him back to the middle of the line. McCoy has already been ruled out for Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers, the first missed start of his NFL career.
Fortunately for the Saints, they planned ahead.
"It's whatever, 'hey Ceez, this is what we want you to do,' " Ruiz said. "That's what I'm gonna do."