This offseason possibly has felt like a substantial exhale for Cesar Ruiz.
Not a take-a-break exhale for the New Orleans Saints' second-year offensive lineman. More of an understand-the-assignment-clearly exhale.
Ruiz, the Saints' first-round pick last year (No. 24 overall), was drafted as a center/guard, with the emphasis on the former. The prevailing outlook was that Ruiz, the top center in the draft, would take over that position and Erik McCoy, who started at center as a rookie in 2019, would slide over to right guard.
But due to Covid-19 restrictions, the offseason team work – OTAs, minicamp – was eliminated, so Ruiz couldn't get a jump on playing the position with his line mates and quarterbacks. Then, the plan further was altered when Ruiz was injured in training camp.
By the time he returned, the regular season was commencing, McCoy was solidly entrenched and Ruiz's time would have to be accumulated at guard, a position at which hadn't played a full season.
Thus, everything moved at an accelerated pace. Now, though, he has been afforded the time to sync into the position, having had a season to play it and time to dig into film study during the offseason.
"I was just really trying to learn a whole bunch of different things at once," Ruiz said. "I was trying to learn so much information that I never really slowed things down, everything was going fast. Now, I understand the plays, I understand what my assignments are, things like that. When we're in meetings, a lot of things are just slowing down and I'm able to answer stuff faster, because I had that season under my belt and was able to understand what I had to fix.
"I benefited a lot from (watching film). I was able to just sit back and slow things down, watch all my film, talk to Coach, figure out things I've got to work on and just work on all of those things without being in a rush.
"(It took time) getting used to playing the position. I've played center so much, last year was my first season really playing a full season at guard. So, just playing guard and just training at that. My whole life, I trained at center. Now, I'm actually training at guard – a guard stance, guard sets, different rushes and things like that."
Coach Sean Payton agreed that this offseason has been valuable for the second-year players.
"I mean, the schedule they came into last year was uniquely different," Payton said. "They've all been here now and gotten into a routine relative to their training, and specifically, have a lot of time to work on their individual technique as it pertains to the position they're playing. So I think that timeframe has been extremely beneficial."
The benefit for Ruiz could be immense.
He started nine of the 15 regular-season games he played last season (and logged 745 snaps, 69 percent on offense) and both playoff games. And his sole focus has been at right guard.
"Right now, I'm just going with what it was last season," he said. "I'm just focusing on becoming a guard, making sure I have that down before I try to focus on too many things at once. Understanding how to become an actual guard and get used to it."
That means acclimating to the variety of attacks he encountered at guard that he wasn't accustomed to seeing as a center.
"You've got guys that are wider than usual; it's a bigger area of space to work with when I'm going against people at guard than there is a center," Ruiz said. "That's one thing I had to get adjusted to."
Another is that for the first time as a pro, he has had a chance to engage with his coaches in person during the offseason. The OTAs still were eliminated this year, and minicamp mainly consisted of weights, conditioning and position-specific drills, but Ruiz appreciated the opportunity to be in the building and on the field in any form that was allowed.
"I love it," he said. "I like being in the room. I like being on the field with my coach, that's how I learn. I like stuff like that. It's the first offseason I've gotten to have with our coaches on the field, in person. So for me, I love it."