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John DeShazier: Competition to be Saints starting left tackle intensifies

Charles Brown, Jason Smith, Terron Armstead all battling for the job

The protection of a franchise quarterback's blind side is no trivial matter.

So the evaluation of Saints left tackles Charles Brown, Jason Smith and Terron Armstead will be a meticulous process during training camp, with the winner joining four offensive line starters from last year to create lanes for running backs and to form a wall of protection around Drew Brees.

And the dissection of their progress segued to another level Sunday when the Saints held their first training camp practice in pads.

Brown, the Saints' second-round draft choice in 2010 (No. 64 overall), has the inside track on the job. He's familiar with the franchise, its way of operating and its expectations. And he has started eight of his 21 games in three seasons.

The negative against him has been his health; in 2011 and 2012 he played in 18 of 32 possible regular-season games because of hip and knee injuries that led to stays on injured reserve.

Otherwise, he's the only one of the three who has been in the Saints' offensive system and has performed under fire with the starters.

But familiarity won't mean more than performance.

"It's not going to be handed to him," Coach Sean Payton said of Brown. "He's going to have to earn it."

Smith, the No. 2 overall NFL pick by the Rams in 2009, either could be a fabulous luxury if Brown can handle the starting job, or a shrewd unrestricted free agent signee by New Orleans if Smith proves solid enough to surpass Brown on the depth chart and start.

With St. Louis, he started 26 of the 29 games he played, but also missed 19 games due to injuries. Last year, in his only season with the Jets, he played all 16 games for the first time in his career, as a reserve lineman and blocking tight end.

"He's athletic and he's got a real good work ethic," Payton said. "He puts the time in, he's very diligent. More than anything it's confidence. We like the opportunity for us to bring him here, see how he fits in with us."

And Armstead, who was drafted by New Orleans in the third round (No. 75 overall) this year out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, could become another small-school success story for the Saints, joining past and present starters like receiver Marques Colston (Hofstra), receiver  Lance Moore (Toledo), offensive guard Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg), outside linebacker Junior Galette (Stillman) and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod (Towson), whose job the three current tackles are vying for.

"It'll make me better, make those guys better, make the team better," Brown said of the competition. "It's good for everybody."

The competition among the three ratcheted up Sunday mainly because the team competition intensified. Included in the full-padded workout was a one-on-one rushing/blocking drill, with each tackle being given an opportunity to prevent an opposing teammate from getting into the backfield.

"I did pretty well," Armstead said. "I started off a little slow, trying to get my feet back in the ground. But I made progression throughout the practice."

Said Brown: "It's better. We've been waiting on the pads so we'll have something to hit, on the run and on the passes. On our pads (defenders) are able to spin off things that they wouldn't really spin off, so the pads give you the feeling of a real game."

Better than Armstead, Brown knows how it feels to be in an NFL game. Armstead is hoping that the simulation provided in drills can accelerate his learning curve. Thus, studying film will be crucial for the rookie who, while at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, likely didn't see many players the caliber of Saints outside linebacker Martez Wilson, whom he opposed during a drill.

"Huge," Armstead said of film study. "That's the only way you're going to get better, is to know what you did to make the mistake and how to correct it.

"(I haven't made) the same ones. Made a couple new ones but that's part of the process. This is football, with the pads on. It was a great feeling to get back in the pads."

Back in pads, back competing, looking to secure the position as starting left tackle in New Orleans.

A front-runner is in place but the evaluation is far from complete. And the levels of competition only will get more arduous as training camp continues.

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